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The ISA World Championships are always a highlight for Paddleboarders and Stand Up Paddle surfers and racers from all nations worldwide. It’s the same for me. There is something unique about the culture and energy around this event. Not only are the ISA’s arguably the most prestigious and competitive platform for our sports, but it’s also an outstanding platform for celebrating sportsmanship, national pride and bonding moments.
When I learned that the ISA’s were being hosted in El Salvador, I was super excited!
It’s always so amazing to experience the world and its people through sport and the love of our oceans. This is especially true when because I had the opportunity to add a new place on my travel map. This would be my first time to the country. Latin America has always had a special place in my heart. Some of my greatest trips and travels have been in Mexico, Peru and Chile and I’ve felt a bond with the people, cultures and environment in these areas that always makes me excited to come back.
With my recent knee injury that happened during competition at the Aloha Classic Windsurfing World Championships, I felt nervous to go back into competition as soon as I did. Read more about that here. Normally for an event with as great of importance I’d be arriving confident in my physical and mental preparation. With 5 weeks of no surfing and no race board training, my physical state had me feeling skeptical. But, unlike many other events, this event is a team sport and team USA Surfing was expecting my attendance since my National Title qualification into the team because of my double National Title win in SUP Surfing and SUP Racing. If it wasn’t for that fact, I may not have pushed through the discomfort to attend this event.
Connor Baxter and I traveled together from Hawaii to El Salvador where we met the rest of the team in San Salvador. Team USA teammates included Bart Schade, Tiana Pugliese and Hunter Pflueger as our Paddleboarders, and Candace Appleby, Jade Howsen, Steph, Connor Baxter, Tyler Basher and myself as the SUP Racers. I would also be competing in the SUP Surfing division. We were picked up by our local host and guide, Hugo and taken about an hour or so from the airport to the growing town of Surf City El Sunzal. Upon arrival we were beyond impressed with our Team house which was perched on the hillside overlooking the coastline and small town. It was an exceptionally beautiful property. We were even more surprised with the amazing surf that we arrived to. To say we were stoked is an understatement when we settled into the home for Team USA for the next week and a half.
The Racing divisions were the first events of the competition. These included Distance, Relay and Technical Course racing for both Paddleboard and SUP, along with a 200 meter sprint race for SUP as well. We had a big mix up with the distance course which left a majority of the pack paddling the course after taking the wrong turn at a buoy mark. This was a big fluster, not just for the women in Team USA but also for the majority of the women’s field. Starting off the competition like this was a big bummer, we felt terrible for the girls. But the only way for them to get points that counted at all was if they did an extra lap on the already long distance course. We got the message across to Tiana, Steph and Candace, and they were able to complete the race correctly. But it lost us some important medals. Connor Baxter and Tyler Basher went on to compete in the Distance Race as well and they were able to bring in some good points but no medals- Connor 7th and Tyler 11th.
In the Tech racing it was a different story. We were able to bring in a few medals and make up some ground on the overall points total. I was a bit embarrassed to be racing alongside everyone knowing that I hadn’t gotten the amount of training in that I normally would before a big event such as this. My knee injury didn’t feel nearly as bad as my lost cardio which affected my chest and endurance. Off the start I felt good and was actually in the front of the pack. But shortly after and before the first buoy mark the pack was accelerating past me. I ended up not getting the result needed to qualify into the finals and felt humbled! It’s so important to keep up cardio and endurance in this sport. This was the first time in my life I have felt that I lost this area of strength with almost 5 weeks of being idle recovering from my knee injury. Connor ended up finishing with a bronze medal, Tiana with a copper medal, Tyler with a Copper medal in Junior, Candace with a bronze medal, and Jade with a gold medal for the Junior tech!
The sprint races were also a great day for us as Jade Howsen brought in another Gold Medal, winning both the Junior Tech and the Junior Sprint races, along with Connor bringing in a Silver medal in the Sprint races! After these days of racing we looked to be in a pretty solid competition for the overall silver medal fighting with team Spain, and Team France who were out in the lead.
