When the International Canoe Federation (ICF) first named Oklahoma City as the U.S. stop on their stand up paddle world championship racing tour, people questioned their choice of venue. Oklahoma City??! However, the World Paddlesport Festival weekend in OKC proved to be one of the defining moments in the world of competitive SUP racing. Harrison Withers reports.
How did we get to Oklahoma City?
It was early March and snow still blanketed much of the northern hemisphere. Russia had invaded Ukraine just a few weeks earlier. The world of sport scrambled to move or cancel any event that was to take place in Russia. The International Canoe Federation was in a tough spot, the Canoe Sprint Super Cup and 3rd event in the SUP World Cup was scheduled to take place in Moscow, just a few weeks before the World SUP Championships in Gdynia, Poland.
The ICF made the best decision possible and made the obvious choice to move the event to Oklahoma.
That’s right, Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain, and the wavin’ wheat, can sure smell sweet, when the wind comes right behind the rain…
Careful examination of the rest of the lyrics do not reveal any mention of stand up paddling, SUP, or even water beyond the aforementioned rain. However, as it turns out, Oklahoma is known as a top destination for rowing. In fact, it’s been an official US Olympic/Paralympic training site since 2009. There was also previously a Super Cup event at the facility in 2021. Having been there before, it was a safe bet for the ICF.
There is also a ton to like about the race location. Riversport OKC is a publicly funded gleaming concrete and glass facility with three boathouses, a 4-story finishing tower, and a state-of-the-art whitewater center. In addition, it also has an amusement park feel with climbing walls, zip lines, and even surf and ski simulators. Most paddlers, myself included, would seriously visit his place on vacation even if the SUP carnival wasn’t in town.
ICF & Riversport OKC Form a Plan for Oklahoma SUP Racing
So the ICF knew Oklahoma, but Oklahoma didn’t know what’s SUP. But all that was about to change. The ICF tapped SUP veteran and Riversport OKC Lifestyle Director Brent Allen, and USA SUP’s Kristin Thomas to pull together a world class SUP competition in less than six months. Even with a world class facility, there was a lot to overcome. Not least of which was how do you get enough athletes to go to the middle of the country in August to a place that’s known for its 100oF plus temperatures? And, how do you get race boards to a location in the middle of the country where SUP is a relative unknown, and the nearest dealer is in Kansas?
Somehow, not only did they get boards there, but the ICF also managed to bring 45 paddlers to Oklahoma including some of the fastest men and women in the world. Of course, a $10k prize purse didn’t hurt for those who decided to partake in a weekend of SUP racing. Had the stand up paddle world realized what kind of a world-class event this would become, the numbers would certainly have been much higher.
The World Paddlesport Festival is Born in Oklahoma City
The entire weekend of activity was dubbed “The World Paddlesport Festival” and really consisted of three events: ICF Canoe and Kayak Super Cup, ICF SUP World Cup Event #3, and Red Bull Rapids which was a build your own boat and see if it makes down the rapids in one piece while wearing a costume type event. Within the SUP competition there were three types of racing available; Sprints, Technical, and Distance. One registration fee signed you up for all three. The net effect was that folks who wouldn’t normally do things like sprints, like said author, found themselves expanding their horizons. Racing took place over three days with qualifiers for sprints and technical races on Friday, finals for sprints and technical on Saturday, and the distance race on Sunday.
As a participant, the fact that this was not going to be a “typical” US paddle event started at registration. The process was painless. The packet was clean and tidy and the swag was of great quality. But the real difference was after you checked in. First, you were ushered in front of a green screen where your picture was taken. Next, all participants recorded a 15 second video to be used in the live broadcast quality live stream. You read that right, it wasn’t ON TV, but it was live on YouTube with full graphics and Commentary by Brent Allen and guests. As a competitor, it was super cool to watch the stream, learn from your mistakes and see your name up in lights. Head on over to the Planet Canoe YouTube channel and check it out for yourself.
Opening Day in OKC: Sprint & Technical Racing
Friday morning started with the 300M sprint qualifiers. The canoes and kayaks went first and then the SUP’s got going about 10:30am. Sprint heats were run like clockwork with a sprint race starting every 7-8 minutes. Everyone knew what order and what lane they were in in advance and the whole thing ran super-smooth. This is really where the ICF shined. They know how to do this kind of racing. The starter got people lined up incredibly efficiently and sounded the horn. The lanes were perfectly straight and picture perfect just like you’d see in the Olympics. The finish line featured photo finish technology. The top 2 finishers passed on to the Semi Finals, 3-5 went to the quarter finals and the rest were eliminated.
