WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, North Carolina – Born into a family of water paddlers, Danny Ching learned the sport early and amassed an amazing series of triumphs over the years. Highlights include SUP World Champion, OC-1 World Champion, Dragon Boat World Champion, countless race titles, a tiptoe into Olympic kayaks, and yes, four victories in the grueling Carolina Cup Graveyard Race. At age “38 going on 39,” Ching confirmed he is going for number five.
“The Carolina Cup Graveyard Race is one of the toughest races in standup,” said Ching of Redondo Beach, California. “I’m pretty fired up this year and put the Graveyard as my number one race, pre-May.”
One of the world’s largest and most prominent paddle sporting events, the 11th Carolina Cup returns to Wrightsville Beach, April 27-May 1, 2022. The Cup is a five-day festival of clinics, product displays, demonstrations, and competition – including six rousing races featuring amateur and professional athletes using paddleboard, kayak, surfski, and outrigger canoe. Organized by the Wrightsville Beach Paddle Club, all activities are based at Blockade Runner Beach Resort.
The Carolina Cup sprint and distance SUP races will double as pre-qualifiers for the 2022 International Canoe Federation World Series.
In a recent interview with Robert Butler, Danny Ching shared factors contributing to his career; the impact of COVID; a blow-by-blow description of the Carolina Cup course; “the exact part of the race every year” where the Carolina Cup “is decided;” key competitors he expects for the men’s title in 2022; whether or not he will compete on the APP World tour; the high cost of global competition for athletes; his thoughts about having an east and west coast location in North America each year on the World Tour; and, an update on Ching’s growing family, his business ventures, and what he thinks about Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
Danny Ching, four-time Graveyard Race Champion – Carolina Cup | Photo Courtesy Laura Glantz
ROBERT: How did COVID impact you and the professional community in paddle sports over the past couple of years?
DANNY: It's been interesting. Personally, for me, it's been a blessing in disguise to have a break. I've been professionally racing paddle boards, and dragon boats, and outrigger canoes, and Olympic kayaks for 15 years. Every time you add another discipline race to the schedule, it's just more and more and more. And on top of that, the last five years I've started a family. So having all the races go away was a disappointment and I had to be flexible and find a new way to make a living. But having a major, what is considered a prestigious, huge race every weekend, taking that off the table is a big relief for me, to take a break and just paddle for the enjoyment of paddling. So that for me was big and having it starting back up again, it's interesting. I want to do everything as it comes back. Pick and choose some of the bigger, more prestigious, more fun races I want to support, as opposed to someone calling and paddling against the same 15 to 20 people that I've been racing every weekend for the past five years.
ROBERT: Danny, I've followed you for the past 10 years since your first Carolina Cup title, and you have an amazing series of accomplishments in water sports; OC-1 World Champion, SUP World Champion, dragon Boat World Champion, ranked by the APP in distance and sprint competition. You've won many dozens of races in your career. You bagged the championship four times in the punishing Graveyard Race at the Carolina Cup. And now it looks like 2022 is off to a great start in San Diego. I believe you won first place in SUP, and first or second OC-1?
DANNY: Yeah, the San Diego Hanohano race – I won the SUP. One of the kids I've been training for 10, 12 years now, Ryland Hart, he flew in for the race and he was second right behind me in the standup. And then he beat me in the OC-1, so that was a new one. The last time we raced together before COVID, or against each other, I was still a little bit faster than him. But I'm noticing as things get a little more difficult, then you start adding up the races, those 21-year-olds are quick to recover. Itzel Delgado came up from Peru and finished third in SUP. He's super-fast.
ROBERT: How did you outperform in paddle sports? How did you get started, and how do you keep it going?
DANNY: I was fortunate enough to be born into a family of paddling. So, my dad, Al Ching, started a canoe club in Redondo beach in 1970. So, when I was a little kid, when you do your AYSO soccer and your Little League here in Southern California, one of the rules was you got to do junior guards so you can go to the beach by yourself. And in the summer, of course you paddle, because that's what the family does. So, mom paddled, dad paddled, all my cousins, uncles, it was just one of the things we did, and I enjoyed it as a kid. As I got into high school and college, I really started to enjoy and love the training aspect, the racing aspect. And my uncle, Josh Creighton, got me involved in Olympic kayaks for a little while. So, I got to train on a really world class level with a bunch of great paddlers out of LA growing up, you just paddle with your group. Wasn't until five, 10 years later, where I look back and go, "Wow. One of my coaches was an Olympic kayaker who carried the flag for the US team in 2000; Cliff Meidl.”
