By Pete Williams
MIAMI BEACH – The much-ballyhooed “U.S. Open of SUP” debuted on South Beach today and if you were looking for a postcard-perfect setting and a crowd of spectators where thong-clad women outnumbered stand-up paddleboarders, you came to the right place.
We love thong-clad spectators, especially when they keep drifting into our camera lens when we’re trying to shoot paddleboarders. But we were expecting more than 65 athletes to show for a shot at $35,000 in prize money, a record SUP purse according to the Exclusive Sports Marketing announcer who mentioned it at least 65 times over the course of two sweltering late-morning races.
You’d think ESM, which is based in South Florida and has put on triathlons and volleyball events forever, could have drawn more athletes from its home market. As it was, it seemed at least a third of the group came from out of town, including Connor Baxter and Candice Appleby, who both flew in from Hawaii and won the male and female divisions, respectively, of the 5-mile elite race, which featured 37 athletes.
Baxter, who will be 17 this week, won $6,000 as the male winner, finishing in 52:04, more than a minute ahead of Chase Kosterlitz (53:17) of St. Petersburg, who took home $4,000 as runner-up.
Appleby (55:33) won $4,000, narrowly holding off Annabel Anderson of New Zealand in a five-loop race that borrowed its format from the popular Battle of the Paddle in California. After each lap, athletes exited the ocean and circled through a 20-yard water stop before reentering the water.
The format, along with top-notch race shirts, cool tiki trophies, and a tent city of sponsors including Mix1, 5-Hour Energy, and a coconut water provider, gave the U.S. Open a big-event feel.
That’s what ESM promised when it announced the event in February and getting Ark Paddleboards to pony up the prize purse drew some attention. Though the date was moved up a week, it still came in the SUP high season, what with Hennessey’s World SUP and Paddleboard Championship (Sept. 17) and the Battle of the Paddle (Sept. 24-25)
Still, those are California races that only impact which pros attend. Surely there are more rank-and-file paddlers in Florida, even with entry fees that resemble Olympic-distance triathlon rates. (I considered entering the elite race today but was told it was $175. Ouch.)
The race itself was well organized, even with starting times pushed back to 10 a.m. for the 3-mile open race and 11:30 a.m. for the elite. I continue to wonder why SUP races don’t begin at 8 a.m, especially in Florida during the summer months.
Baxter, one of the top SUP racers, said it was by far the hottest race he’s ever participated in.
“It was a great race,” said Baxter, known for his unorthodox but effective stroke where he chokes down on the paddle. “But the heat really gets to you out there.”
Twenty-eight athletes raced in the three-mile stock board division. Trish Miller, a yoga/SUP instructor whom I met during Brody Welte’s Paddle Fit class in Clearwater earlier this year, won the women’s division with a time of 38:15.
Not bad considering she and her Key West contingent jumped in the race with just two and a half hours of sleep. “And I borrowed a board,” she said.
Bottom line: This event shows promise and if ESM is willing to move it to cooler weather in November or December, when there’s nothing else on the race calendar and the SUP world would be thrilled to visit South Beach, it might have something special.