Connor Baxter displayed his usual sprint dominance with Daniel Hasulyo in the first heat of Open Men. The Jakes of Portwood and Graham cleaned up the second heat. Eri Tenorio edged out Bodie Van Allmen in the third. Sprint canoeist Ian Ross crossed over and made a valiant effort.
In the first round of the Women’s open, Katniss Paris upset Kim Barnes by .02 of a second in the first heat. In the second heat, sprint canoeist Ten Kusaka decided to try her hand on a stand up and took the top spot followed by Jennifer James. The third heat featured April Zilg followed by Juliette Duhaime.
The Men’s Master class (45+) was hotly contested all weekend starting with the first of three heats won by Alex Sandler with Aleksy Synkov getting the pass to the semis. Flying fish riders John Batson lead founder John Meskauskas in the second heat. Bryan Block lead Brenden Sweetman in the third.
Onto the quarterfinals, top two advanced with the remainder eliminated. Steve Miller and Josh Smart added themselves to the Semi Finals in Open Men, Tracy Hines and Katherine Wallace in Open Women, and James Nickerson and Morris Pallet in Men’s Masters.
Technical Heats: 5 Buoys in Star Pattern
After the Quarterfinals were complete, the course was reconfigured for the technical heats. 5 buoys were set in a star-pattern, with three lefts and two rights covering just shy of 700M. For this race organizers decided to use pneumatic gates that rose above the water. Competitors would nose in to the gate tripping a sensor letting the starter know they where in position. The gates would then drop allowing the race to begin. Since the gate were really intended to be used for sprint lane racing it spaced the competitors out fairly wide, putting those in the outside lanes further from the first buoy than those in the middle lanes. That’s something that will have to be looked at for future events. As with the sprints, the top 2 from each heat advanced directly to the semi finals with finisher 3-5 going to a quarter final.
Men’s Open advancers were Jake Portwood over Bodie Von Allmen, Connor Baxter over Eri Tenorio, and Daniel Hasulyo over Jake Graham. Women’s Open feature Katniss Paris over Tracy Hines, Kimberly Barnes over Juliette Duhaime, and April Zilg over Jennifer James. The Men’s Masters featured John Batson once again over John Meskauskas, James Nickerson over Adam Pollock, and Michael Schweitz over Karl Eugster.
Quarterfinal advancers were Miller/Smart in Open Men, McCoy/Wallace in Open Women, and Block/Paillet in Masters.
Racing was done for the day just after 2pm giving participants a chance to rest up before Friday night’s World Party which featured food and drink, and Olympic style flag parade, and local riders demoing their skills on the facilities surf simulator. The evening was capped off with a full-scale fireworks show, but with racing the next day, the crowd had thinned by the grand finale. Regardless, it was and impressive party and personally I enjoyed watching the younger world cup athletes from different countries “interact”.
Oklahoma City Showcases Top Tier Paddling: Semis & Finals
Saturday morning got started with the Sprint Semi-Finals. Once again, the top 2 finishers from each heat advanced, this time to “Final A” with the remainder passing to a consolation round dubbed “Final B”. In Men’s Open Baxter/Von Allmen and Portwood/Hasulyo advanced. Zilg/Paris and Barnes/Duhaime for the Ladies. Meskauskas/Sandler and Batson/Block in Masters.
In the end of the Sprint Competition John Batson stood atop the Master’s podium flanked by Bryan Block and John Meskauskas. April Zilg dominated while Katniss Paris just edged out Kim Barnes. Connor Baxter continued his sprint dominance with Daniel Hasulyo and Jake Portwood rounding out the podium in Men’s Open.
Technical Finals Give Paddlers a Run for the Prize Pocket
After conclusion of the Sprints, the technical Semi-Finals were up, once again, top to finishers went to “Final A”, with the remainder of each heat placed in the “Final B” consolation race.
The first heat saw Eri Tenorio and Jake Portwood advance to the Final A along with second heat top finishers Connor Baxter and Daniel Hasulyo. Juliette Duhaime bested Katniss Paris and Zilg finished ahead of Barnes to set up the women’s Final A. In the Men’s Masters John Batson continued his winning was with Adam Pollack in tow. John Meskauskas and Bryan Block finished out the lineup for the finals.
