WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, North Carolina – With top-ranked Annabel Anderson of New Zealand out for surgery and recovery, attention is shifting to a deep slate of elite women ready to battle for the top title at the 2018 Quiksilver Waterman Carolina Cup, April 18-22, in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
First in line is the world’s second-ranked Fiona Wylde of Oregon, runner-up to five-time champion Annabel Anderson in last year’s punishing 13-mile Graveyard Race at the Cup. Wylde, 21-years of age and ranked in the world’s top-five since 2014, captured her first key victory at age 16 as Women’s Overall Elite Champion in the Columbia River Gorge Paddle Challenge. She repeated the overall Gorge title in 2017 and scored double medals at the ISA World SUP Championship in Denmark.
Other top-of-mind contenders for the coveted women’s Graveyard title include Olivia Piana (Starboard) of France; Australian Terrene Black; Sonni Hönscheid (Starboard) of Germany; North Carolina native April Zilg (Hobie); Californian Candice Appleby (Infinity); Penelope Strickland of New Zealand; Seychelle Webster (SIC Maui) of Florida; Brazilian Lena Ribeiro; Susak Molinero of Spain; Shae Foudy (Infinity) of Dana Point; and, surprise distance winner in the recent Santa Cruz Paddlefest, 15-year-old Jade Howson (SIC Maui) of California.
“This race [Carolina Cup Graveyard] used to scare me. I remember crawling across the finish line in an insurmountable amount of pain,” said Wylde. “But over the past few years, I’ve gained respect for the course and appreciate all the challenges it presents. I feel much more prepared heading into my fifth Carolina Cup.”
In an interview with North Carolina Press Release, Fiona Wylde talks about Annabel Anderson’s hiatus from SUP, the Carolina Cup’s Graveyard Race, her season performance in 2017, and her plans for 2018. Fiona cheers the birth of the newly formed Paddle League, shares her thoughts about the state-of-the-sport, women in SUP, 14-foot boards, and her ongoing challenge with Type 1 diabetes.
Transcript of Robert Butler’s interview with Fiona Wylde (below):
Fiona in Denmark for the 2017 ISA Championships. | Photo Courtesy: Georgia Schofield
Congratulations on your #2 World Ranking in SUPRacer’s Women in SUP; your incredible performance and championship at the Gorge Paddle Challenge; double medals in Denmark; and your runner-up performance in the Carolina Cup. How do you feel about your 2017 season?
“Thank you so much. Wow, last year was a busy year. It was not short of its up and downs, but the ups were pretty incredible. Overall, I am very happy with the way I performed, and that makes me even more excited looking at 2018. I try to learn as much as I can from each race and build on that experience, both positive and negative. Even when I am getting good results, I try to pull my races apart and learn from each little section – which parts I can improve on, which parts I did well, and apply that to the next race. I feel that I learned heaps from 2017, absolutely loved the new places I was able to visit and friends I met. Makes me really excited for 2018.”
Reviewing your sports career, what is your proudest moment?
“The first thing that comes to mind is when I won the Overall Gorge Paddle Challenge at 16. It was one of my first Elite races. It was in my backyard, and I think I surprised myself more than anybody with the way I performed. The Big Winds Jet Team was just getting established, so to have all of my teammates, family, and friends cheering and supporting in my hometown was incredible. The overall is awarded to the athlete with the least combined time with the downwinder and course races. Even after the course race, we weren’t sure who had won until they called me on stage. Let’s just say, I don’t think anyone in my family has screamed so loud or cried so much in public. It was truly amazing to feel that support, and was a turning point in my career.”
Did you first learn to paddle board in fresh or saltwater?
“I learned to standup paddle in freshwater in my hometown of Hood River, Oregon. I was 14 at the time, and Steve Gates, the owner of Big Winds somehow talked three other kids and me into learning standup paddle boarding, which quickly morphed into race training at 6:30 in the morning twice a week. You could say it stuck. Ha!”
What are your career plans and the outlook for 2018?
