"We'll meet you in the water," Danny Ching tells me over the phone after giving me directions to his local surf spot. "You've got a SUP?"
"Yeah, I'll be right there," I reassure him, turning on to the Pacific Coast Highway.
"Good," he says. "You just might get to experience some L.A. localism." I can almost see him smiling through the phone.
The towering cliffs fall from the sky into the sea. McMansions decorate the bluff while the ocean crashes into the rocks with a ruggedness that belies this urban locale hidden on the other side of Crenshaw Boulevard, only miles from the grime of Los Angeles. I trudge down the trail scanning for Ching in the break. All the surfers are sitting and I start to wonder if I'm in the right spot. I scan the lineup again and suddenly a SUP surfer smoothly snaps off the top on his backhand. That's got to be him.
A guy getting out of the water looks at my board. "Some dude on a standup board is absolutely ripping out there," he says.
Thanks to Ching's warning, I paddle wide out to the lineup, carefully keeping my distance. He sees me and paddles over sporting a white 404 hat. Turns out his cautionary line was more ribbing than actual foreshadowing. We sit down on our boards in the beautiful bay to talk.
"So is this where you like to hide out?" I ask.
"Nah, I don't hide out," he says, almost embarrassed. "I like to hang out here though."
Getting to know one of the greatest standup racers on the planet has been a challenge. Between events, business and promotional engagements, I've had a hard time catching up to him.
I'd come to the right spot to get to know Ching. This picturesque coastline from Kings Harbor in Hermosa Beach to Pales Verdes has taught Ching everything he knows about paddling. It's where he built an unearthly stamina that helped him win more races than any paddler alive, it's where he honed a stroke that guided him to three Battle of the Paddle wins (standup's de facto world title) and it's where he learned to fight through his demons, becoming the lone mainlander to win a one-man outrigger world title.
It's also humbled him.
Al Ching isn't big in stature. But in Hermosa Beach, he's a giant in the paddling community. His hair is gray now but he's still powerfully built.
The elder Ching and a handful of friends created the Lanakila Outrigger Club in 1970, soon after moving to California from Hawaii. The club has become a center of paddling in the area. Ask any outrigger athlete worth his blade from California to Seattle and they're certain to know Al's name and not just for the paddles he builds. The senior Ching is a paddling technician, an expert in training and technique. He wakes at five each morning, eats a small breakfast and heads to the club—a small strip of golf carpet in Kings Harbor where the boats are stored. When he's home, Danny goes with him and they paddle sprints together as the sun crests the western skyline. The same as they have for years.
"We had Danny in an outrigger when he was in diapers," says Al. "His family is the outrigger family."
The Ching family home, where Danny still lives, is a modest two bedroom cottage two streets from the harbor, and its walls are decorated with paddling pictures and surfing shots of Danny and his younger brother, Kawika. The garage is filled with paddles and surfboards and skateboards and bikes. In a tree out front is an old rickety tree house where the Ching boys would spy on the neighborhood and watch the world go by. It's a nice home, a place Danny always wants to come home to. He's got everything he needs in this little neighborhood. But still, it's hard not to think something is missing.
At 29, Danny Ching is around 5'9" with dark, sun-kissed skin. He's yoked with muscle from head to toe. His dark eyes penetrate and study you. His demeanor is friendly, but guarded. There's something inside that pushes Ching beyond a pain threshold that few other paddlers can cross. Whatever that driving force is, Danny Ching mostly keeps it to himself.
At the 2012 Battle of the Paddle in Dana Point, he almost went in under the radar. Connor Baxter, having won the previous year and coming off a win on the Molokai Channel, was the favorite. That's how Ching wanted it. During the race Baxter and Kai Lenny pulled out to an early lead with Ching chasing. But each lap he waited patiently, never pulling too hard to waste energy, never making a bad wave selection on the surf into the beach for the run portion. He just waited. And then, on the final lap, when Lenny and Baxter faltered, Ching pulled away and won in almost casual fashion, a hallmark that's defined his career.
"Danny is the most beautiful, graceful paddler," says Lenny. "He never looks like he's working super hard. He's someone I want to emulate. In my opinion—when I look at the most complete racer out there—the first person I think of is Danny Ching. Standup racing wouldn't be where it is today without him."
To find out what motivates Ching takes the same kind of patience he shows on a race course.
