Kim Barnes – the quiet outlier who beats the World Champs

Only a few others would have noted, especially those outside the US. Who is Kim Barnes?

Words: Ginnie Betts
Photos: Kim Barnes & Team: Florida Girl Photography

Why Kim Barnes should be every parent-athlete’s hero!  
I’d just finished racing the Head of the Dart in Devon, UK and was on my way to GBSUP in Cardiff when I saw that Kim Barnes had won the Carolina Cup 2023. “What? No way!” was my immediate reaction, followed by “Doh! Of course, she did.” I first met Kim, who hails from Florida, at the 2019 Carolina Cup, and again later in the year at the Gorge Challenge race in Oregon. She was a strong paddler then, but since joining the Flying Fish crew, I’d noted her strength, speed, and results had been on an even sharper upward curve. 

Only a few others would have noted, especially those outside the US. Who is Kim Barnes? Commentators scratched their heads in the UK. Despite several years of excellent results amongst the World’s best in a sport whose upper echelons have normalised a culture that gives heavy emphasis to self-promotion through social media (arguably disproportionate to its relatively small numbers), Kim doesn’t have the time or inclination for that kind of off-water gaming. I asked her about this refreshingly counter-cultural approach, “I’ve never been very active on social media, and I can’t travel as I would like to. I don’t spend much time on social media; if I paid too much attention, I’d probably count myself out. I can’t compare my life with theirs, and it discourages me a bit; I don’t have the luxury of that much time to train and travel. I just try to stay focused and make the time I have on the water count.”    

And focus she does. At 46 years of age, with a full-time job and two children’s lives to manage, she still succeeded in beating not one but three World Champions (Candice Appleby, Duna Gordillo and Seychelle) in one of the most prestigious races in the US SUP calendar. Following the event, Kim’s Flying Fish teammate, Stephanie Shielder, who also competes to a high level, graciously stepped in to highlight just how remarkable a win this was,  “For years, I’ve believed she was the most underrated paddler on the planet. I knew she belonged at the top, and I am overjoyed that she will finally get the recognition she deserves. What is so incredible about Kim is that she is a full-time teacher and mom – she doesn’t have time for two-a-days [training]. She barely has time to eat a sandwich at lunch. And yet, she still makes time for friends and community. She is so focused and so positive and seems to have boundless energy. She’s gone out of her way to help me become a better paddler, too.”

Organisation, determination and resilience
We all like to have heroes that we can relate to, right? I’m sure fellow parents who race, regardless of the sport, will immediately understand the enormity of what Kim has managed to achieve. Reaching that level of athleticism around the edges of an already exhausting and relentless working parent’s life requires a level of organisation, determination and resilience to stress that most of us can only aspire to. Kim amusingly illustrated to me the way she fitted her race-specific training into the week before the Carolina Cup race, “Days before the race, I wanted to practice beach starts into waves, just go out, turn, come back. I only had a 45-minute window after work and before getting the kids, and I hoped to get five or six starts in. But I went out, and the conditions were terrible; a shark surfaced near the reef, and I fell in. It was super frustrating, I rode back into shore, knowing the shark was out there, but I needed to do it again – this was my last chance to practice before picking the kids up!” 

Ironically, in a 22km distance race that can’t be classified as flat water, ocean or surf (because the route takes in all three formats across Wrightsville Beach, the inlets and inland waterways behind the beach), Kim won the race in the last few hundred metres because she was realistic about her deficiencies in the surf. In a thrilling finish, between Kim and Candice, Kim recalls, “I knew I needed to avoid too much shore break because she’s so much stronger than I am in the surf, so I took a different line than the one Candice took, and it worked out for me.”  

Given her calibre of paddling, it’s pretty clear that other races would work out for her too. However, being unable to travel during term time and with a husband that works at sea, opportunities to travel and race are few and far between. I asked her which events she particularly regretted missing, “I would have loved to have attended the ICF World Championships at Gdynia, Poland, last year, but the dates fell during term time.”  

I wanted to learn more about Kim’s sporting background and what led her to SUP. She began her athletic life as a gymnast until around the age of 15. After breaking her leg three times through impact injuries, she switched to competitive springboard diving throughout college. Following college, she picked up running, wakeboarding, kiting and surfing through her late 20s, when she met her husband and started her family.  

Kim didn’t start paddling until she was 37 when a friend loaned her a board, and she loved it. Self-taught, she entered a local race in 2013 and realised there was a scene she could get involved with. Often lacking alternative childcare, Kim would turn up to her regular ‘Tuesday Club night’ with two small children positioned on the front of her board. Maybe this particular style of resistance training built the power and strength of the stroke that she is known for today! In time, Kim began to take clinics with established racers and soon entered more serious races during the summer break. Stealthily, behind the scenes, she has become one of the USA’s strongest paddlers and arguably one of the fastest in their forties. 

Her training routine includes four paddles a week, three on a work night and one on the weekend. She is blessed with a strong and challenging training group of male and female Flying Fish team riders who help push her paddling. Lately, she has started to include some gym work and tries to fit a run and some yoga into her weekly sessions. When ashore, her husband Steve is very supportive of her athletic goals; he’s a waterman himself, and they tag-team the childcare to make it work between them.

I asked Kim about ‘Mum guilt’, which often accompanies the process of a woman carving out a space to pursue their personal goals outside of their children’s lives. We both noted that ‘Dad guilt’ is not so oft-quoted a phrase!  “As a woman, a mother, you have every excuse not to put yourself first. But we all need to at some point, if only for our well-being, balance and mental health. With paddling, I have to accept that other girls will have done a lot more training than I do, but I say to myself, ‘You just need to do something’ It might not be a long session, but something is always better than nothing. There are days when you just can’t go when home responsibilities take precedence. Even in the lead-up to the Carolina Cup, my head wasn’t there mentally to compete; I just knew I had to keep training, and eventually, my head would come around.”    

Flying Fish
Last, I asked Kim about the Flying Fish board team (Florida) that she is part of – how did she come to join them, and what is it about their boards that work for her?  

“In 2017, I was recovering from back surgery, and John (Meskauskas) had started making boards. I obviously couldn’t paddle then; I was using a walker! He invited me to represent the company. I was like, ‘John, I can barely stand up,’ but he went ahead and designed a custom board for me, which, six months later, I could paddle and loved it. It was so much lighter than other boards I had used.”  

All of Flying Fish’s boards are carbon custom builds explicitly tailored to a rider’s paddling ability, skill and preferences for shape and volume. They come with the Flying Fish logo and beautiful personalised colours, and every board is uniquely shaped for the paddler it’s designed for.

Kim and the Flying Fish team are also strongly involved in the annual charitable fundraising race: ‘Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis’, which sees paddlers race on 82 miles of open ocean from the Bahamas to Florida to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. An incredible race with a worthwhile cause. Go check it out at @crossingforcf and maybe give Kim a follow on @ksb56. Not that she’d likely notice.
Thanks for the interview Kim and we hope you make it to European shores one day soon!

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