The Front Lines: Analyzing the State of Standup Competition


Standup paddle racing, in this, our most modern iteration, is about five years old. Way back when, overblown surfboards and aluminum-shaft paddles dominated the Southern California scene as a handful of paddlers traded their OC-1s, surfskis, or paddleboards for standups and joined the SoCal Ocean Racing series.

The idea caught on. Now hundreds of races and thousands of paddlers converge on waterways every weekend around the world in a seemingly endless racing season—a standup paddle racing season no less.

Competition almost singlehandedly (unless you count Facebook) created the standup paddling phenomenon. Distance, sprint, surf, downwind, and whitewater events have brought standup to every region, body of water, and type of paddler imaginable. And perhaps most powerful of all are the community races that bring new paddlers—those who never had a reason to get on the water before—into the paddling family every night of the week.

But many industry insiders are saying 2011 is different. This is the year the sport is looking to go big. But are we ready?

The Olympic Dream

The chatter is almost deafening. Will the Olympic SUP competition be surfing? What about distance? Or sprint? First, you have to get standup into the Olympic club, and that is a long, arduous and highly politicized process. For starters, the sport must be recognized and administered by an international federation that will ensure standup follows the Olympic charter (we have no international federation). SUP must also be popular in many countries (male participants in at least 75 countries on four continents and female participants in at least 40 countries on three continents); it must be able to be ranked or scored; it must hold competitions on the international level; and it must rely primarily on physical athletic performance.

Or, forgoing autonomy, a sport can also be considered as a branch of an existing Olympic event or discipline. That’s how snowboarding got in—under the auspices of the International Skiing Federation, which must make for some awkward board meetings. Standup’s best chance would be to join forces with the International Canoe Federation, which has a roster of 16 Olympic events encompassing flatwater sprint and whitewater slalom canoeing and kayaking. The catch? The Olympic pie isn’t getting any bigger, which means the ICF would likely have to give up two of its traditional events to make room for men’s and women’s standup.

So About that World Tour?

The world tour is a two-part conversation. There’s the “world tour” race idea and the Standup World Tour of surf that crowned Hawaiian Kai Lenny as its 2010 champion.

A determined movement is afoot to establish a standup racing world tour—a series of big-money, high-profile, ranked races that will culminate in the crowning of a “world champion.” As it stands, the Battle of the Paddle California is standup’s premiere event, the only event so far that draws legions of competitors from around the world.

A racing world tour would help to legitimize the sport and perhaps attract the sponsor dollars in a lean economy to further ignite standup’s already meteoric rise. It would also help to establish the criteria necessary for standup to go Olympic.

Right now, though, there is also no single unifying organization successfully determining a racing schedule. In May, for example, three marquee, world tour-worthy events are scheduled—all on the same weekend. There also isn’t any body or association to establish criteria for board sizes, dimensions or construction (in some ways, that down-home feel is still the appeal of SUP racing).

The Standup World Tour, on the other hand, is a surf event that premiered in 2010. With five stops—France, Tahiti, Brazil, and two in Hawaii—the SWT captured the essence of the world stage, if not the presence. On average the events drew only six to eight of the same competitors (world class athletes, to be sure) to each event, mostly due to travel expense. As the sport grows, the ability to draw large, consistent groups of competitors will solidify the event’s ranking status and the legitimacy of the SWT crown. The genius behind the SWT, though, is that it happened. Organizer Tristan Boxford ignored the naysayers and established a tour, and, to date, the SWT is the only game in town.

Standup paddle competition is fierce and getting more so by the day. Veteran racers are being put to task by previously unknown paddlers at events across the country, amping anticipation and spectator interest while fueling the sport’s growth.

The ultimate competitor in this race to conquer the world’s sporting stage, however, may have nothing at all to do with competition. Connecting us to the world at large, the future of competitive standup will unfortunately ebb and flow with the whims of the economy, and how the powers that be within the industry choose to respond.

This piece originally ran in the Spring 2011 issue of SUP magazine.