And it was just... That's Cliff. You go paddle with him at five in the morning because that's when he goes. So, I grew up in the sport. I loved it. I loved the addition of all the different ways to paddle. So, I started in the Hawaiian six men canoes and graduated into the Olympic kayaks, that took me onto the surf ski scene, did that for a few years and then transferred over to the Hawaiian outrigger OC-1, which is great. When you get good at that sport, you get to go places like Fiji and Tahiti and Hawaii and all these beautiful tropical destinations and just cool places to visit. New Zealand. Then, once I was really good and established into that, standup paddleboard came along. So, I had a 10-year head start on being prepared for the sport. So, when it showed up, it was interesting. All the guys that were very good were the guys I already raced against; the Travis Grants, the George Consteads, all the outrigger crew. And then, just in the last five, six years, there's this whole new crop of kids that grew up paddling, just standup, and are now transferring to the other paddle sports. So, it’s just been a fun transition. I was born into the family, ended up loving it, got all these opportunities to travel the world and try different things. And fortunately for me, just been at the forefront of that the entire time. So good positioning, good opportunity, and then just making sure I take advantage of those opportunities and don't waste them.
ROBERT: As mentioned earlier, you're a four-time champion of one of the more difficult races in the world, the 13.1-mile Graveyard Race. Half the race in the ocean; half in the flat water; there's an ocean start an ocean finish; plus, two inlets, changing tides, winds, and waves. How would you describe the Graveyard Race to an amateur or a professional paddler?
DANNY: The Graveyard course is pretty intense. At the very beginning, Carolina Cup did a great job having a three-mile race, a more advanced six-mile race, and then the 13.1-mile Graveyard, giving professional paddlers who want to be the world champion and those who simply want to survive the Graveyard course. Getting out through the surf is difficult. Then, you’ve got to handle the ocean conditions just to get to the inlet. After the first inlet, you have a little bit of time on the inside where you’re usually fighting the current, but at least the conditions aren’t gnarly.
Then you get a big chunk of time in the middle of the race where it’s paddling the way most of us see flatwater standup paddling. There are sometimes winds, sometimes some current, but nothing super out of control. But, in terms of racing, everybody’s right on you. So, the racing conditions mellow out when you hit the inside, but the racing strategy, the conditioning, and the training all kick in. Then, when you’re the most tired, you must go through another inlet; sometimes there are waves in the inlet, and then you hit the ocean again and that’s a huge challenge – equally difficult for amateur and professional paddlers. Now you’re positioning yourself to be in the first group for a chance to win the race.
Once you exit the inlet, it’s a completely different race. It’s different in the sense of, if you have something left, if your legs are still there, if your training is right, if your nutrition was right all the way to that point, now you’re allowed to make an attack or take a swing for the win. And even if everything is perfect, you have no idea if it’s going to work until you go. I found the Graveyard is decided in this exact part of the race every year – the hardest, most difficult part, when it’s time to be tough, who’s got the training, who’s got the mentality and experience. If you look at everyone that’s ever won this race, five athletes on the male side in eleven years, there were one, two, three years of being really close to a win, and then just barely pulling it off the next time.
So, if you look at Titouan, Travis, Michael Booth and all those guys, there's always a good learning curve. And I equate it to – it's kind of like standup paddling racing is like poker – everyone can do it on day one, but if you want to be the Master of It, it takes years of experience and sometimes a little bit of disappointment and regrouping. But the Graveyard at Carolina Cup is, I think, one of the toughest races in standup, it also offers a great experience to first time paddlers, semi experience, multi experience. And if you've been out, not racing for three years during COVID, it is a great opportunity to come back and put yourself either in, I'm going to finish the Graveyard, or, I'm going to attack it, I'm ready. I've had three years to prepare.
ROBERT: Now, the big question. Will you be coming back to North Carolina in 2022 to defend your title and go for number five?
