Women are the main focus of the Crystal Kai SUP Cup. Photo: Charli Kerns

The Crystal Kai Sup Cup may not be as big as North Carolina's signature race, the Quiksilver Waterman Carolina Cup. But with a mission to empower people, specifically women, to get on the water and push themselves, the fourth annual event may have proved to be as big in spirit.

"Most races have a higher purse for men, and I didn’t like it," David "DA" Avery, race producer, said. So, he collaborated with the Crystal Coast, North Carolina, community to create a female-branded, WPA-sanctioned event. Though grassroots and young, the Crystal Kai Sup Cup is beginning to command a presence in the sports scene, with this year boasting a total purse of $20,000. The $1,750 top prize, for both elite women and men, was enough to entice some bigger names to this year's event.

Crystal Kai Sup Cup

April Zilg placed top in the women’s 12’6″ long course event. Photo: Charli Kerns

But the prize money wasn’t the only reason pro racer April Zilg, currently ranked 11 in the world, came to the the Crystal Kai Sup Cup. Zilg dominated the elite women's 12'6" long course (7-mile) race, with her only competitor seeming to be coastal North Carolina's trademark climate.

"I was still working pretty hard with the heat, and that humidity just killed me," she laughed.

According to Zilg, getting the word out and bringing awareness to the community-sponsored event is key to helping the sport grow. It was one of the reasons she taught a paddling mechanics session during the full day of free clinics held the Friday before the race. Zilg's was a sentiment 14-foot long course men’s winner Garrett Fletcher shared.

"The community is invested, and that makes me invested," Fletcher said. "We don’t have a lot of that, and that’s what we've got to do to grow the sport."

Crystal Kai SUP Cup

Eri Tenorio and Garrett Fletcher go head to head during the 7-mile long course race. Photo: Charli Kerns 

That said, Fletcher's win did not come easy. He earned first place after an epic battle against Brazil’s Eri Tenorio, ranked 32 in the world, for the entire long course. Tenorio had beaten Fletcher in two previous races.

After a back-and-forth, and a moment where Tenorio took the lead rounding the buoy, Fletcher managed to get out ahead nearing the finish line.

"At the end, I made a break, and then I was half a board length once we split. I guess I just had more in the tank," Fletcher said.

Crystal Kai Sup Cup

All of the top finishers in the 2018 Crystal Kai Sup Cup gathered for a photo with their earnings. Photo: Charli Kerns 

While Zilg and Fletcher earned top prize, the Crystal Kai was more than just another event for glory. Multiple scholarships were awarded to local Groms to help support their training. The Crystal Kai Sup Cup has also expanded to include Camp Crystal Kai, an all women's week-long program that just wrapped up its second year. According to Zilg, the future of the Crystal Kai Sup Cup looks promising.

"I want the number of women and girls participating in the sport to grow here, and this event has the structure and backbone to grow," Zilg said.

Look for a story on Camp Crystal Kai soon.

More SUP women.