Florida’s Special Olympics Finds SUP

Florida has become the first state to declare standup paddling as an official competition sport for Special Olympics. The journey to that destination has spanned several years and the length of the state.

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics (SO) endeavors to create a better world by fostering acceptance and inclusion of all people, through the power of sport.

SUP has entered the Special Olympics arena thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of standup paddling enthusiasts who embody the SO mission in true aloha spirit. The story begins in Monroe and Collier Counties, which comprise the southern end of Florida, with shorelines on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Ruth Holland, former Florida Special Olympics – Monroe County Head Aquatics Coach, recalls how YOLO Team racer and Lazy Dog Paddleshack owner Sue Cooper and her crew provided what Ruth describes as “the birthplace of Special Olympics Florida (SOFL) – Monroe County SUP” in 2010. “I had a vision of how Special Olympics athletes could be involved with SUP from my first SUP yoga class at Lazy Dog. I fear that I might have become a pain to Sue and the gals because I wouldn’t shut up about it. I brought some of my athletes to the race training classes Sue held, and they fell in love with Lazy Dog and the Key West SUP community.” Now, Ruth is the SO Monroe Head SUP Coach. An athletes’ training curriculum has been created with extensive input from Lazy Dog, and they are also currently helping to refine the coaches’ training curriculum.

Big hearts think alike. Case in point: while Ruth was working in Monroe, retired Special Education teacher MJ Wiebling was in a parallel process of developing an SO SUP team in Collier County with help from Matt Berman, Noodles Restaurant owner, who organized Collier’s First Annual Luau SUP Race in 2010 as an SO SUP fundraiser. Subsequent annual luau events and an annual invitational event organized by Monroe County provided venues for SO SUP athletes to initiate inter-county competition.

Impressed by the athletes’ progress and accomplishments, Special Olympics Florida state officials formed an SUP Management Committee, consisting of Ruth, MJ and Akin Joseph, Director of Training and Education for SO Florida. The Committee has been training coaches statewide, starting with an initial session at the 2012 SO coach’s conference, and continuing with MJ and Ruth traveling throughout Florida during the summer of 2013. They ran training sessions in six locations, training 96 SUP volunteers/coaches, and enabling ten counties – the number required to start a new SO sport – to establish Registered Training Programs for SUP. As Ruth sums it up, “The development of this program has been an awesome journey.”

Inclusion of SO SUP events as part of mainstream races has served as a catalyst for involvement by pro paddlers and industry folks alike. Monroe County held an SO exhibition event during the 2012 Key West Paddleboard Classic, and an Team Lazy Dog led an SO paddle event at this year’s Key West Paddleboard Classic, with help from young SUP racers Bailey Rosen and Savannah Baus, while Suncoast Surf Shop’s JoJo Braddock personally donated a paddle and leash to each athlete. Lazy Dog donated $1,800, and elite racer Heather Baus donated the board on which she won the past two year’s 12-mile races. Indigo Standup Paddleboards also donated a custom-made board to the Monroe County team during the Awards Ceremony of the 2012 Invitational in Key West.

SUP racer Irma Price has also caught the SO bug. “I began volunteering with Ruth and the Monroe County SO athletes, and heard they needed help in raising travel funds for the athletes to attend the 2012 Luau race. In just a few days, Miami peeps stepped up, and the Monroe SO team’s travel costs were covered. I also had the privilege of attending and assisting in the race event.”

Everyone involved in the process of bringing SUP to Special Olympics acknowledges that teamwork has been the key to success. David McKenzie, Coordinator for SO Collier, says, “The athletes are the heart of this movement, but volunteers and coaches are truly the backbone behind it.”

Ruth Holland sings the praises of her allies. “There is no way the sport of SUP in Special Olympics could have gotten as far as it has without Bill Elkins of Ultimate Athletics networking with the state officials to ensure they knew all of the developments of SUP in Key West. Sue Cooper, Bill Elkins and MJ Weibling have made dreams come true and given others the tools to go out and make a difference in the lives of Special Olympic Athletes.”

Bill Elkins became involved with SO when a friend invited him to volunteer with a group in Key West that wanted to start paddling. “I went and realized it was the Special Olympic athletes,” says Bill. “I immediately fell in love with the group. Coaching these amazing athletes has helped make me a better coach and has put a lot of things in life into perspective. Their growth, not only as athletes, but as individuals, is something that none of us could have imagined. They’re gaining the confidence to do so many things- moving into group-independent homes, getting jobs, and taking classes at Florida Keys Community College. Some of the older and stronger athletes are now taking on the roles of leaders and mentors for some of the younger and newer athletes. The swimming and SUP programs have made this possible. It’s something I hope that everyone can experience.”