“There are a lot of new factors in 2018, all of which I am extremely excited. First, the birth of the new Paddle League, linking together all the major races and crowning a world champion, is something that I am so happy to see. It’s been a long time coming, and I think it’s an incredible step forward for our sport. Second, is the amount of training I’ve put in this winter. I made a few personal changes this past winter to try to optimize my time training for the 2018 season. I am focusing on specific races and training accordingly. Hopefully, I’ve done it right, but you never know until you are put to the test. I am really looking forward to new races in venues like Tahiti and Japan. Above all, I hope to enjoy this adventure, because even though it is competitive and hard work, I look at this as one big adventure that I feel fortunate to experience. I want to make the most of it, regardless of the result.”
Will you participate in the Carolina Cup?
The Graveyard Race Starting Line | Photo Courtesy: Laura Glantz
Top-ranked Annabel Anderson announced she will not begin the season and is uncertain about the year due to surgery and recuperation. How does this change the game for the elite women and impact you in 2018?
“I am really sorry to hear about Annabel’s injury. Getting injured is the hardest part of being a professional athlete, and nobody deserves it. I wish Annabel a quick recovery and hope that she can join us back on the race course soon.”
“I try to stay focused on my game plan and control the only thing I can, which is me. It doesn’t matter what race I’m in, or who I am competing against, there are so many variables, and it’s overwhelming to try to think and control them all. Sure it will definitely be different without Annabel on the race course, but throughout athletic careers, different athletes will have to sit out at different times, and that is just part of the sport.”
Will Annabel's absence put a great deal of pressure on you as #2 in the world?
“Perhaps some people will think yes, but for me, I would say no. I will still approach my season with the same mindset I have trained for all winter: positive, open-minded, and ambitious. And, of course, on the lookout for a fun time.”
What do you think about the Carolina Cup Graveyard Race?
“I will be honest; this race used to scare me. It’s long, cold, and used to be the first race of the season. I was 17 the first year I competed in the Carolina Cup’s Graveyard Race and extremely unprepared. I remember crawling across the finish line in an insurmountable amount of pain. But over the past few years, I’ve gained respect for the course and appreciate all the challenges it presents. My mental perspective has changed, and now I feel much more prepared heading into my 5th Carolina Cup.”
What do you like and dislike about the Graveyard Race?
“This race is extremely technical, and that is by far my most favorite part. You never know if you are going to have upwind, downwind, freezing rain, or flat water. But through all that you can count on lots of current. It’s an exciting race because you never know what to prepare for, and the course has so many unique sections to it. It truly is an adventure. I don’t think I really ‘dislike’ any parts of it. Sure, some parts are uncomfortable which could be described as not liking them, but that is just racing, right? It’s over before you know it, ha!”
From your perspective, what is the 'state' of the sport of standup paddle boarding?
“I think we are in a state of opportunity. Our sport has been through a few hurdles in the last months, but as I said before, I believe the Paddle League is adding a new light, interest and a source of motivation for all aspects of our sport. I am definitely more motivated when talking with other athletes and hearing their excitement for the new season and tour. I am so happy how inclusive the Paddle League is with all of the regional level events. Our sport is not all about the pros. So, the more amateur and youth participation events we have, the better.”
Elite men outnumber women 3 to 1 or more in competition. What needs to happen in the sport to improve this ratio?
“I don’t have the perfect answer to this question. If I did, there wouldn’t be a question. I believe there are a few factors that contribute to this and these include the availability of boards, sponsorship dollars, and marketing. However, money doesn’t always solve problems, and I think simple connections to athletes can have a positive impact to encourage new people into the sport. If any women have any question about SUP racing, surfing, the competition or the lifestyle, please don’t hesitate to reach out, either through Instagram or Facebook. I would love to talk with you.”
Fiona at home participating in the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge. | Photo Courtesy: Gorge US Photography
What are your thoughts about 14-foot boards for women beginning in 2018 and how will this impact the races?
“I am so thrilled with this decision. I don’t think women need to compete against men, but to have the same, fair opportunities is critical. Honestly, I would much rather paddle a board with an extra foot-and-a-half in a 13-mile race. Simple streamline hydrodynamics will make the race go faster. I think it’s a big step in our sport, and closing a divide between men and women and becoming more inclusive. Especially since the 12’6” class is not being ignored. I believe the 12’6” class will still exist in a major way within youth competition.”
