Story by Phil White

Standup Paddling: A Special Olympic Sport

Adaptive Paddlers Going For Gold in Florida, South Carolina and New York

When Ruth Holland, MJ Weibling and Matt Berman started Florida’s first standup paddling programs for people with special needs within Special Olympics Florida—Monroe County and Special Olympics Florida—Collier County back in 2010, their aim was to introduce as many people to the sport as possible. Then, when the popularity of SUP exploded, they hoped to get 10 counties involved so that Special Olympics Florida would include SUP as a State Games competition. Little did they know that six years later, SUP for special needs athletes would spread to 29 counties and two other states.

“Our main aim is still to help anyone who’s able to get on a SUP out on the water,” Weibling said. “But if we can demonstrate interstate interest, we hope that it can become a Special Olympics sanctioned sport nationwide, and then worldwide.”

One of the first events for the 2016 race season for Special Olympics Florida paddlers will be the Lazy Dog Key West Paddle Classic Battle on April 30. This is the sixth year that the race and the SUP Luau Races in Naples have raised money for adaptive SUP programs. These races were also the first to provide a division for paddlers with special needs. The Battle on the Blueway will also offer such a race at Fort Myers Beach on June 11.

Then on August 27, 2016, Special Olympics Florida will hold the second State Standup Paddle Championships at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, where SUP coach Seychelle Hattingh raised $1,500 for the Monroe County program during her world record paddle.  Last year’s event featured more than 100 paddlers broken into divisions of eight, determined by the padders’ ability.

“This means that every athlete has a chance to be number one in their division,” Holland says. “Training and competing in SUP gives them confidence that translates to how they approach school, work and life.”

Following the state championships, Special Olympics paddlers will compete at the Ocean Warrior Challenge in Jupiter on September 11. Then, on October 15 to 16, the SUP Invitational in Key West will raise money for Special Olympics Florida – Monroe County’s SUP program and enable adaptive paddlers to compete alongside their peers in an open division.

South Carolina is also getting in on the act with two events, the Chucktown Showdown on September 17 and The Lake Murray SUP Classic on October 1. These races will not only raise money for local paddlers with special needs, but will also offer a division for them.

Tia Gamelin started South Carolina’s first adaptive SUP program, recognizing that it could provide a gateway into watersports for the young people she helps as an occupational therapist. After fellow special needs educators encouraged her, Tia contacted a local outfitter. They loaned her seven boards for a year, which enabled several children with autism and Down syndrome to get out on the water for the first time. The money raised in last year’s Chucktown Showdown paid for an Infinity tandem board, which Tia intends to use in open races with some of her adaptive athletes.

“A lot of people with Down Syndrome suffer from extreme lumbar lordosis – where the spine curves inward in the lower back,” Gamelin said. “They also struggle with hyper-mobility that makes them lock their joints when their balance is challenged, leading to long-term orthopedic problems. But once they find their center on a SUP board, their posture improves and because locking their joints would cause them to fall in the water, they experience muscle re-learning.”

In 2013, the Lake Murray Classic race organizers made Tia’s program and Camp Kemo–a summer initiative for children battling cancer–the beneficiaries of its fundraising, enabling her to purchase seven boards. The following year, proceeds from the race paid for a trailer to transport the boards to team training on Lake Murray. Tia also received help from one of the biggest names in the SUP equipment industry.

“I met Meg from Kialoa at the Lake Murray Classic and she called me in spring 2014 to offer 14 paddles,” Tia said. “She used to be a special education teacher, so she understands the profound impact SUP can have on the lives of people with special needs.”

South Carolina and Florida are not the only states with programs for athletes with physical and learning disabilities. In New York, ACA and PaddleFit certified SUP coach Tina Fetten is running a program for adaptive paddlers in Binghamton. In addition to coaching six paddlers with physical limitations, cognitive delays and autism, Fetten helped introduce a division for adaptive paddlers at the Cayuga Lake SUP Cup in Ithaca. One of her athletes, Josh, who has cerebral palsy, amazed spectators by battling through 20 MPH winds.

“Whether they’re sitting, kneeling or standing, our athletes have complete control of their boards and grow so much by becoming independent on the water,” she said. “Their success proves that paddling really is for everyone.”