Michele Black–Why Women Need to Race!


Michele Black is no stranger to competitive sports, but she has something important to say about Stand Up Paddle Racing–It’s like no other sport and exactly why Women, and anyone for that matter, should give it a try. Michele also talks about how SUP racing has opened up an incredible world of opportunities for community and friendship for her and others in the SUP community. Thank you for listening

Show Notes:

Darrell Kirk: Hey, everybody! This is Darrell Kirk with Stand Up Paddle the World Radio and my guest today is good friend, Michele Black. Michele’s going to talk about the sport of stand up paddle board racing and in particular why it’s so different from other competitive sports. This is a big, “and,” and why you really need to get out there. I mean it’s just so inclusive and Michelle’s going to go ahead and talk about that today.
I met Michelle out on the race line in Seattle about three years ago. Ever since, she has been such a big advocate of getting people out on the water, in racing, and especially for women out on the water and water in racing. She’s been a really good advocate for the last three years, both on and off the water. Really getting women out there and racing, but … Hey Michele! What’s up, man? So good to have you on!

Michele Black: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Darrell Kirk: You have, so many times, told me that the sport of stand up paddle board racing is so different from every other sport that you’ve tried. Tell me more about that!

Michele Black: Yeah, well I raced road and track mostly. I dabbled in cyclocross, never really raced it but I raced road and track for cycling. There’s great communities, they’re great people but it’s a different type of environment. You … One, if you’re not part of a organized team, you can’t just show up as a new bike racer and just be very included and welcomed. It doesn’t have that same feel to it.
You need to be on a team, train with those people and that becomes your cohesive group and then the rest of the racers are … You know sometimes you can intermingle with other teams but it’s very segregated. It’s also very segregated in the sense that you have your categories of Cat 1-2’s which are the elite racers and then you have the 3’s, then the 4’s, and the 5’s who are your beginner racers. You get separated based on just logistics because you have to … You can only run so many races simultaneously and it has to be safe. You don’t get to really intermingle with the upper category or your elite racers in bike racing in my experience. I mean, at some levels you do but as a brand new racer you really don’t. It takes a long time to get folded into that mix.

What I noticed, as soon as I came out and started paddle board racing, is that we race all together-men, women, and all levels. That is an amazing thing because you now get mixed up with everybody. Not that you’re going to be at their level for competition, but you get to meet them. What I noticed is that the elite racers, just like the new racers, are completely welcoming.

The other thing I noticed which was one of the most impressive parts of the races that we were doing is at the end of the race the elite racers, they finish and they stay on the water. They stay there, they sit down, they chit-chat, and we wait for every last paddler to come in. We cheer the last person in. That is a very unique to the sport of paddle boarding. I don’t know of any other sport where your elite racers, after they win their race or don’t win their race, will still sit and chit-chat with everybody, hang out on the water and be supportive of every single person who comes across the line.

Darrell Kirk: Let me jump in, to the tune of maybe an hour later, you know, for some of these paddlers-

Michele Black: Yeah, for some of them, it’s … There’s a huge disparity between abilities but that’s what so great about it is that it doesn’t matter if you’re brand new, can barely get yourself around, you’re on this … On a surf-shape whatever it may be … Everyone waits. Every one hangs out and they want you to finish and feel successful and just celebrate the fact that you came out and you’re sharing the water with us.
I mean, that’s pretty special. I think it’s a very unique thing that this stand-up paddle board community has.

Darrell Kirk: You know you’re totally right! Something I’ve always thought about too is, yeah, don’t laugh. Not that they would, but separate from everything of what you just said is like that paddler next to you might be a whole lot faster!

Michele Black: Well yeah! It’s an emerging sport still. That’s what’s so exciting about being involved in the Seattle community. In the race scene is that it’s still emerging. We’re still building things. We’re still developing a cohesive group of people who, now, train together and race together. It’s starting to build year after year. I think that community is just getting stronger.
There are people who are going to start out and be on really old equipment or have no skills set yet and they’re not going be very fast but they may be coming from another competitive sport. Once they figure out the techniques and things like that, they may just take off. That’s what’s exciting-is watching people come up and come through and to see the changes and how well people have progressed.

Darrell Kirk: That’s great, what you just said. I got a different take on that where you kind of jogged my memory. Some people who are doing triathlons, ultra-marathons, they might get out here and be that guy or woman that comes across the line 30 minutes late that we’re waiting for. They’re the top of their sport and here again, it’s democratic racing either way. Whether you have never raced before or you’re an incredible athlete in another sport, when we get out here who knows what’s going to happen!
Michele Black: Yeah, it’s definitely a different skill set for people. I’m trying to very much encourage women, especially, but encourage people who do other sports to come and try it. Especially, if they like the competition, but even if they don’t like the competition and that’s the other part of what I really am advocating for is that … Just come out and be part of the community. You don’t necessarily have to be wanting to win races. You don’t necessarily ever have … You don’t need to really be competitive, but come and be part of the community.

