Midwest Paddle League Competes 5th Race in the Land of Cheese and Beer: Midwest Paddle Festival

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

(Authors note: I could not personally attend this year’s event, this article was compiled from the personal experiences and recollections of Bernie Isacovici and Doug Vojko.)

Oconomowoc /oʊˈkɑːnəməˌwɔːk, WI

Other than having one of the best SUP scenes in the country, the Midwest is filled with things that have kept their Native American names. In this case, Oconomowoc, is the Potawatomi term for “waterfall”. And, let’s face it, it’s just fun to say.


In addition to being a cool word, it’s also the home of Paddleboard Specialists, one of the leading SUP shops in the US, and the organizer of one of the longest running SUP racing events in the area, The Midwest Paddle Festival sponsored by Blackfish Paddles and ONE Ocean Sports. This was the 9th consecutive running of this annual race.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug VjotkoOne of the great things about paddling as a sport is the mindfulness that permeates the community, whether is be charity, safety, or just doing our best to honor our collective community. This event was no exception, as it also served as a memorial for local paddler Donato “Rick” Guerra who tragically passed from a medical emergency while paddling with friends this past October. A moment of silence was observed prior to the awards and all awards featured a picture of Rick as he participated in the memories of all in attendance.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

In addition to the mindfulness of Rick, the event is run as a non-profit benefiting several local charities including the Clean Lakes Alliance, Lapham Peak Snowmaking Project, and the Oconomowoc Sports Booster Program.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

The event took place on the clear and warm water of Lac La Belle. Temps were in the 90’s and going for a swim was part of the fun. The course was similar to years’ past with a fairly technical 3 buoy, 1.5-mile lap. The races started in three heats, beginning with the fun paddle, then two laps for the 3-mile, and finishing with 4 laps for the 6-mile competitors. The weeds in the lake did present an extra challenge to the early heats, but where cleared out for the most part for the long race. All races featured a water start, with a running shore finish.

The women’s short race was won by Holly Ludden with an almost 2-minute margin over 2nd place. Deb Klapperich and Shalyla Dvorak had a more spirited race, finishing 2-3 with a margin of less than a minute.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

On the Men’s side, local Kent Imig came out swinging for his first race of the season, going toe-to-toe with Midwest Paddle League director Doug Vojtko. While the two fought early, Kent was able to pull out a margin towards the end of the race, with Kevin VonBergen rounding out the top 3.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

The Women’s long race was dominated by series regular Kirsten Lefeldt, who has won every race she’s entered so far this season. Incidentally, Kirsten is also the organizer of the up coming Chicago Lagooapalooza and Lake Michigan Challenge which is in just a few weeks, August 3-4. The long race podium was completed by Kattie Carpenter and Rachel Demitrios in 2nd and 3rd respectively. Kirsten commented:

The Midwest Paddle Festival turned up the heat! By that I don’t just mean the scorching hot outside temperature. Racers concurred every lap with determination and the organizers where on point. We did not want this day to end, so many of us gathered afterwards to share paddle stories for a few more hours. Big thank you to Paddleboard Specialists!

The Men’s long race was similarly dominated by Midwest super-star Ben Gareiss who followed up on his 3rd place finish at the Great Lakes SUP Challenge just one week prior. Bryan Block and Frank Drelling took 2nd and 3rd.

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

Race winner Ben Gareiss:

Stoked to win the 6-mile elite race in some super-hot conditions today. Thanks to Cris, Susanna & all the volunteers to put on such a great event! This is the longest running SUP race in the Midwest and definitely one you don’t want to miss

The unofficial iron woman award goes to Leslie Maclin who did the 3 AND 6-mile races back to back in a show of endurance and resilience.

As with all Midwest Paddle League sanctioned events, this event was about more than just the races. Many people new to the sport, were able to experience the sense of community. Race organizer Cris Rosario commented:

“It was great to see the people new to the sport get out and compete, and to see the improvement of paddlers over the last few years.”

Midwest Paddle Festival Photos by Doug Vjotko

The awards ceremony was a celebration of accomplishment. Raffles were abundant, including the give-a-way of the last of the limited-edition Midwest Paddle League race jerseys. As mentioned previously, all awards featured a poignant reminder of the life and love of the sport that Rick Guerra brought to the community.

Next week end, the Midwest paddle league heads to the Up North SUP Classic in in beautiful Beulah, MI in the northwest corner of the state. Crystal Lake is another long-standing Midwest SUP racing cornerstone event that promises destination worthy scenery and a fun week end of both inland as well as downwind competition. 

Coming up on Saturday July 27th, paddlers in the Midwest and visiting from other areas will have the choice of three different events all on the same day! Paddlefest Clear Lake (Iowa), Washburn Across the Bay (Wisconsin), and Lexington Huron SUP Challenge all offer Midwest paddlers a chance to add points to the series rankings.

Photos of the event are available on Doug Vjotko’s Facebook page here

About the Midwest Paddle League

Welcome to the Midwest Paddle League – designated for SUP paddlers, by SUP 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.