Taking a Stand: Stand Up Paddle Boarding Debuted at 2018 USA Games

by Jill Hammergren

July 25, 2018

A new and exhilarating competition debuted at the USA Games in Seattle with 22 Special Olympics athletes from six states opting to stand for their sport. Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Boarding, a sport that's sweeping the nation on urban and rural lakes, rivers, and oceans for fitness and relaxation, is now a competitive sport for some Special Olympics athletes. SUP is done on a board similar to a surf board and athletes use a long paddle to propel themselves across the water around a pre-determined course for a timed race. SUP at Special Olympics first started in Florida.

"A parent came to me in 2010 asking for us to add Stand Up Paddle Boarding at our regional games in the Naples area," said MJ Wiebling of Special Olympics Florida, "We researched it and because we weren't sure of the safety, in the first year, we decided to allow six athletes to sit on a paddle board and paddle with an experienced paddler."

In the 2011, Ruth Holland joined Wiebling in offering SUP to Special Olympics athletes in the Key West region.  At that time, the two also decided that Special Olympics athletes could compete at Stand Up Paddle Boarding and enjoy great success at all levels. "Anyone can do this sport. It's a sport they can do for life," Holland said, "And the paddle boarding community is very welcoming – if you can paddle, you're welcome."

After the first year, Wiebling and they eliminated the need for the additional paddler on the board with the athletes. Additionally, Wiebling, Holland, and Amie Dugan, the former VP of Marketing for SO Florida, now VP of Organizational Development, Special Olympics North America, developed a coach's certification for SUP. "There are so many great things about this sport. It builds core strength through the constant stabilization and paddling required. It builds independence and self-confidence because it's just you out on the water," said Dugan, "Athletes of any age and ability can do stand up paddle. It's something they can do anywhere for the rest of their lives and that makes it a very inclusionary sport."

By 2014, the sport evolved statewide in Florida. Currently, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Texas all offer SUP. By showcasing the sport at the national level, organizers hope more athletes and Special Olympic programs will be inspired to offer SUP. "I've been so excited for so long to bring this sport to Special Olympics. And to see them here at the USA Games, it's just amazing," said Wiebling, "It's awesome to have six states involved, but our next goal is to get Stand Up Paddle Boarding into World Games."