After our surf session we sit down at quiet little Mexican restaurant on Hermosa's main drag and order a couple of cold ones over lunch with his girlfriend, Leah Beebe. Danny tells me how he really only got into standup in 2008 or so when someone brought a board to outrigger practice, and that the 2009 Battle of the Paddle was his first legitimate SUP race. He took it up simply because it was a natural extension of outrigger.
Try doing a Google search for Danny Ching. There's more than one reference to technique videos and an outrigger article or two. But remarkably absent is any profile of Danny Ching, the champion standup paddler. If you didn't already know he was one of the sport's best, there's little out there to tell you he is. Ching isn't going to tell you himself, and he certainly isn't going to promote himself on social networks and blogs. He's a relentless non-self-promoter. "I'm just not a big fan of the spotlight," he says. "Do people really want to hear me tell them how great I am?"
I push him a little. "Then what drives you?"
"I don't know, I guess proving people wrong."
Proving people wrong started early for Danny. Few people realize that Danny Ching isn't just an outrigger paddler or a standup paddler. He can paddle any craft that requires a blade, and when his uncle, Josh Crayton, 43, introduced him to flatwater kayaking at 16, he took to it naturally. Crayton's parents were divorced and his father traveled extensively so he essentially became the third Ching son, as Crayton and his sister have lived with the Ching family since Crayton was six.
Crayton had Olympic kayaking aspirations, which naturally rubbed off on Ching. After two years of training, Ching made a serious push to make the U.S. National Team in 2001. He needed to place third or better in a series of qualifying races and after a close finish in the final race, he thought he'd made the cut. At the awards ceremony, it was announced that he was on the team. Only later did team officials take him aside to say that after reviewing the tape, they'd decided he finished fourth. He was off the squad. Ching never reviewed the tape himself.
Ching's coach lodged a protest, and team officials denied it. The perceived snub left him deflated. "It just put a bad taste in my mouth after that," he says. He tried to push through the B-Team doldrums, leaving for Lake Placid to train but he says the support just wasn't the same. He threw himself back into outrigger. He made another run in 2007 in two-man sprint, making the team for the Pan Am Games, but the lifestyle was grueling. That was the end of his Olympic experience.
"The Olympic track is a very lonely world," says Crayton. "The problem with a sport like flatwater kayaking, it's such a small thing (in the U.S.), that there are no resources. It really feels like you're out there on your own sometimes."
Ching admits he didn't spend all his time at the Olympic training center like he probably needed to, preferring to train on his own program. "Danny, for sprint kayaking, was a little bit of an outsider," says Rami Zur, an Olympic kayaker turned SUP racer. "He trained on outrigger and then came for training camps. He didn't live at the training center. I wouldn't be surprised if he was a victim of internal politics."
The Olympic dream may have fizzled for Ching, but in the end, not being an Olympian might have been the best thing for him. It lit a fire in him to train harder and refocus on a game he was best at. Two years later he took the 2010 one-man outrigger world title. "It's just one of those things that happens in your life that motivates you," Ching says.
2008 was an Olympic year, and while Ching had hoped to be in Beijing, the realities of life hit his family in much more devastating fashion. In November, Ching's mother Erin succumbed to lung cancer following a two-year battle. She passed on a Sunday morning.
"It all happened so fast," says Al. "That night, hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects. People we'd paddled outrigger with over the years. The next Friday, we paddled out to sea and so many people came down to paddle out with us. We took her ashes a quarter-mile out to sea. There were people there from all over the country."
Erin was a true matriarch, taking care of the bills, organizing family events, coordinating races with Al, whom she'd met almost 40 years earlier through outrigger. Her death left an enormous void in the family.
Danny had just finished college at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills and as he puts it, was lacking direction.
"It was at the point where I needed to get a job or create one for myself," he says. "I had to figure stuff out, family stuff, helping to pay bills, taking over a lot of the things that she used to do. Fortunately I landed in a good situation when I met my business partner, Greg Jensen."
Jensen, a former professional surfer, approached Ching at the 2009 BOP by chance, looking to create a SUP company. Ching took a leap of faith, and later that year, the duo formed 404 SUP. It was brutal, with long nights and longer days as they worked to design boards and set up distribution. This, coupled with Ching's full race schedule, made things all the more challenging.
"It's a lot of hard work, doing the business side and the racing side," Ching says. "But it's easy when you look back. My mom showed me how hard you could work and what I thought was tough really wasn't that bad. That definitely helped me push through (the pain)."
