It’s still early at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida as people begin to arrive. Volunteers are busy unloading boards and setting up tables and buoys for the stand-up paddle (SUP) board course. The sun is out and it’s perfect Florida Keys weather for a SUP race.
Last fall, that bright sunrise had given way to balmy weather with enough wind to create a light chop. But those few waves didn’t deter the nearly 100 Special Olympics athletes who were eager and laughing on the beach – their enthusiasm bubbling over, they’re prepped by their certified coaches who help them read the water.
It’s a busy scene full of positive energy.
Opening the event with a formal ceremony, paddlers surround the Special Olympics torch, a longstanding symbol of hope for Special Olympics athletes worldwide. From the staging area the first group kneels on their boards with their coaches knee-deep in water, waiting for the start. At the sound of the whistle they begin to paddle – some still kneeling, while others pop up immediately. Representing a range of ages and abilities, each athlete finished their course – something any coach would be proud to see.
This weekend Special Olympics Florida will recreate the scene in Sarasota, hosting the largest stand-up paddle competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the state.
Special Olympics is a nonprofit that provides sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, believing that through sports is an ability to unlock joy and inspire others – opening minds to human giftedness and to accept, include and value all people. For more than 40 years, Special Olympics athletes have been competing in sports like basketball, tennis, golf and swimming in Florida. But it was during 2010 that the idea to bring stand up paddle to Special Olympics athletes became reality.
Central to that start was Lazy Dog, host of the WPA race The Key West Classic, a local supporter who worked to garner the support of big name paddlers and formalize the training that would mean safe paddling for people with intellectual disabilities. Similar interest had been sparked near Naples, Florida, after a Special Olympics parent hosted a local stand-up paddle fundraiser near their coastal home.
At that first event in Naples, six athletes with intellectual disabilities sat on paddleboards as an experienced paddler navigated the calm water. There were no competition rules for the Special Olympics athletes, but the athletes’ enthusiasm for paddleboarding was obvious.
That enthusiasm was a catalyst. Within months, local Special Olympics coaches and paddleboard supporters in Key West and Naples had rallied to enlist the help of SUP communities and ensure that more people with intellectual disabilities had the chance to experience life from a paddleboard.
Special Olympics volunteer and coach MJ Weibling is one of the supporters who recognizes the benefits of Stand Up Paddle for people with intellectual disabilities. She coaches several sports but soon realized that it’s those athletes who embrace swimming that gravitate to Stand-up Paddle, since they’re already comfortable in the water. “Aquatics lends itself to SUP – you see them get on the board and they shake at first. But then, one day, they are on their knees. And then they stand.” Weibling says of her athletes. Stand up paddle continues to be a discovery of confidence for many athletes as they first kneel and then eventually develop balance and progress to standing. Many families and coaches even see it as therapeutic.
Advocating for formal training and competition guidelines, Special Olympics coaches and the Florida SUP communities work together to help grow the sport. That partnership was key to expanding the sport. “Athletes are always number one, the most important part of what we do. But community support is number two. You have to have equipment and people who know how to use it and keep practices safe. This sport will not make it without them,” says Weibling.
Because Special Olympics never charges a fee to participate, companies and sponsors provide the essentials for practice and competition – things like boards, equipment and knowledge. Their support is diverse and covers Florida’s coastlines. Companies like Beach Bum Surf & Supply, Coreban, YOLO Board, Lazy Dog, Sweetwater Paddlesports, and True Blue Water Sports stepped in, working with local families and coaches to help make SUP a reality for more people with intellectual disabilities. Seeing the success of surfing and with a desire to continue growing the sport, Ron Jon Surf Shop came on as a statewide sponsor, further expanding opportunities for Special Olympics SUP competition in Florida.
As support extended throughout the state, Stand Up Paddle was on its way to being recognized as an official Special Olympics sport in Florida.
Within months of opening a SUP shop in 2011, owners Taylor Masiero and Brandon Greer found themselves on the water and coaching the half-dozen local Special Olympics athletes who were interested in the sport. Masiero says, “My favorite part is practicing and being on the water… We have athletes who have been doing this since the beginning. Now, watching them cross the finish line, when everyone is so excited makes [coaching] really exciting and really cool.” This year, their team of 14 Special Olympics athletes traveled 230 miles from Naples to participate in the SUP Invitational at Key West. “We kept grinding it out all summer – trying to dodge bad weather and to get as much practice as possible.”
They practice in the relatively calm waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast, along the protected shoreline that makes paddling the flat water easy. But it’s not just the wind in the Keys that will make this competition more of a challenge for their athletes. The growth of Special Olympics SUP programs in Naples and the Florida Keys helped to establish more training programs throughout Florida, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Cocoa Beach, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Panama City. About the growing popularity Masiero says, “It’s so competitive – now there’re east coast powerhouses like Miami. There are athletes who can out paddle me; one of them is on my team.”
One of those athletes is 15 year old Michael Tulipano, who’s also one of the original 27 athletes who attended that very first SUP Invitational at Key West three years ago. His first experience on a board was by chance. Joining three other Special Olympics athletes Michael got on a board with another paddler and it was pure joy for not only him, but his mom, too. His mom and SUP coach, Stephanie Dangler, has seen her son grow as a paddler and realizes the benefits of the sport for people with intellectual disabilities. Making friends and building confidence on the water, she sees that Michael has also come to define sportsmanship. “It’s really competitive but athletes enjoy more seeing their competitor’s success… and accomplishment in themselves. They glow. It’s amazing to watch. I’ve seen Michael in the lead, then turn around and paddle to come back and help another athlete behind him. My son is a good sport, maybe too much sometimes,” Dangler says, laughing.
With roots its in Naples and the Florida Keys, a passion for paddleboarding continues to spread across Florida, as hundreds of Special Olympics athletes in nearly 20 counties train and compete. Currently, all certified coaches are required to attend a Special Olympics Florida SUP coaches training school taught by coaches who helped to establish the sport. Continuous improvement has been vital to introducing more states to the sport, as Florida leads the nation developing the formal training programs and competition rules and regulations required by Special Olympics to ensure safe and fair competition. While one of those current requirements is that all Special Olympics SUP athletes have the ability to swim 25 meters independently, seeing the success of paraplegic competitors like Chuck Webb who uses a modified board has sparked interest in bringing the sport to even more people who use wheelchairs.
Ask any Special Olympics Florida athlete, coach or parent what lies in the future for SUP and Special Olympics and it’s unsurprisingly a personal quest for more. More competition in other states. More awareness for the benefits of paddling. And a persistent optimism that Florida will be the state to bring this still new Special Olympics sport to a national and global level of competition. It’s all very possible, considering the tenacity and deamination inherent in its competitors.