Paddling Through the Pandemic: Midwest Paddle League Reflects on 2020

Looking Back

Planning started for the 2020 Midwest Paddle League season before the last race of 2019. Looking forward to its second year, the League was determined to avoid the sophomore jinx. The new season promised to be bigger and better than ever. There were 16 races on the schedule, new points system, new sponsors, and plenty to be excited about. But then that thing happened.

It’s getting difficult to find new and creative ways of describing how the pandemic affected the paddleboard community this past year. However, the truth is, it’s probably not as bad as we think. Instead of focusing on what we missed out on, let’s take a minute to celebrate what we were able to achieve as a paddling community.

We still had 7 “official” races:

Midwest Paddle Festival

45 North Solstice Paddle Festival

Rapa Nui


Sky an Oar for Guardian Angels

Paddle for YOUR Cause

Whatever It Takes

Events this year where a bit a different, with masks and precautions, but they still filled our need for community and connection,  Despite the challenges, attendance was up across the board, with Rapa Nui topping 85 entries, and Whatever It Takes topping 65 participants. Beach2Beach was a brand-new race and venue and had to cut off entries at 58 to meet gathering restrictions.

We had 2 “unofficial” races: Great Lakes Paddle Festival went on in a grassroots form and over 30 paddlers showed up. A smaller group of paddlers kept the OABI tradition alive.

We also paddled virtually. 27 Midwest paddlers did the Virtual M2O, Most did it in small groups across small lakes, rivers, and open water like Lake Michigan. Another group did the virtual Panda Paddle, which raised over $130k for the WWF. There was also a strong Midwest contingent that did Standup for the Cure, with over $5k in donations directly linked to Midwest Paddlers.

On September 19th, after the racing was done for the day at Whatever It Takes on Gun Lake, the league and race participants gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate no only the last race of the season, but also some of the stand-out individuals of the year. Typically, this would include top 5 awards in each competitive category, but due to the shortened season (and corresponding lack of funds), Awards were limited to just a few categories.

In the spirit of “community first”, the league chose to recognize individuals who made significant contributions to the league on and off the racecourse. These individuals embody the spirit of community, and inspires us all to keep coming to races, making new friends, and making the Midwest Paddle League better.

Keith Conway – 45 North Solstice Paddle Festival

While not technically a new event, Keith took over the reins on the race from Dan Novak and put on an incredible event. The race was relocated to the nearby French Valley Vineyards, a beautiful location with accommodations on site including a fully stocked bar and restaurant. The event was originally scheduled for June but had to be moved to August due to COVID restrictions. However, when another race cancelled in July, Keith and his team scrambled to reschedule the event to take advantage of the earlier time. With just two-weeks’ notice, they were able to get everything moved and put on an incredible weekend for over 35 paddlers.

Aside from the race, Keith is a fixture in the Midwest scene. He opens his home to visiting racers, organizes social paddles, and helps people get gear through his work at Sutton’s Bay Bikes. He is always up to share the stoke and builds community where it counts most, getting people out and paddling. Keith had this to say:

“Running a race during these crazy times was challenging and stressful, but in the end seeing all the smiling faces of my best friends was all worth it. The support from community was overwhelming especially from Elizabeth (Maxwell) and Mik (DeBoef)”

Race Organizer Keith Conway. Photo Shannon Carr

Kathy McRae and Laura Knapp – Beach2Beach

More and more races drop off the schedule every year. Organizers get burned out, profitability and participation isn’t what it once was. There are many reasons to STOP doing an event. While most of the events on the Midwest schedule have been around for years, it’s been a minute since a completely NEW event has started.

Kathy McRae and Laura Knapp took on the challenge this year to create Beach2Beach in Highland Park, IL. Just north of Chicago, the location gave Midwest paddlers a welcome opportunity for an open-water Lake Michigan experience, and 58 Paddlers jumped at the chance. In fact, participation probably would have been even higher if they didn’t hit the cap of how many people could participate because of social distancing restrictions.

The race was well-organized, featured a challenging course, and went off without a hitch. Something races who have been around for a while sometimes have a hard time with. Laura and Kathy nailed it right out of the gate and have set a positive tone for what promises to become a premier Midwest race. Kathy McRae had this to say:

“The joy in this is like the joy in everything- seeing the smiles and watching the community grow.  Paddlers of all kinds, sup, surfski, kayak, outrigger. People of all ages, and various levels of experience came in from all over the Midwest to paddle on the open water of Lake Michigan. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Laura Knapp added:

“Kathy McRae and I and the entire North Shore Yacht Club are honored to receive this award for putting on a new paddleboard race this year, the Beach 2 Beach Paddle Race. The Midwest Paddle League was instrumental in encouraging us and coordinated a meeting between several race directors across the Midwest who could answer our ‘newbie’ questions and provide tips. This race brought our local paddle community into the bigger leagues because in the past years we only held a handful of casual club races with a handful of people. This race exceeded our expectations, even during the Covid-19 Pandemic.  We made sure we followed national guidelines especially as it pertained to rules and safety and more important, we made sure every participant and volunteer had a good time!”

Rookie of the Year – Jackie Kot

Jackie showed up for the first race of the year at Oconomowoc with a plastic big box store board and an incredibly positive attitude. She immediately engaged with folks, asked questions, made friends. It wasn’t long before she started registering for more races, showing up for group paddles, and chipping in for AirBnB’s. She’s also a great photographer who started brining her camera to events. She also found her way to the podium twice. We look forward to having Jackie as a fixture in our community for years to come! Here’s what Jackie had to say about the award:

“To me, the Female Rookie of the Year Award has meant acceptance without judgement. The SUP community has been the most supportive and genuine group of people I have ever known. It has been is an honor to learn this sport with a group of people whose talents run far and wide beyond paddle boarding.”

