Words by Rebecca Parsons
Photos by Georgia Schofield
Olivia Piana is a force to be reckoned with in women’s SUP racing.
In 2017 alone, the French native took home a second-place finish at the Pacific Paddle Games, second overall on the Euro Tour and made the podium in both the technical and distance races at the ISA World Championships in Denmark. And while it was clearly a banner year for the young Frenchwoman, you’d hardly know it from her humble presence. Truth is, Piana is just a normal gal who loves to standup paddle.
A few days before #PPG2017 we met Piana at the House of Trestles, an up-and-coming hostel in San Clemente, CA. After a quick tour of her temporary home, we settled on some boho-style cushions on the floor as the 26-year-old began to share her story.
Piana is a lot of things you'd expect from a professional water athlete—she’s tan, toned, health-conscious and driven. But when she starts talking about standup paddling, her face lights up, inhibitions drop and the words begin to flow freely. For her, SUP is more than fame and podium-finishes, it's about friendships, relationships and challenging herself.
Piana grew up near the Mediterranean Sea in the coastal town of La Ciotat–located in southern France. It was here where she was introduced to water sports by her mother, a long-time windsurfer. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Piana competed in windsurfing from 2006 to 2010, earning numerous world titles in the youth division along the way. But with sponsorship opportunities scarce and training entirely dependent on the wind, Piana was thrilled when she discovered SUP in 2011.
"I discovered SUP on the wave first with friends and I loved it because I can go in the water every day, even if it's flat or windy, and enjoy every moment in Mother Nature,” Piana said. “It's what I wanted, just to be on the water and enjoy.”
The crossover athlete quickly established herself as a worthy competitor in the world of standup paddling. She won several races in Europe during 2012 and earned two silver medals at the ISAs in 2013. Today, Piana is ranked one of the top racers in the world and shows no sign of slowing down.
Yet for Piana, winning isn't everything.
"I discovered winning races doesn't give me a lot of satisfaction," Piana admits. "I like to win, but it's not the biggest part of what I do. I like to improve myself and share that with other women. It's about the human experience—with love and with a lot of sharing."
Piana wants to be a good ambassador for the sport and a role model to other women. She appreciates her competitors and is grateful for the positive attitude and good vibes she is greeted with on the start line. While sports like surfing oftentimes recognize women for their appearance, Piana is grateful to be part of a sport that recognizes women for their abilities and not whether or not they'll look good in a photoshoot.
"It's important to be your best and enjoy your time on the water," Piana says. "SUP is not only for beautiful people, you can see all kinds of people paddling and that is just amazing."
As it stands, many women still don't feel comfortable competing and Piana trains strictly with men.
"It's strange, there are a lot of girls doing SUP in France but they don't want to compete. Maybe they think they are not able to do it or it's too hard. But it's not. It's super nice to share it with people and improve yourself."
As the sport continues to progress, hopefully more women will be inspired by Piana and the many other females rocking the competitive scene. For now, there's still a lot to be grateful for and Piana is proof of that.