DANNY: Absolutely. I'm pretty fired up this year. Again, COVID gave me a break to stop trying to do all the races all the time. Every time you do a race, like the Graveyard or some of these bigger outriggers, standup, any race, it takes a toll on you. There's a certain amount of training you got to do, certain amount of recovery you got to do afterwards, in between, and so I put the Graveyard as my number one race for this year, early season, pre-May. Fortunately for me, starting to come into good form, had some good outrigger and standup races this year including Hawaii. Now, it's 100% standup, focus on the Graveyard, go back and try and defend the title.
There's a lot of people that were excited that I did well in the Cup last year. They're a few people I raced against that were very disappointed that I beat them, and I feel like they're coming for me now. So as much as I was prepared for last year's Graveyard and really excited to have an opportunity to do that, I'm a little more excited for this one. Because now the only one last year who thought I was going to win was me, and I'm pretty sure everyone this year is going to be looking for where I am the entire time.
Danny Ching in 2014 at the Carolina Cup. | Photo courtesy: Carolina Cup
ROBERT: Who will be your key competitors this year?
DANNY: That is tough. I mean, if you look, the season just came back on in the last maybe six months. Standup came back and there's a bunch of really good paddlers that were established. The guys like Titouan Puyo and a bunch of those New Caledonia guys; Noic Garioud, I know he's done really well. Connor Baxter in Hawaii has been training and enjoying it. And then there's a bunch of names that were on the radar before everything shut down, and they were given an opportunity to grow and learn and come back. So, I'm expecting a whole range of paddlers.
I know Michael Booth wants to come back and get another title. I don't know if Travis Grant will, but as much as he always tells us he's not training, he's always fast. So, I wouldn't be shocked if he showed up and wanted to race everybody. And, I'm hoping everyone shows up, I'm hoping for great Carolina weather. I'm not really afraid of anyone, because if I can't beat one of them, I'm not going to win. So, ten of them show up it'll beat me too. The competition's getting that close. You make a mistake, and you don't go from first to second, you go from like first to 10th.
ROBERT: Do you plan to compete to on the APP World Tour this year?
DANNY: No. There's a lot of races going on. That's a lot of traveling, time, and money commitment. I am going to do a handful of the races. I know there's one, locally here in Santa Monica, just right up the road from where I live. So, I'm definitely doing that one. And then on the other ones I'm going to get through the Carolina Cup and the training and the race, and then I'm going to have to regroup and make sure the body's intact. Make sure I have the ability to properly get ready for these races. But definitely, the Santa Monica one, and then I'm looking at the schedule to try and do as many as I can. But realistically I'm 38 going on 39 now. In order to put the intensities and the effort level and to compete on the highest level, it does take time to recover. It's not like going for a surf today and then going for a surf next weekend. I usually spend two to three months to prepare for a single race. And then it takes me a month or so to just recover from that and then restart the training program.
ROBERT: Putting you on the spot, do you think the Carolina Cup, a west coast location, and a Hawaiian race should permanently be on the APP tour?
DANNY: I personally love that idea. I know there's a couple of established races that would make that work very easily. It's a little bias for me being in LA, because those are the easiest places to get to. I think if you wanted to do Carolina Cup, something on the west coast and then potentially something in Europe or something in Hawaii but try and keep it around 3000 miles of each other, it'd be nice. It would be a great idea to try and put together a very small, 'these three races count towards a bigger thing.'. Kind of like a Vans Triple Crown of Surfing or something like that. When you start throwing in 8, 10, 12 races it starts turning into a participation championship. So, whoever has the most money can go to all of them will eventually win.
ROBERT: Let’s talk about money for a minute; competing on the pro circuit is very expensive. Sponsorships do not cover your costs. You’ve established a product line and a sports training program that helps to offset costs and hopefully makes money. Take a moment and give us the elevator pitch on 404, Hippostick, and Paddle Ninja.
DANNY: Awesome. Yeah. So, I started the standup paddle board company 404, where I own the company, I design the boards, do the whole thing. And so having that really helps me. And since we've been established for over 10 years, it's been very convenient because over time I've been able to get product to different parts of the world where I'm not having to figure out how to ship a board every single time. But our new board, the Jump, is incredible. I got the first prototype, right as COVID shut everything down. The board's amazing, feedback has been great. So, I’m very thankful for that. I also own the paddle company, Hippostick that I ride for. My dad had a paddle company when I was younger, so the natural evolution was to start my own company. The standup side progressed into the outrigger and now into the dragon boat, so that's been wonderful.
