Even for the most cynic of observer, it’d be hard to deny that standup paddling–as a competitive sport–has firmly taken hold from California to New Jersey to Florida and everywhere in between. If there is any doubt, that cynic need only look to Colorado, 14 hours from the nearest ocean–and the GoPro Mountain Games as exhibit A in the sport’s evolution.
Some 60 paddlers pushed off the banks of Gore Creek Saturday morning for the SUP Sprint, a three-mile race through a beautiful mountain valley near Vail, Colorado. A section of river that had literally been forgotten by kayakers due to its flat character. Thanks to SUP, it’s again become a viable section for recreational Class II paddling.
“For Coloradoans, the easiest local accessible water is moving water,” says Dan Gavere, who took first overall in the downriver race. “It’s awesome to see the progression the last couple of years. There’s a ton of camaraderie. A lot of the people racing out here are self-taught in whitewater and the progression of learning is addicting. I love watching it. There’s not a lot of ego out here.”
On Sunday, thousands watched the SUP Cross in the middle of Vail Village as standup paddlers navigated a difficult slalom course underneath the main bridge in town, battling through the comp in heats. The intense pileups invoked roars and groans from spectators. Haley Mills completed a clean sweep of the women’s podium, winning both the SUP Cross and downriver race. Mariko Strickland finished second in the SUP Cross and third in the downriver race and Nikki Gregg ended third in the SUP Cross while Brittany Parker ended second in SUP Sprint. “It was good to have different competitors out there (with ocean sports backgrounds),” says Mills, a talented all-around paddler who also finished second in the freestyle kayak event and fourth in the Homestake Steep Creek Championships. “I know I have good river skills but I was surprised to finish so well. It was nice to really guage where you’re at.”
In the men’s competition, whitewater kayaking legend Eric Jackson pulled off a stunner when he was the last man standing in the pileup at the bridge (see video). Jackson, who’s Jackson Kayaks is one of the most influential brands in the sport of whitewater, has seen standup’s influence first-hand. “I think SUP has helped paddlesports out a lot in general,” he says. “It’s brought athletes in from both surf and whitewater and really reached a broader audience.”
That reach was on full display at the GoPro Mountain Games, where SUP racers mingled with mountain bikers, whitewater kayakers, climbers and dog lovers alike.