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Editor's Note:

Kirsty is a SUP paddler from Burlington, Ontario who trains with Paddle Monster and this year decided to take her racing to the next level, successfully completing The Graveyard at the Carolina Cup for the first time and entering the ICF SUP World Championships in Gydnia, Poland.  Here Kirsty shares her experience and gives us a glimpse of what it’s like for a paddler competing in their first international event at the highest level.  


My trip to the 2022 ICF SUP World Championships

Something that began over 3 years ago was finally coming true.  I can still remember chatting with my coach Larry Cain after a training session, on our cooldown paddle coming in. He told me a story about results achieved after a dedicated off season of hard work that gave me hope of reaching an elite level of SUP racing.  I decided that day that I would keep to my Paddle Monster training schedule as much as humanly possible, being a single mom who worked fulltime. Despite working as a frontline healthcare worker through the Covid pandemic, I loved the whole process and looked forward to my training sessions.  They were immensely important to me to combat stress, and I knew they were the small bricks that would build what I wanted my SUP racing to look like. 

A few weeks ago I was finally on a flight to Gydnia Poland with my training partner Maddi LeBlanc, and I couldn’t have been more excited! I had no idea what to expect, this was only my second international competition.  I had signed up for all 3 races (sprints, technical and distance) and trained my heart out, the rest I knew was going to be an epic paddling experience. 

We arrived at beautiful Gydnia beach on the Baltic Sea a few days before the races, and we went into the board holding area.  Almost 600 racers were competing and I’d never seen so many boards in one place before! My SUP heart was bursting.  It felt huge and yet in a short time felt cozy and familiar. I met up with old friends, some new ones I’d made at Carolina Cup earlier this year, and friends who I only knew on social media and could finally hug in person.  Registration happened, followed by every racer going to the Green Room to film an 8 second video that would be displayed during the live stream. I quickly figured out how to look up my heats for each race, everything was extremely well organized by the ICF and the Polish team of organizers. The atmosphere for the entire event was so fun… a rad DJ pumping tunes, multiple live feed screens for everyone to watch, on site food, vendors and more.  

Day 1 of racing for me was my heat of sprints, a 180m straight race in the “protected” water of the marina.  I kept my usual routine for race day and tried to channel the nerves into excitement at being there. It was a lovely 18C outside and winds around 10 km/h.  Once I got down to the board area I headed to the white officials tent to get checked in, hand over my accreditation badge and enter the competition/warmup area.  I lined up in lane 5 and focused on the sprint work I’d been working so hard on with Larry.  I had a plan to follow: 2-3 slow deep strokes to get the board moving, then increased stroke rate to get my board accelerated as quickly as possible, then settle into a fast travelling pace. I was surprisingly not nervous, I had no expectations here other than to race as well as I could.  And I did!  Everything felt locked in, and I made it through to the semifinals later that afternoon, such a great feeling!  By then the winds had changed significantly.  As we lined up in our lanes someone right beside me fell in just before the start went.  It was a struggle to keep our boards straight.  My good friend Ariel Amaral gave me lots of great advice this summer, and one was to practice your starts on your bad side too in case you need to in a race.  And that’s exactly what happened.  I didn’t have nearly as good a start as my first heat and ended up just missing the cut to move on to the final by one spot.  Still, I was stoked by the end of the day… I’d raced well, was able to watch other races and was SO inspired by all of the great athletes around me! 

Day 2 was the 16km distance race that was set up as 4 laps of 4km in a triangle formation. All week there were question marks about the weather forecast and if the race would proceed. A strong E wind had been blowing all night long at 35 km/h with gusts up to 50 km/h creating 4 foot waves. We went down to the beach and this was the reality of race morning. Howling winds up to 46 km/h, lots of bounce back of waves off the marina wall, and huge waves.  Andrey Kraytor did a live stream at 8:00am and you could barely hear him over the wind!  I’d been very excited to do this distance race, but I quickly decided it was beyond my capabilities.  I might have been able to do some of it but I knew I couldn’t finish it, and I had more races the following day. Of all the racers signed up for the distance, about 75% actually started, and of those only 40% actually finished the race.  One word… CARNAGE.  I’d never seen so many paddlers not get past the first buoy, or get picked up by rescue craft, or come in after 1 or even 3 laps of the course.  And I watched in awe as some paddlers did all 4 laps including pivot turns (say wha?!!) around the buoys. It seemed unanimous afterwards that it was the toughest race they’ve been in. That day I learned a lot just by standing on the beach watching, about weather conditions, race decisions, and the skill level of some of these athletes.  I had one thought when I left the beach: I want to be lining up for that kind of race one day.   

Day 3 was my technical heat, a race that started and finished on the beach, 1 km long and had 7 buoy turns. The sea was calmer, giving us 1 foot waves to navigate through. I’d done a lot of work on beach starts leading up to Carolina Cup, and got more experience doing them at my local Ontario SUP Series races this summer.  It felt good to see that I didn’t have to think too hard for my starts, they felt very natural.  Each heat of 8 racers would line up on the beach, and as one group went we would move up so that we were ready to go on time.  It was a mental exercise in staying focused and in the present.  I had a great start and managed to stay towards the front of the pack, finishing in the top 4 and moving on to a semifinal!  Later that afternoon my semifinal happened, the wind had picked up with gusts now around 27 km/h.  We had a fast race and on the return drive to the finish line I tried so hard to catch the racer in front of me.  I could hear my Canadian teammates screaming my name from the beach and it helped me paddle just a little bit harder.  In the end I missed going to the final by 1 spot. And as my coach pointed out if I’d been in the other semifinal I would be going to the final.  As I took my board back to the holding area, I had lots of thoughts about what I’d done well and what I could have done better.  Then I saw lots of messages from friends and family that they’d been watching online and screaming my name too.  That’s when the tears flowed… my races in Gydnia were done, I had proudly worn my Canada jersey, worked so hard to do well, and my people were all so proud of me. Luckily I had my awesome teammates there by my side for unending support: Maddi LeBlanc, Tim Oliver, Tamas Buday Jr, Dan Miller, Danielle Holdsworth and Emilie Fournel. 

My overall feeling during this entire experience and still to this day, is pure inspiration. Seeing the best athletes do pivot turns in the technical race in 2’ waves made me want to come home and get out in those conditions as much as possible to improve.  Seeing Connor Baxter sprinting in person was something to behold!  Racing against the best really shows you how you’ve progressed in your own training, and shows you what can be achieved, in a way unlike any other.

Here’s what I learned in Poland: 

  1. Pierogies are yummy, but the pasta place down the street is where it's at!
  2. Worrying about where your paddle bag is during flight layovers is next level.
  3. Packing your paddle into the bag to survive the flight…  also next level.
  4. Practicing running on sand is now on my list of skills to work on.
  5. It IS possible to do pivot turns in ocean-sized waves, so will start slowly practicing this and build my skills into handling bigger conditions. 
  6. It’s important to know your own capabilities and what kind of conditions you can realistically handle, all of which comes with spending time on the water and gently challenging yourself to go out in bigger waters.
  7. If you can’t be in the race, there is a lot to learn and experience just by watching.
  8. Racing when you’re truly not thinking about results or who you’re racing against, allows you to really perform your best.  
  9. The community of paddlers is at the heart of what makes SUP so incredible and fun, and this event was no different. Pros and amateurs alike all hanging out, watching races together, cheering, sharing stories… I loved every minute of it!
  10. There’s (almost!) always someone in the world who is faster than you, so it’s great to go to a big event like this and see how you’ve progressed and to learn what you can work on.  Already excited for 2023!

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