Words: Virginia Odetayo
Pics: Adam Gibbard
I was very fortunate to have the introduction that I did to the world of stand up paddle board racing. The Celtic Cup was being hosted by Ocean Sports in Carbis Bay, about 15 minutes from my home in West Cornwall. I’d only ever previously tried a spot of recreational paddling on an inflatable, and never having even seen a race board before, I was intrigued to know what it was all about. Needless to say, after spending a weekend getting to watch the likes of Jim Terrell, Fiona Wylde and Connor Baxter in action, I was completely hooked, but what really sealed the deal for me was the opportunity to enter the Cruiser fleet myself.
To give some context, I’m mum to three young boys, and at the time of the Celtic Cup, I was finally emerging from a very long stint of ‘early years’ parenting and all the joys and exhaustion that comes with that stage. Don’t get me wrong, my children mean everything to me, but as my youngest approached his third birthday I’d come to a place where my ‘edges’ had blurred somewhat with those of my kids and I’d lost touch with what motivated and drove me as an individual. Despite a background in gymnastics and dance, I barely exercised anymore – I was unfit and lacked challenge. This all changed, quite abruptly, as I battled my way around the course in rather challenging conditions. I loved the feeling of being out on the water, drawing on strengths I’d thought long lost, as I pushed against the elements. I finished cold, wet and out of my comfort zone, and yet at the same time, I felt more alive and connected with myself than I had done in a long time.
I joined St Ives Bay SUP club the following week and have not looked back. I’m so grateful for this club. It is led by some of the most talented paddlers in the country – Ollie Shilston, Glenn Eldridge and Damian Warner – yet it is also characterised by the humility, patience and openness of these athletes, who give their time freely to make paddle sports accessible to others.
After attending a couple of club nights I opted to join in with the early morning race board training sessions. This was nothing short of a baptism by fire, but also cemented my enthusiasm for the sport as I felt myself regaining fitness and strength. I’d never got up at the crack of dawn to train before, but this was aided by the incredible beauty of paddling in St Ives Bay and the privilege of doing so as part of a group. The ‘gang’ as Glenn calls us, comprises a very diverse group of people of different ages, abilities and backgrounds – all pushing each other on and motivated by a common love for ocean paddling (and quite possibly the banter – which is relentless!). Early mornings also fitted very well with family life, plus there’s a certain kind of ‘smug’ you feel at the school gate, knowing you were out in the water only an hour earlier.
Beginning to train with St Ives Bay SUP Club also coincided with my return to full time work. On the face of it, the timing did not look great, but actually it was the paddling that kept me sane and calm as we adapted to the pressures of a new family routine. All three of my sons and my husband have shown a lot of grace and support for my new passion – they see how happy it makes me. I enjoy the fact that my sons get to see me take on new challenges outside of the home. One of the sweetest moments for me was going into the second lap of the brutal BSUPA distance race to the sound of little voices shouting from the beach ‘come on mummy you can do it!’ And I did. Having grown up in Cornwall myself, I often regret not having taken up water sports as a child, and so I’m hoping my example, albeit later in life, will encourage them towards the water and the joy that is to be had out there.
To any woman reading this, who has yet to paddle, I would encourage you to seek out your local SUP club and give it a go. The rewards in physical and emotional wellbeing from being out on the water are huge and scientifically proven! Prior to starting SUP training, I’d thought that I couldn’t possibly juggle any more in my life, but somehow, the paddling has made the juggle easier. The physical and mental challenge of learning to move over the seas under my own strength and the contentment that comes from doing so in community, has brought great reward to my life. Not least the deeper sense of calm and renewal I feel after each session which helps me to give my best to my family. I checked in with my kids about this article, asking them to describe what they felt about mummy’s new sporting habit. They listed the good and the bad as follows: Elijah: ‘You go really fast now mum when you’re not falling off’. Benjy: ‘You’re fit and healthy’. Jacob: ‘It’s good to have a strong mum, but you’re not always there for cuddles in the morning’. Benjy: ‘you might get eaten by a shark’, Elijah: ‘yeah, a really BIG shark’.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that stand up paddling doesn’t need to hardcore or extreme. It can simply be about getting afloat and loving being away from the strains of modern life. When you set foot back onshore you feel refreshed and ready for ‘battle’ once again. If any other mums are looking for an activity to complement their everyday ‘work’ as a parent then you should seriously consider SUP – I’m glad I found it and you will be too…