Hayley paddling

Hayley Kabana hasn’t let a rare medical condition slow down her passion for SUP racing. Photo courtesy of Hayley Kabana’s Facebook page.

From Special Olympics to Carolina Cup

The special SUP story of Hayley Kabana

Only 300 people in the world have Koolen-De Vries Syndrome–a condition caused by a disruption to the seventeenth chromosome. To our knowledge, only one has competed at the Carolina Cup and is what her coach calls, "a paddling fanatic."

Hayley Kabana has been through a lot in her 22 years–11 brain surgeries, seizures, open heart surgery, a rod placed in her back for scoliosis, adrenal failure and eye surgeries–yet despite it all, she stands tall with a smile on her face.

When the Kabana family moved from Indiana to Venice, Florida five years ago, they had no idea what SUP was. Then in spring 2013, they attended a try-out for the paddling program run by Special Olympics Florida. Despite some initial trouble standing and keeping a consistent stroke, Hayley was instantly hooked.

Her parents–Sue and John–soon bought a couple of used boards and began going out on the water with their daughter several times a week. Soon Hayley's balance had improved enough for her to place at several events. But to take her skills to the next level, she needed expert instruction.

As luck would have it, the Kabanas had met SUP coach Tracie Georgiadis in summer 2013. She had a PaddleFit Pro certification and was already coaching her son and several other Special Olympics athletes. Now two years later, the time finally seemed right for her to become Hayley's coach.

Hayley and coach Tracie chill after training

Hayley and coach Tracie chill after training. Photo courtesy of Kabana Family.

"Every day Hayley would ask me, 'When's the next practice?' and when the Special Olympics sessions ended in September, we needed a way for her to continue practicing and developing," Sue said. "Tracie was the perfect solution."

Despite several Special Olympics races in Florida, they were not enough to satisfy Hayley's appetite for racing. So Sue began entering her in open division competitions, with Hayley competing 10 times in 2015.

"I love meeting new people and going super-fast," Hayley said.

During races, Sue acts as a spotter to make sure that Hayley doesn't deviate from the course. It also enables her to provide verbal cues like "Reach!" and "Dig your paddle in!" that keep her daughter's form consistent.

In October 2015, Tracie began tutoring Hayley one-on-one during twice weekly, two-hour sessions. Working all winter on fundamentals, Hayley soon become much faster and more efficient.

"I took PaddleFit techniques and tailored them to Hayley's needs," Tracie said. "I've never met anyone else who shows up to every practice so full of joy and excitement. I'm the one who's truly lucky."

Haley digs deep at Carolina Cup-2

Haley digs deep at Carolina Cup. Photo courtesy of the Kabana Family.

Sue and Tracie also recognized that customizing Hayley's equipment would lead to further improvements. So the Kabanas turned to shaper Brian Hovnanian at Hovie SUP, who created a custom board with a recessed deck and strategically placed handles that made it easier for Hayley to get back on the board.

Other ergonomic tweaks included a longer paddle with a wider blade, that enables her to gain more traction in the catch. Also to give Hayley a visual reminder of correct hand positioning, Tracie placed strips of colored tape on her paddle shaft.

With a solid winter of training in the bag and her customized equipment dialed in, Hayley recently took on her biggest SUP challenge yet: The 2016 West Marine Carolina Cup. With her mom alongside her, Hayley finished the 3.5 mile Harbor Island course in 1:11:57. While Sue said that the main goal is for Hayley to complete and enjoy each race, there's no denying the incredible improvement that the stopwatch showed.

"Haley has slashed 48 and a half minutes off her 3.5 mile time, which is just unheard of," Tracie said.

Another exciting part of the experience was meeting some of the elite athletes in our sport, including one of her heroes, Danny Ching, who finished third in the Graveyard Elite Race.

"I was nervous but enjoyed meeting him in person," Hayley said.

Hayley - left - meets hero Danny Ching

Hayley (left) meets her hero Danny Ching at the 2016 Carolina Cup. Photo courtesy of Kabana Family.

Next up for Hayley is the SUP Invitational and a full race season that will see her compete in as many contests as the Kabanas can get to.

"The Special Olympic divisions are great but one of the unique things about this amazing SUP community is that everyone can compete in the same races," Tracie said. "Whether it’s Hayley, myself, or a world champion, you can show up to events like the Carolina Cup and do your best."

Hayley is excited to show what she can do after the big confidence boost she got at Wrightsville Beach.

"I reached really well, dug my paddle in deep and paddled hard at the finish line," she said. What coach or proud parent could ask for more than that?


The inspiring story behind Special Olympics Florida’s adaptive paddling program.

Uplifting video of the 2nd Annual Statewide SUP competition hosted by Special Olympics Florida.