Rookie of the Year – Aaron Lugo

Aaron came to paddle boarding through 4the22, a group who provides paddling experiences to first responders and vets as a coping mechanism for the stress of those occupations. It’s also a way of building suicide prevention awareness. Aaron dove right into paddle boarding and was the recipient of the programs’ first “Board for Our Heroes” give-a-way. Not content to just enjoy the recreational aspects, Aaron took his new board straight to the racecourse, competing in 5 events with multiple podium finishes. Aaron sent-along a few words about his award:

“This past year has had so many ups and downs that impacted me. Being out there with the Midwest Paddle League is one of the most memorable things in my life. My love for stand-up paddle boarding has a lot to do with the community and the joy you all bring me. It was a great honor getting rookie of the year, and when I look at it, I will remember all those times on the water with the community and what is yet to come.“

Paddler of the Year – Laura Kinne

Laura defines stoke. Always ready with a smile and hug, she is one of the folks who organizes group paddles, brings friends to events. She’s always taking and sharing pictures. She finds ways of getting people involved without even realizing she’s doing it. People just gravitate towards her, and she personifies what it means to be Paddler of the Year. Laura in her own words:

“The last race of year is always bittersweet, I love to race, and the MWPL community.  I know I won’t see a lot of the community again until June, so I try to soak it all in. MWPL is community first.  I was surprised and honored to win MWPL 2020 female paddler of the year. 2020 was definitely different but I was still able to race 4 times this year. I’m grateful for all of it!”

Paddler of the Year – Harrison Withers

I wrote a whole big long bit about myself here.

I will say that I am grateful and humbled. I was shocked that people thought of me this way or think me deserving of this honor.

Photo Doug Vojtko

Women’s Long Distance Champion – Kirsten Marina Lefeldt

There is little doubt on who the fastest woman in the Midwest is, Kirsten has won every race she has entered by a considerable margin. Kirsten trains hard, and she gets faster every year. She was a top finisher in the 11 Cities Tour last year, and is finished #3 in the APP Fast Track program. Perhaps more importantly, she gets other people on the water more than just about anyone. Through her affiliation with the Lincoln Park Boat Club and ChicagoSUP, she runs group paddles, learn to paddle programs, an is personally responsible for getting at least 4 new racers to register for events this year alone. Kirsten reflects:

“On March 26th I made the news being the last crazy person out on the lake in Chicago getting a training paddle in while the city was in the process of closing our beaches.

On September 19 I’m at the MWPL season finale, accepting an award that easily could’ve been given to everyone who helped keeping the stoke alive all year, finding creative ways to to what we love! MWPL, we made it happen!”

Men’s Long Distance Champion – Karl Eugster

Karl has been a fixture on the Midwest paddling scene for as long as anyone can remember. He is soft-spoken and kind always willing to lend a hand, and always involved in whatever activities are taking place before and after the race is done. Last season, Karl finished in 5th place despite being on a 12’6”. This year, he stepped up to a 14’ foot board and got considerably faster. Karl didn’t win any races this season outright, but he went to ALL the races, and never finished lower than 5th and made the podium 5 times. Karl commented:

“Wow Midwest paddle league points leader, I have been points leader on 12’6 sup before now this year on 14′, I’m happy I was able to join all 7 official Midwest events plus a bunch virtual races, I’m really enjoying this awesome Midwest community we have and looking forward to next year.”

Sponsor of the Year – Aqua Adventures

When the pandemic hit this year, we immediately refunded any sponsorship dollars we had collected and forgiven all sanctioning fees. We knew times were going to rough for a lot of people and we didn’t feel good about taking people’s money when we didn’t know if there were going to be any races. Aqua Adventures told us to keep the money. It doesn’t cost a ton to run the league, most of our income goes to awards, which we cut WAY back on this season, but we do have some expenses related to advertising, hosting, domain registration and stuff like that. Aqua Adventures kept the lights on.

Aqua Adventures has been there since the beginning with the Midwest Paddle League, which is especially remarkable considering that they don’t operate in the Midwest. They are a San Diego retail, rental, and tour business that believes in what we are trying to do and has always stepped up to the plate in a big way.

Thoughts from the Board

Bernie Isacovici, board member for the Midwest Paddle League took a moment to reflect on the 2020 Season:

“2020 started off well for me personally, as I traveled to Miami in February, where I got to paddle and run a marathon. In March, I traveled to LA to run the marathon there. Things started to seem strange at that point. Two days after I got home from LA our lives changed in a way that I would have never imagined. The pandemic was announced and we stayed home until June. We did not know if the league would have a season or not. Cancellation after cancellation and postponement after postponement. It was depressing to say the least. But it turned around, and how! We had our first live race in Oconomowoc, WI and were able to have 7 races this season. Given the circumstances, this was a real success. The number of people attending the races was reassuring. We were able to have our community together while practicing social distancing and taking measures to stay healthy and safe. Although I was not able to personally attend our Gun Lake season finale, I lived it virtually. Life gave us lemons, and we made the best damn lemonade we could make with what we had. The 2020 paddle season in the midwest was a success. We learned so much and look forward to making 2021 even more amazing. Our slogan “Community first, competition second,” was paramount, not only in paddling but in our lives this year. Thank you all for being a part of this community and I look forward to being part of creating an amazing and exciting season next year!”

About the Midwest Paddle League

Welcome to the Midwest Paddle League – designated for paddlers, by paddlers. If you’ve never raced before, or you race most weekends, with kids races, short races, long races, sprints and more… there is an event for YOU! Come for the challenge, stay for the camaraderie. Here in the Midwest, it’s COMMUNITY FIRST. COMPETITION SECOND.

The Midwest Paddle League is proudly sponsored by Aqua Adventures, Footstake, and Paddle Monster.