The Age of the Super Grom
This article originally appears in our spring “Youth” issue, on newsstands now!
When the early guard first started paddling in the early 2000s, it was a relatively primitive pastime. Early pioneers in Hawaii and California made due with makeshift equipment, no formal competition and nary a mentor. Today, SUP is a multi-million-dollar industry with international competition, established technique, evolved equipment and a slew of experienced athletes eager to expand the sport by teaching others. And no one is benefitting from that more than the groms.
"The early generation of standup paddlers grabbed a paddleboard, chopped off one end of a canoe paddle and tried to figure out how to go out and do it," says Mike Eisert, veteran OC-1 paddler turned standup paddle coach and co-founder of The Paddle Academy, a competitive SUP training program for kids. "You can really see the differences between generations with today's groms. These kids have an upper hand because they have structured teaching programs, events and equipment suited to them."
The difference is clear. In the Open Distance race at #PPG2016, the four contenders competing in the Boys' 13 and 14 division of the six-mile Distance race crossed the finish line ahead of nearly half of the male contenders ages 18 and up. The three-time women's world champion SUP surfer, Izzi Gomez, is only 17, and the current women's racing world champ, Fiona Wylde, just 20. These young athletes—most of whom are not even near fully grown yet—are cleaning up the competition.
Ten years ago only a handful of standup paddling competitions existed and there was certainly no such thing as a SUP career or for that matter, a SUP star. As events started forming and competition developed in the late 2000s, standup paddling athletes—legends like Dave Kalama and groms like Kai Lenny—transitioned to SUP from other sports. For many of the young folks leading the charge today, SUP is their first sport. That early start is a critical factor.
"It's like the kid in the city who grows up dribbling a basketball down the sidewalk as soon as he can walk," says Eisert. "Kids are now able to develop their skills with a paddle from the ground up rather than picking it up as a second sport. It becomes second nature and with a little coaching they get really good, really quick."
Grom-turned-pro paddling maven Shae Foudy is a prime example of the advantages of learning young. For the past four years Foudy's been grooming her skills under Eisert's coaching in The Paddle Academy. In the last two, she's taken out the world's fastest women, including big wins over the sport's top champion racers Candice Appleby and Annabel Anderson. She just turned 18.
"Without The Paddle Academy I definitely wouldn't be where I am now," says Foudy. "The value of training in a group like that is you're constantly surrounded by other kids your age. It gives you the opportunity to have someone else push you and to gauge and develop your skill with kids your age."
The Paddle Academy, along with outfits like Hood River's Big Winds Junior Elite Team, Jay Wild's Junior Tahoe Waterman and the Carolina Junior Waterman's Team in Wrightsville Beach, are revolutionizing the sport by creating young athletes with a solid foundation in technique, training and discipline.
These programs around the US are applying a more formal sports framework—think football, gymnastics, track and field—to the sport of SUP. It's a proven template that provides camaraderie, competition, mentorship and the opportunity to learn and excel.
"It's a lot like a swim team," says Foudy. "Individual athletes training together. It's hard to get a training regimen when you don't have a coach and a team to keep you motivated. (Paddling teams) solve that."
Along with the camaraderie and coaching that comes with a team environment, nowadays the ever-expanding circuit of junior races gives the groms something to work toward.
"Another thing the new generation has that the older generation didn't is races like Pacific Paddle Games, SUPFiesta and the Hanohano Huki Ocean Challenge that all provide spotlights for the junior divisions," says Eisert. "We have races all winter long, so we train for those and use them to practice for the big summer events. We're able to race 20 times a year."
Advanced equipment, experienced mentors, competitive opportunities and a community of peers—the age of the super grom is imminent. We're just lucky to experience it, even if it is in their wake. –MM
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