Being part of the community and being at the races … They’re very inexpensive to go to. You’re paying $5 or $8 just to show up. It’s a good work out regardless if you’re competitive or not. You’re getting out there. You have a course to do. You have other people out there with you and you can enjoy people’s company and learn and be part of something.

The more people we get involved … It’s just the inertia of the whole thing. We’re going to end up building a bigger and better community. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to race at some level. That’s what I love about it-is people can come out and enjoy it for what it is for them.

Darrell Kirk: That’s great information. I want to elaborate that on a little bit later in the interview. I know one thing when we’re out there and you and I have talked about this. It’s amazing when we’re out on the line, the way our best athletes share race tactics and even moments before the race, the whistle sounds, we’re getting a tip that may really change up the game but I wanted to … Again, you know I don’t mean to badmouth any other sports but I just want to praise this and emphasize that more the way … What this community offers to athletes for we’re sharing all this information.

Michele Black: Oh yeah! I think that that is one of the greatest parts is that you sit there and you’re on the water with people from all different levels but you have the elite racers who don’t have any kind of air about them that they are better than you even though they are! They don’t have to come across that way and they’re so willing to share their information and support you. That’s what so great, is this whole community seems to be into just supporting each other as water men, water women and racers and trying to help people just enjoy being out on the water together. Yeah, it’s great to be out and be racing and next to an elite athlete, some of the best athletes in the Northwest.
They’re chit-chatting with you and sharing information and saying, “Hey! I noticed you’re doing this with your paddle stroke. You know, if you would just lean a little bit different or tilt your paddle, get your paddle straight or … That may help you. Or you maybe need to step forward on your board or…” These little tips and stuff, that they’re actually paying attention and they’re willing to share that information with you.
It keeps … I love to share and help teach people too. I mean that’s one thing worth with women and getting women out here because I really want to encourage women. It’s a great sport for women to get into. What I’ve noticed is if I run into a guy, I actually … A good friend, paddler, both of ours who didn’t race, didn’t know anything about the racing community. I ran into him out here and he was just paddling in with his music blasting and he pulls into shore and gets down on his board and does a head-stand. I’m like, “Well who is this guy?”

So he comes up and I’m like, “Hey! That was pretty impressive!” And he’s just like, “Oh! Do you paddle out here too?” Because it seemed like he didn’t know that there was really anyone else even out here paddling around. I’m like, “Yeah! There’s a bunch of us that paddle. We race here on Monday nights. We race at Urban Surf on Wednesday nights. You should come-you should come to one of the races.” He did come to one of the races and now he is … He comes to all of the races now. It’s like … He had no idea that the race community even was there and now he’s an integral part of this community.

That’s the kind of thing is just encouraging anyone to come out and get on the water. If I see somebody who’s out paddling, I will always introduce myself and say, “Hey, you know, we do races if you’re interested. Even if you don’t feel like you’re competitive, show up! Just show up and enjoy being around a bunch of other paddlers. Meet some new people. Meet other people who you know you could be out on the water with recreationally or training or whatever level they want to be at.”

Darrell Kirk: Okay, well hey! Let’s … I want to talk more about that, what you’re … I think we’re kind of getting into that right now. Let’s talk about this. I know you’ve been a big advocate-you and Sarah Sandstrom have been big advocates for last 3-4 years of this. That’s getting women on the water and racing because racing has been so integral to us developing this incredible community. We really had to have the racing. Fortunately, we’ve had Urban Surf in Seattle and Rob Casey out here, holding these races every year, every week and it’s been so integral to our community. Tell me why are women intimidated about sports and why is it so important for them to get into stand-up paddle racing?

Michele Black: The one thing is it’s a very low-impact sport. It’s something that you can do without having a ton of equipment. You need a paddle, a board, a leash, and a PFD. That’s all you need. I mean it really is! It’s very accessible, I know carrying a board may be difficult for some people but the fact is is that you can get out. You’re floating around.
You can’t get hurt like getting into bike racing without any experience. It’s dangerous! It’s dangerous to go out there without really good bike-handling skills because you’re mixed up with a bunch of people. If you mishandle your bike, you can crash and if you crash you can break things. You can break other people. You can break bikes. So you really need to have a skill set that are already sort of in place before you start racing.

I would say that’s not true with stand-up paddle boarding. Anybody can come out. A total novice can come out and still get out there and push themselves to the level that they can push themselves. That may just be getting the paddle in the water and getting the board to go halfway around the course but we’re going to be here and support them if they do that. It’s a very … It’s a very gentle sport to get into and to decide if you want to be competitive and it’s something you can gradually build up to to be competitive.
The one thing I notice with women is … When I’ll approach a woman and say, “Hey, you should try racing!” And they’ll say, “Oh I’m just not … I’m not fast enough,” or “I’m not good enough.” I think that that’s sort of the thing is it they if they come out and they try it, they’ll realize that they may be faster than they think. Even if they aren’t faster than they think as long they’re having fun and they’re getting a good work out, it doesn’t matter. No one cares if you’re the fastest when you come out here. I mean that’s the thing is so nice about this sport. We’re all going to hang out because we all love being on the water. We’re all going to hang out and wait for you to finish.
We do have people who come in and … We have one racer that she’s oh…67?

