Deaf Paddler Breaking the Sound Barrier in SUP

johan verstraete
Johan Verstraete is a deaf SUP racer working to bridge the gap between the SUP and deaf communities.

Deaf Paddler Breaking the Sound Barrier in SUP.

For most paddlers, SUP racing is a level playing field. We’re equipped with water, board and paddle and the fortune of five senses that allow us to put them to use. But what if one of those senses was missing? SUP racer Johan Verstraete could tell you, if only you knew sign language. Verstraete—a deaf paddler competing in this year’s Euro Tour and other distance races—is working to bridge the gap between the deaf and SUP communities. SUP sat down with him over email to learn more about the life of a deaf paddler and his mission to merge forces on the water.

SUP: Tell us about yourself.

JV: I’m 34 years old, I’ve been doing water sports since I was 12 years old and I’ve been deaf since birth. I’m currently going after my Masters of Design Management and conducting field research on the North Shore of Oahu. My research looks at how surf designers and shapers can incorporate biologically inspired design methods into their processes to increase sustainable surf innovations.

SUP: How does being deaf affect a person’s athletic pursuits?

JV: For me, being deaf has been a blessing because I’m able to visualize the world differently and contribute to its diversity. I don’t feel disabled, and really, there’s no difficulty deaf people can’t overcome. It is, however, difficult for deaf people to access information necessary to learn certain sports. Technology is helping to change that.

SUP: Why is SUP a good sport for deaf people?

JV: Deaf people have high visual skills and a unique ability to concentrate since they’re not distracted by sounds around them. With the improved senses that compensate for hearing loss, we’re able to develop unique strategies for SUP races. Beware of your deaf competitors in a race (laughs). Really, the major challenge is getting SUP organizations to provide accessible info with sign language interpreters.

SUP: How did you get into SUP?

JV: I started paddling a few years ago for fun until I met an exceptional mentor last September on the North Shore. His name is Mick Di Betta; he won the first race from Molokai 2 Oahu and he’s a current record holder. Mick believed in me and introduced me to serious SUP paddling. Now, I train four times a week on water and two times off water with Mick’s methods. It’s hard to take a day off because I love it so much.

SUP: How do you communicate with Mick for your training?

JV: Mick writes training programs for me through paddlepowertrainer.com, as he does for top paddlers like Travis Grant, Kelly Margetts and Annabel Anderson. Even though I can communicate with him face-to-face, I sometimes meet communication barriers during the training so I’m looking for sponsors to help support my needs for an interpreter.

SUP: What are your biggest goals in SUP racing?

JV: This year, I aim to compete in the Euro Tour SUP race series and the SUP 11-City Tour in the Netherlands. I’m also training to participate in smaller SUP races this year in Belgium. In a few years, I want to join the Molokai 2 Oahu race. It really depends on finding sponsors and the accessibility of these SUP races.

SUP: How do you hope to help the deaf community get involved in SUP?

JV: I want to create a communication bridge between the deaf community and the SUP community. I believe collaboration between the International Surf Association (ISA) and the International Deaf Surf Association (IDSA), the sponsors, the provision of accessible information through online videos and through SUP schools with sign language interpreters will increase deaf paddlers’ participation in the SUP community. I’m also a certified lifeguard and I have experience teaching water sports to deaf people, so my goal is to become an instructor myself. I want to help deaf people access the SUP community and find their passion as I did.

For more about Johan Verstraete, or to contact him, visit his Facebook athlete page.