In a sport still in its infancy, 404 has found relatively firm footing, partnering with Riviera Paddlesports. 404 specializes in race and touring boards, and with Ching's name on the product, the future doesn't look too shabby for the fledgling company.
In a sport lacking a true world championship—save for that event every year in Dana Point, Calif.—the debate on who's the best paddler in the world is always ripe on message boards and Facebook pages. Finding a debate without talk of Danny Ching is an anomaly.
"At the moment, I think Danny is the best paddler out there," says Jamie Mitchell, who won the 2009 BOP. Ching and Mitchell have developed a rapport where they don't mind drafting one another. "There are unspoken rules on drafting. With Danny, we don’t need to talk about it, we know how it works and we'll make sure that it’s fair and the best man wins. I really like racing against him."
So many paddlers feel the same way that many don't consider a race "top-tier" unless Ching is at the beach start. "When I go into a race season, I look at my schedule, and I want to make sure to go where the fastest guys are gonna be and if Danny's going to race, I want to be there," says Lenny, who captured the 2012 Standup World Series crown, a series that Ching was noticeably absent from. "At the BOP I ended up second but what I learned from racing against him helped me win the World Series title on Oahu."
In standup paddling, the "World Title" is a complicated issue. There are a number of events that lay claim but none have become ingrained enough to truly take the reins as a true world championship. To Ching, there's no bigger race than the Battle of the Paddle. As for the other events, Ching takes a wait-and-see approach. "If I tried to make every event that called itself a world title, I'd wreck myself," he says. "I'm an opinionated guy, for sure. But I'm not close-minded. I can be swayed if the time is right."
Despite his prowess in the standup world and his successful SUP business, Ching is a canoe paddler at heart. And the best place to get to know him is at the Lanakila Outrigger Club, a place he still holds most dear.
That's why he took over the head coaching duties from Crayton seven years ago. He runs the training, racing and development programs. "(The Outrigger Club) is something I always want to be involved with," he says. "Outrigger, as a sport, needs a lot more help than standup. And I love the family atmosphere. I love working with the kids and being there for them. It's something I take a lot of pride in."
When he's home, Ching works daily with the youth at the club, helping them to refine their stroke, setting training regimens and basically, being a mentor. "He is phenomenal," says Crayton. "He really dedicates a part of his life to it and the kids idolize him. He's a large kid himself. He's able to relate to them in an amazing way."
Every year, Ching and his family enter the Catalina Channel Relay, an outrigger race from Avalon to Dana Point. In 2010, Ching was the five-time defending champion in the one-man. But Ching elected to do the two-man relay with his family. Along with Crayton and Crayton's 10-year-old son Garrett, they started the grueling paddle to the mainland. But the weather that day was awful, with wind blowing in every direction while rain squalls and cold hampered their progress. Garrett wasn't having any fun and the adults weren't too pumped either. So Ching called over the support boat and they surfed the boat's wake back to the harbor, disqualifying themselves.
"We ended up having a fantastic time," says Crayton. "Given the choice of doing it for glory or for the fun and enjoyment of being with his family, there's no choice for him. For Danny and the core group around him, we feel the most natural and alive when we're just out paddling with each other."
When we pull up to the Lanakila Outrigger Club, the sun shines brightly over head and the water is clear and oily, a perfect day for a paddle. Al shows me around the Club's boats and the humble paddle closet where they keep lifejackets and paddles and tools. "I'm proud of Danny," he says. "My biggest goal was for my children to get a good education and be able to support themselves. I didn't want them to just be beach bums."
Danny is sitting at the boat dock talking with a paddler about to launch his one-man canoe. He throws an old water bottle in the harbor for his Australian Shepherd, Cali, to retrieve. When the shaggy pooch reaches the dock, he pulls her back up by the scruff. "Pretty good for a dog that's had two tendon surgeries, huh," he says, smiling.
The paddler who launched his canoe paddles back to the dock. He needs a screwdriver to tighten the ama. He asks Ching for help and the Champ dutifully runs to his truck to dig one out. A few minutes later, Beebe shows up and we sit down and talk for a few minutes, enjoying the good weather.
As we're chatting, an older women and her daughter walk by. They talk to Ching about paddling and tell him how cute his dog is. They're part of the Canoe Club too, and seem happy to have a few minutes alone with the best paddler on the planet. But he doesn't talk to them like a champion. To them, he's just another paddler, happy to be home.
This feature originally ran in our Spring 2013 issue.
Photos by Robert Zaleski and Jean-Paul Van Sweigh
For more from the mag, click here.