Darrell Kirk: Oh Vicky?

Michele Black: Yeah! The thing is is Vicky comes out and Vicky has a huge smile on her face. She is not going to win a bunch of races, but she comes out and she gives it her all. She enjoys it and she has fun! That is what matters! She’s getting a good work out in. She’s doing something that’s a healthy lifestyle. That’s what this is about.

It’s about making yourself-bettering yourself! You can better yourself by being out on the water, hanging out with friends and getting a good work out and then … Why not try it?

Darrell Kirk: Okay, well let me jump in here because you just kind of raised the last question I really want to ask you. That is, basically about racing and the … This is really where we we’ve struck gold here with me, you and our community. We’ve seen it over the last three years.
We have built this incredible community, really, because of racing but it’s opened up all of these, as you said one day, tentacles to us. I mean now we’re in a cooking group together. It sounds like we’re going to be hosting cooking parties. I mean it’s incredible!
Talk about this community that has been built. I mean these incredible friendships that we have and now they’re not just on the water and off the water. Now we’re off the water, building this incredible community. Talk about that.

Michele Black: I think you have to have some central thing that brings you all together. Racing, clearly, is the thing that everyone shows up at the same time because that’s when the race is. That’s where the beginning or the central portion of this comes from.

What’s nice is you get on the water, you race, and then we hang out and you start to get to know people. That’s the neat thing about paddle board racing is because we stay on the water together, we get to know each other. Sitting, relaxing, you’ve finished a race, you’re waiting for people to come in so you get to chit-chat and get to know people. It seems like the more that this has happened over the last couple years it’s like, “Hey! Well, why don’t we go get a beer?” Or “Why don’t we go do this?” And it’s starting to build and we’re at the point, now, where it’s … We’re building our training together.

There’s such a great group of people here that all want to race, that we all want to be on the water. We’re starting to organize and do training together or just … It seems like more and more, you show up at 8 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday or a Sunday. You’re guaranteed to have one or two other people that you know out on the water also training or just getting a good work out in. That’s how this started building. It has continued to evolve where we’re now doing things off the water completely, to just hang out because these are such great people.

This sport has really … It draws in people that are really genuine and like-minded, health-oriented people. That’s part of the community that’s being fostered here. I think that’s part of it is we like each other as friends and stuff because we have very similar values. We all enjoy something that you know I… I … The water is such an important part of us as a human being because we’re made up of what 97% water? I can’t remember how much. It’s not quite 97% but we’re made up of mostly water. I think it’s something that’s a natural place for you to want to be.

Anyone who’s just floated around on water, I think, does have some sort of sense of calm. When you make that your sport, also, you hang out with these people on the water and enjoying this wonderful place that we live in in the Pacific Northwest, I honestly can’t think of a better place in the world to hang out on the water. It is just absolutely beautiful here!
That’s the thing is we’re sharing all of this commonality and it is really building an amazing community of people.

Darrell Kirk: Great! You nailed it, Michele! This sport really does draw some incredible people. We all have a pretty epic story to tell about what brought us to SUP. That might be a positive or something or sad time in our lives, but the important thing is its all brought us here. Maybe it’s because of the water, but the community has just been so amazing!

Michele Black: Yeah! I think the one thing is I’ve never been … I’ve never had a sport where I’m training and at the same time that I’m training I’m also having the ability to completely decompress from my day. After work in the summer, I can come out here and paddle till 9 o’clock at night. I can get a really good, hard work out in but at the same time I’m completely taken out of the city. I’m on the water, it’s beautiful and I’m able to just enjoy nature right in the middle of Seattle. I think that’s the thing too is our community is built by people who really enjoy being outdoors.

What’s great about us is we … You wouldn’t think that in the middle of the Winter you’d want to be out in the water, in the Puget Sound but you dress appropriately and it is unbelievably gorgeous out here. To train for a sport and to race in stand-up paddle-boarding and to have the training portion of it be like a treat and something that I look forward to is really special.

Darrell Kirk: Thanks so much, Michele! That was just awesome! I’m just really proud and happy to put this podcast out with your information, your message to people. I think you’re going to get them out there and as you’ve said, once you get out there you’re going to just have such a positive racing experience that you’ll keep it going. Thanks so much, Michele!
Can we have you on again in the future?

Michele Black: Sure, yeah! Hopefully, it’ll be me and a bunch of other women who are racing together.

Darrell Kirk: Oh good! Good answer! Good answer!
Well, hey man, that is Michele Black. Very good friend of mine and a real advocate for getting out on the water and racing, and especially getting women out there and just seeing how positive this sport is.
Anyways, that’s Darrell. This is Darrell Kirk with Stand Up Paddle the World Radio. Thank you so much for listening and if you would, we’d love what we do here so if you would go on iTunes and give us a five star review, and drop us a line, let us know what we can do to make the radio show better. Thanks so much!
Stay up and stay on that board!

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