Pro paddlers and trainers alike have been amazed by the athletes’ progress, and they see the multi-faceted values in SUP training. “Special Olympics Miami-Dade County held its first training practice in August and in less than four weeks all thirteen SO athletes were standing, balancing and paddling,” observed Irma Price. She thinks SUP is “a good fit for the athletes because it’s a great physical workout, a challenge with different conditions, and it’s fun. Our gym is the ocean and sky, and our athletes laugh and feel good about themselves.”

Akin Joseph, Director of Training and Education for SOFL, thinks SUP is a good transitional sport for a wide range of athletes. He views standup paddling as a “sports catalyst,” explaining, “the athletes learn new skills including balance, strength, determination and focus. All of those things also support other sports.”
Akin is glad to have multiple counties actively paddling, and says that they are still working on finalizing official rules, competition levels and best practices for safety. Although SO does not yet have a “full-fledged statewide event,” they are approaching that goal, and Akin predicts SUP will become a state level SO event within the next year or two.

Kevin Cook, owner of Coastal Paddle Company in the Florida panhandle, volunteers as Head Coach of the Escambia/Santa Rosa County program and allows athletes to practice weekly at his location, free of charge. He says that, “The first three weeks were spent on very basic skills,” such as how to hold the paddle, put on a leash, and get on and off the board, but then at week five, “We kind of had a breakthrough, and it all started coming together.” Kevin found the entire experience uplifting. “It’s just a great blessing to work with these athletes and see their genuine smiles. I think all athletes should hang out with Special Olympians, to see how it should be done.”

Beyond the volunteer coaches, several factors are key to the SO SUP program. Safety is foremost, and swimming skills are a prerequisite. Jessica Barrale, Director of Special Olympics Florida – Escambia/Santa Rosa explains, “Registered Special Olympics athletes who can swim 25 meters are eligible for this program.”

A location that can accommodate athletes of varying skills levels is another central ingredient. In Miami-Dade County, Adventure Sports Miami at Matheson Hammock Park has graciously allowed the “SO305SUP” team to train at their site and use their equipment, and Coreban, KeNalu, Carbonerro and Jimmy Lewis have donated products.

Another important requirement is insurance coverage. Meghan Varner has been a Special Olympics swimming coach in Palm Beach County for 15 years, and was interested in starting a SUP team, but the local SO Board was not ready to do so, and obtaining independent liability coverage was not financially feasible. Meg started her own group, with the help of Adam Whittington, owner of Blueline Paddle Surf in Jupiter, who generously offered to provide coverage for the group under his insurance, plus use of his rental boards in a sheltered location. Unsure of how it would be received, Meg met with the parents of SO athletes to introduce the idea, and 30 athletes showed up, 17 of whom could swim sufficiently. The Jupiter Paddlers group started on the water this July.

Kim Depasquale, Blueline’s “Director of Fun,” who obtained SO certified SUP training, is assisting and enjoying the experience. “It has been extremely rewarding watching these individuals progress as they transition from sitting on the board to standing up and working on paddling skills. It makes you re-evaluate the things in life you consider challenging. Everyone involved has such heart and soul. Megan Varner has been a blessing bringing them all together.” Appreciative of Adam’s generosity, but concerned about his taking on the liability, Meg went back to SO, and the State SO office agreed that Meg’s group would become SO Standup Paddle Palm Beach County. They’re headed to Key West to compete in October.

Jeff Archer, owner of YOLO paddleboards, has been very supportive of the SO program, and thinks SUP is a good fit for SO because “standing up paddling is empowering.” He’s been inspired watching the athletes’ progress. “You see them grow.” With the motto “You Only Live Once” as their guiding principle, the company’s foundational goal is making SUP accessible and easy for anyone. Jeff supports the concept of “complete integration,” and would like every SUP event “to always have an SO event included.” The company has sponsored several events, and has donated one YOLO Yak board to each of the Florida counties that currently have teams.

The Second Annual Monroe Invitational event was held October 13th at Higgs Beach, Key West, with Special Olympics athletes from seven counties attending. Ruth Holland described the event as “A huge celebration of our athletes’ joy and love of the sport of SUP.”

All involved in this adventure agree that the Special Olympic athletes are the real stars, and the source of their inspiration. Bill Elkins identified the true beneficiaries: “I have been touched by seeing people do things they never dreamed possible. I have never felt the amount of joy and love from such a truly amazing group of people. I urge anyone to get out there and watch a race, volunteer at an event, or help out at practices. Do yourself a favor and check out your local Special Olympic teams.”

In the words of Irma Price, “From the first time one meets the Special Olympic SUP athletes, the stoke sticks.” —Tom Fucigna

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For more information on Special Olympics Florida, visit: SOFL.org