Two SoCal Paddlers Get Kids Outside on the Water When They Need It Most

Air, sun & salt.

  • Category
    Life Outside
  • Written by
    Jared Sayers
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

2014. My life was full. Good, but full. A couple things stick out: My wife gave birth to two beautiful boys, so I was figuring out what it means to be a dad while simultaneously my career began to take flight, and shortly thereafter we purchased our first home. 2014 also marked the year my father-in-law entered the ring to go toe-to-toe with a fierce opponent called cancer. So, yeah … 2014 had some high-highs as well as some low-lows.

Do you ever look back on your life and see things that took place just at the right moment? One of those things for me in 2014 was taking a deep dive into the world of prone paddling. No particular reason; it just kind of happened that way. And looking back, the timing couldn’t have been better.

A quick back-of-the-envelope on prone paddling—a tradition that runs very deep within the South Bay DNA, dating as far back as 1930 with names like Greg Noll, Tom Blake and Ricky Grigg. It comprised predominantly lifeguards who, in their spare time, would take 14-foot or longer watercraft from Catalina to the mainland in one push.

How could I say no? This was ultimate high adventure right outside my front door. The allure of what lay far beyond the surf line was enough to ignite a fiery curiosity … and subsequently became a reality. I began to venture out every morning into the ocean, fumbling. Yet every time I came back with this prodigious smile that would last the remainder of my day. Soon my body became stronger, my confidence grew and my agility increased. The smile on my face expanded exponentially as well.

One morning I decided to paddle to a buoy about 4 miles offshore. It would be my first attempt at the new destination, which was a regular stopping place for many local paddlers. As I muscled my way out, determined to reach my target, I could feel nerves begin to surface. I watched the color of the water change—showing me just how much of it there actually was underneath me. The hairs on my neck stood on end thinking about the types of fish that could potentially be between my board and the ocean floor.

I approached the buoy and saw that someone was already there. As I closed in, it looked like a female sitting up on her board. As I got even closer, I noticed things like the size of her smile. Teeth and all.

“Well, I don’t recognize you,” she said in a very welcoming tone.

“Yeah, it’s my first time out here.”

“It is? Wow! Congratulations!”

Was she messing with me? Surely she couldn’t be this ecstatic about my maiden voyage, but her smile was a dead giveaway. She was being as genuine as one could be and was seemingly more stoked on my achievement than I was.

As I was about to introduce myself, she yelled, “Whales!” I glanced over my shoulder at what seemed like a submarine rising from the deep. It was the back of one of the largest living creatures I had ever seen: a California grey whale.

I froze. Not in fear. Rather pure awe. Without hesitation, the female paddler dropped to her belly and began stroking toward the 40-ton underwater creature—utterly fearless while keeping a respectful distance. I watched as the two began to move in unison down the coastline, ultimately disappearing from view.

That is how I met DJ Wilson.

DJ is a pediatric physical therapist by trade. As much time as she dedicates to pediatrics, DJ spends an equal amount of time on the water … paddling. As I continued to go further into my paddling journey that year, DJ began to pop up seemingly everywhere I turned—each time with that same infectious smile I remembered from that day at the buoy.

Over time I realized that DJ is one of the cornerstones for women’s prone paddling worldwide. For context, she has raced the Rock 2 Rock—a 22-mile paddle from Catalina to San Pedro—10 times, winning about half that she entered. She’s paddled the iconic Catalina Classic 12 times and won two of them. She paddled Molokai to Oahu five times, and she even represented the USA at the ISA World Paddleboard Championship in Denmark.

So why does a pediatric physical therapist dedicate so much time to life on the water, on a paddleboard? “Because it gives me space,” she answers.

I don’t necessarily think she is referring simply to physical space, though certainly that is one benefit. It’s also space to figure things out. Space to feel. Space to breathe. Space to play. Space to laugh. Space to cry. Space that allows the true pieces of who she is to come to the surface.

When asked what paddling means to her, she answers after a long deliberation: “Everything. Paddling means everything to me. I don’t know how else to say it.”

You can hear it in her tone. This is serious. Somehow spending hours and hours paddling in the middle of the ocean has cut to the center of who she is, and it means everything to her.

Enter Kurt Fry—a high-tech sales exec, former collegiate water polo player (UCLA), coach and, what else, a paddler. Kurt has worn many hats. But in 2017 during his first Catalina Classic, a question popped into his head mid-race. Why is prone paddling only attracting a select few when the benefits can extend far beyond all ages, races, genders and creeds?

What he came up with seemed to be relatively simple solves for barriers like cost, coaching and storage. His first step? Go after the younger generation. Get kids psyched on paddling and make it more accessible and affordable. Why start with the kids? Because they have the most to gain.

In a world that is moving at such a rapid pace, Kurt carved out some margin amidst the madness for kids to experience something that gets them outside to commune with nature; builds confidence; promotes fitness, camaraderie and community; and provides an atmosphere where identity and self-exploration can be fostered.

But of course he couldn’t go it alone. He had to have the world’s most dominant female paddler to help him along the way: DJ Wilson.

Together Kurt and DJ created Oceans Prone Paddle with the primary initiative of growing the sport of paddling by bridging the gap between general interest and financial commitment. $25 is what it takes. $25 to rent any board you want and go experience the ocean in a whole new way that for some reason gives you a smile as large as DJ’s.

In addition to the rental program, Kurt and DJ have also bridged the COVID-19 gap by offering group workouts for kids who are properly socially distanced, amidst the salty air and sea … where the virus does not stand much of a chance.

Additionally, Kurt says, the ocean is the greatest equalizer. The best athlete on land is not necessarily the best paddler on the water. So it levels the playing field and creates cohesion and connection amongst the group—a connection to the natural environment but more so a connection with each other.

“Paddling saved summer.” “Paddling saved my child.”

This is the type of feedback Kurt and DJ receive from parents all the time—proof our kids need more. And proof Kurt and DJ have tapped into a beautiful alchemy of things that have always been there—air, sun and salt. They just added a paddleboard, a little guidance and more access.

So it should come as no surprise that Kurt and DJ have found tremendous success in a short time. What’s next? With DJ’s pediatric physical therapy background, getting more involved with special needs kids and adding adaptive equipment so they too can experience the ocean’s healing properties remain central.

Also, they are opening a restaurant and concession stand on the beach in El Segundo. Oceans Café & Grill will provide great food and refreshments and serve as home base for launching paddle races, rentals, gear sales, training, coaching and a new beach camp for kids.

Pause. Zoom out. Back to the beginning …

In 2014 my wife and I brought two kids into this world while simultaneously watching another integral member of our family exit this world. How can those two things possibly coexist within one year? Well, as far as I can tell, it’s just how the ride runs at times.

I’ll argue we are all collectively feeling every bit of the ride at the moment, are we not? And yet amidst such severe highs and lows and atmospheric shifts and changes in our world, Kurt and DJ are offering to be equalizers— to help smooth out the ride a bit for us all by simply unveiling what life is like beyond the surf line. And they are choosing to start with our kids.

Yes, more please. Could paddling be the answer and ultimate antidote? It certainly was for me.

For more information on how to experience paddling safely and enjoyably, please visit oceansprone.org. Warning: Side effects may include smiling for abnormally long periods of time.

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