“The 14’s will greatly affect women’s racing. For one thing, our times will be faster. The competition will be easier on our bodies over a longer distance simply because we will have greater distance per stroke. And, I think its fair that women and men get the opportunity to race the same equipment if the athlete chooses. It’s really nice to have the option.”
Do you have any comments about the Heavy Water incident in 2017?
“I believe the situation was handled poorly by all parties. It was not right for the event organizers to extend an invite to women less than 72-hours before the event. It was not right for the women athletes to post calling out the event when the male athletes were unaware of the problem. And, it was not right for some of the male athletes to call out the women for standing up for something they believe is important. I don’t believe men and women need to be competing against each other. We can compete with each other, but the bottom line is, as an athlete in a sport, I want the same opportunities as anybody else to take my career as far as I can. It’s not a matter of one gender versus another, but equal opportunity for all athletes, regardless of race, gender, or age. Everyone deserves a fair shot.”
Will you race in Sunday's Longboat Graveyard race for OC-1, OC-2, Surfski, or Double Ski?
“I wish I could, but if I play my cards right, I should be completely exhausted from Saturday’s Graveyard Race and will have to cheer from the sidelines.”
How does it feel to be a worldwide role model in paddlesports and to inspire families and children impacted by Type 1 diabetes?
“I feel it is an honor. I received my sponsorship by Starboard SUP about four months before my diagnosis. Becoming a professional athlete was one of my greatest dreams, and Starboard helped me achieve this. So, when my diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes came around, it was a no-brainer for me. There was no way I was giving up on my dream. It felt natural for me to share this with others. Many people and families struggle with diabetes, as I do at times. But diabetes doesn’t need to hold anyone back. If I can help share that message, that is a win for me.”
How does type1 diabetes impact your life and sports career?
“With lots of planning. Ha! Having type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and thyroid disease means that I have to plan all my trips extensively. I am constantly on the road, sometimes in remote places where I can’t get any extra medical supplies, so I have to make sure I have everything with me, including backups and backups of the backup. I am really in-tune to the way my body feels and have learned to listen to my body much more than when I didn’t have type 1 or any other disease. I think my diseases have helped shaped me into who I am today.”
What do you think about Wrightsville Beach?
“I love it. I haven’t spent as much time in Wrightsville as I would like, but I love the mesh of all sorts of watercraft, and people enjoying the outdoors. It seems like a very athletic community, and in that regard, it reminds me a lot of home in Hood River.”
What would you like for us to know about your home state of Oregon?
“My hometown of Hood River is a three-hour drive from the ocean, so when I paddle, I am paddling on the Columbia River. The river is the only sea-level passage through the Rocky Mountains to the ocean. The wind funnels through the Gorge, as we call it, making epic downwind conditions. I’ve been fortunate enough to downwind paddle all over the world, and nothing quite lines up like home. Maybe I’m a little biased...”
What are your primary interests, hobbies, causes, or passions when you're off the board?
“I work with different type 1 diabetes advocacy groups, creating motivational content and working with them on promotional campaigns. My time at home is limited, so I try to enjoy the outdoors as much as I can. I have a year-and-a-half-old pup named Sharky, who I absolutely adore. We’re normally down at the river together, catching up with friends, or looking for some adventure.”
“After all of my work is done for the day, training, emails, booking flights, etcetera, sometimes I just like to curl up in my house with a fun book and a cup of tea and enjoy the afternoon. I’m learning very quickly how important rest is in training, and the more I accept it, the easier the traveling and training become.”
Thank you, Fiona. Best wishes to you in 2018.
Fiona paddling into the sunset. | Photo Courtesy: Eric Duran Gazquez
About the Carolina Cup:
The 8th annual Quiksilver Waterman Carolina Cup will draw thousands of spectators and more than 1,000 event participants. Races, clinics, expos, entertainment, and festivities will be in Wrightsville Beach, April 18-22, 2018. All races will begin and end at Blockade Runner Beach Resort, the official resort of the Carolina Cup.