Red Bull Rapids Offers Excitement to Festival Event
Other events then took center stage including kayak and canoe relay races and the Red Bull build your own boat and try-not-to-die-in-it contest. Also known as the Red Bull Rapids, the event featured watercraft of dubious construction and dubious materials piloted by persons of dubious experience levels while wearing costumes the matched the aforementioned dubious watercraft launched down a pretty serious looking set of man-made rapids designed to test the heartiest of whitewater enthusiasts. A large crowd of locals were on hand to witness the event, and while the first few participants were entertaining, the author choose to remove himself from the almost 100-degree heat until the evening race schedule.
You read that right, evening race schedule. This place has lights! In addition to canoe and kayak finals, the SUP Technical Finals were scheduled for the evening session. Quite a few locals lined the riverbanks with lawn chairs and were active if not fascinated by the SUP competition. The Men’s Masters was first up where John Batson once again captured the top prize, John Meskauskas and Brian Block swapped positions on the podium from the sprints. For the Women, April Zilg once again took top billing followed By Juliette Duhaime and Kim Barnes. In the Men’s Open division, Connor Baxter once again found his way too the top, along with Jake Portwood and Eri Tenorio. More fireworks ensued…literally. The fireworks bill alone for this event had to be more than the revenue for most major US races. This included a blast as the winner crossed the finish line. Someone probably should have warned poor April Zilg who was the first to receive the salute and looked as though she might have had a small coronary infraction.
Sunday Distance Funday Wraps Up ICF Oklahoma City Stop
Sunday morning was dedicated to the distance race, and while it was the main event for most participants, it kind of had the distinct feeling of something that was happening after-the-fact. Seems most of the kayak and canoe folks had either slept in or gone home. It was breezy, enough to present a little challenge, but not enough to make it a struggle. The unique sprint race-oriented location limited the course options and in the end a course was set consisting of one longer lap and two shorter laps adding up to a total of just over 8k. There was some grumbling about the shorter distance than usual, but organizers had to play with the cards they were dealt. The water start consisted of two waves, men and women.
For the Men’s open it was all Daniel Haysulyo, who broke away and finished almost a full two minutes ahead of Bodie Von Allmen. Eri Tenorio was a mere 6 seconds behind Bodie and for the first time in the weekend, Conner Baxter found himself on the outside looking in.
The Men’s Master’s class was no slouching affair with John Batson making a clean sweep of the weekend. While he was first in-class, he was also 6th over-all. All of this left perennial bridesmaid John Meskauskas in 2nd. Kevin Sampson was able to put himself on a podium for the first time in the weekend placing third. Two-time medalist on the weekend Bryan Block was edged off the podium by about 5 seconds. The entire Master’s field completed the distance in just over one hour, making for close competition from front to back. Which makes the author feel less bad about his last place finish.
Women's Distance: April Zilg Falls Short to Kim Barnes
In the women’s open division, Kim Barnes dug deep and put the hurt on April Zilg preventing a gold medal shutout. In one of the more exciting finishes on the weekend, Katniss Paris charged the finish with Juliette Duhaime in hot pursuit. The photo finish showed a less than 2 second margin.
For this first time of the weekend, there were enough women to have a Master Class race which was won handily by Linda McCoy, with Veronica Sosa claiming the silver medal.
Awards were watched from the water by most astride their boards, in exhaustion, or shock, or just disbelief that it was all over. Speaking only for myself, having the distance race be a little shorter was welcome after two prior days of paddling. It felt nice to dangle my feet in the water and offer my congratulations to some of the fastest paddlers in our sport.
It’s been a couple days since most if not all of us have returned to our homes, a lucky few find themselves frantically preparing for Gydnia. Poland just about a week from now. Despite life moving on, there is a lasting buzz in the SUP community about OKC. The ICF did a lot of things right:
- Awesome location
- Solid and well-organized all-business around registration, heats, and lane assignments
- Super sucessful multi discipline format
- Major event atmosphere with Olympians and Olympic hopefuls
- Cross-over appeal for athletes and spectators
- Night racing with a real amount of spectators
As for the things that could be improved on, that’s a conversation better left to the competitors and the ICF. If you’re reading this article, and you weren’t in OKC, then there is no reason to publicly throw shade. One exception, I really wish someone would have told me about sandburs before I walked 15 feet across the grass in bare feet to get my board. I’m still trying to get a few of those things out.
One thing is for certain, a new standard has been set for what constitutes “good”, and we have been subject to a preview of what SUP competition is going to look like on the world stage. I’m not sure we need as many fireworks, but most everything else represents an elevation of our sport in positive ways.
Results for all the events can be found here.
Written by: Harrison Withers
Stay tuned for more from the ICF World Championships in Gyndia, Poland!