Moving into the SUP Surfing events I was so excited. I came here knowing that the Races were going to be tough for me not having the endurance and cardio training necessary. But in the Surf events I still felt confident I could bring in a good result for the team, regardless of my loss of strength and not getting any surfing in the last month. The waves unfortunately dropped a lot once the surfing events started. It was maybe waist to chest high on day 1 of the surfing events. But there were still some fun waves reeling down the right hand point break of El Sunzal. Advancing through some heats felt so good and my 2019 Starboard 7’0 Pro was working great in these conditions along with my Black Project Pro model fins . I advanced through 3 rounds in the main event then had to move into the consolation repecharge bracket. I was pretty upset to be to have moved into this bracket but after speaking with my brother and coach, Matty Schweitzer, he encouraged me that I could still win this event and make it back into the main round.
The next day of competition we started off with a special community event run by the Ministry of Environment, “El Rota De La Tortuga”, where the ISA competitors got to help and release over 200 baby green sea turtles into the ocean from the event site. This was one of the highlights of the event for me. It was pretty awesome to meet the local community and some eco warriors local to the area. I got to release a few turtles onto the sand and followed them into the ocean and continued to follow them for a nice swim. It was pretty surreal!
Back to competition mode. I changed my mindset, approaching these next rounds with a much more loose attitude, focusing on flowing through my maneuvers and wave rides while surfing clever and having fun. I won 3 heats back to back and ended up losing out in the semi final which put me in overall 7th place and North America’s top finisher. After losing out in the repecharge semi, I took some time to blow some steam and did a long swim. Then I snapped back to reality to support my team and friends in the last few heats of the event. I was super proud of Starboard Team rider and my good friend Benoit Carpentier for excelling through this whole event with great speed, power and flow, and in the end becoming the 2019 ISA World Champion!!
At the end of competition I helped to cheer in Benoit Carpentier and as well cheer in the Women’s SUP Surfing world Champion, Justine Dupont! With both the ISA World Champions coming from France the Team was boosted into a solid lead where Team France made history with their first ever team win.
My last goal before the day ended and competition wrapped up was to put together a beach cleanup of the area. I talked with the ISA Officials and rallied together as many team members from nations around the globe and athletes to join in. We had a really good time taking care of the coastline that allowed for us to perform and experience this amazing area through this event. We had a bunch of local surfers join for this cleanup and it was really interesting to hear from them their experiences with plastic in their hometown.
As with many places, the growing tourism industry has brought more hotels, shops and restaurants along the coast. Styrofoam seemed to not only be the most prevalent type of trash we picked up but also what the locals found to be one of the bigger problems of the area. Another one of the issues the locals shared with us was the lack of awareness from the villages inland, that fill their dry riverbeds with trash and plastic. When the transition from dry season to wet season starts, the first few rains flood the beaches and ocean with mass amounts of inland trash.
This is something that needs to change, and I believe with all the support from the new President of the country and the huge push for eco and surf tourism backed by the government, it is possible that we can make a change. The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has been the driving source of support behind the World Championship. The ISA is thrilled that President Bukele and his government have made surfing a strategic priority, with “Surf City” as part of a five-year plan to promote tourism on El Salvador’s beautiful beaches. I learned a lot about the efforts to keep the beaches and ocean beautiful.
Following this newly attained knowledge I contacted the American Embassy of El Salvador and also the Ministry of Environment and shared this issue that the local beach goers are experiencing. I also shared the issue that most of us athletes had seen here in this beautiful place. I proposed a ban of Styrofoam to the government official I was able to connect with and shared the importance of stopping this issue before this “Surf City El Sunzal” becomes “Styrofoam City”.
This whole event seemed to be run very well. The athletes and ISA officials felt very welcomed by the locals. It was quite special to have so much support from the government and the president as well! We all had our expectations blown away, especially when witnessing the amazing closing ceremony and party that was put together for us. It featured live music, firework shows that seemed to last all night, professional dancers and performers, local catered food, and off course, all the athletes from each nation having an epic celebration.
Our culture within the sports of SUP and Paddleboard are quite special- as a competitor for over 2 decades in the sports ranging from Surfing, windsurfing and now in the last 10 years SUP, I can honestly say that we have such a special community that has a focus set around sportsmanship, camaraderie between our athletes and other ocean goers and very importantly a passion to care for our environment. I am so grateful to not only be a part of this community of SUP and Paddleboard, but as well to be a part of the ISA’s culture and community!
Mahalo for reading my recap from the El Sunzal ISA World Championships in El Salvador. Now I am back home on Maui working to bring my knee back to strength and back to 110%!