With a good friend of mine and one of our team writers, April Zilg, is Paddle Ninja training programs. People ask all the time, "Hey, what can I do to get better?" So, being able to just take all the information we've learned over years and years, and along with Paolo and Johnny Puakea, we've been just pooling all that information and trying to make it accessible to others. Paddle Ninja is a monthly subscription with hundreds of workouts that you can do, different programs, but the big one is being able to put in like a target race date, a distance, and a discipline, and then getting a program that helps you peak for that. So, a big one, getting prepped for a 10K race or a lot of 500-meter dragon boat sprints, and then for me, I always love like the distance type preparation, the Carolina Cup, the bigger race. I found training so much easier when you can flip the page and go, "What's today's workout? All right, I'm going to get it done." Because life gets in the way, things get hard, and if you're making it up every single day then it gets tough. It’s less motivating to get out and go train if you don't know what the workout is.
ROBERT: Will your product be on display, and will you have product demos at the Carolina Cup?
DANNY: At the Carolina Cup, the plan is to bring one of each of the boards to test. So, we have the Jump in three sizes. I call it small, medium, large, but there's a narrow-22, a medium-23 and-a-half, and a large 25-wide. And I'll bring all those out. We'll have a bunch of the adjustable paddles and all the different blade shapes; you can try them out. And then as far as the program goes, we can chat about it and answer any questions you have. But we're going to be there; we're going to be hanging out; and, as far as the product goes, I can always tell you, of course my products are always the best, but really this is paddling. I want to see you try it. I want to see you paddle around with the equipment, try the training programs, and then come back with a big smile. Because if you're not happy at the end of it, then you need to get anything else that makes you smile and get back on the water.
Surf to Sound view from Blockade Runner Beach Resort of the southern portion of the Graveyard Racecourse – Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina | Photo Courtesy Aerial Images ILM
ROBERT: Will you offer in-person training at the Carolina Cup? And if so, how do people sign up?
DANNY: Yes. So, if you go to the Carolina Cup website, they have a bunch of clinics from several, several top, top paddlers. I will be on there as well. The clinic I offer is a small group clinic. You can sign up there. It's a race strategy clinic, because as much as I want to teach you all the techniques and all the different ways of the paddle and all the wonderful things, we are a couple days out from probably a big race you've been prepping for. So, I'm going to give you some things to look for when you're racing; some race strategy tips for the start line; tips for turning for when things get sloppy; what to do when you get way too tired to do everything perfect. And you can sign up on the website. Carolina Cup registration is on PaddleGuru. In addition to the races, there'll be different places to sign up for clinics. So, if you have any issues, you're always welcome to contact them or contact me directly and we'll help you out.
ROBERT: Probably the most important question of this interview, what is it like being a dad?
DANNY: It’s the greatest thing in the world. Absolutely love it. I got two daughters, five and two. Every morning they wake up, they come over, they wake me up in bed, drag me out. It is the greatest thing. Now they're big enough to where one knows how to swim, the other thinks she knows how to swim. So, we get to spend all the time on the beach, playing outside and just their excitement, their passion is unreal. Gets me fired up just thinking about it. But I love every minute of it, it's the greatest thing in the world. Can't believe I waited this long.
ROBERT: I understand that your children are already on the paddle board.
DANNY: Yes, we did a race yesterday here in Redondo, in our hometown, in our local Lana Kila Classic race. And we were able to include the girls – one with me, one with my wife Leah. We did a one-mile race with them. As soon as the starter yelled "Go” for the race, you could just see the look in their eyes. I was like, "Uh-oh, they're into it."
ROBERT: What do you think of Wrightsville Beach?
DANNY: I love Wrightsville. I mean, I think my first Carolina Cup was maybe 10 years ago. And I've been trying to get there every single year since. It's unbelievable. I love the east coast and I've traveled the world and done a bunch of things and that's one of the places where I look, I go, "I live where I live because I can do everything I want, and all of the people that I love and know are here." But if I had to pick up and move somewhere, Wrightsville Beach is on the list.
ROBERT: You're always welcome in North Carolina. Thank you for your time, Danny.
For more info on the Carolina Cup, click HERE.