On September 22nd, after all the racing was done for the day, and the season, the Midwest Paddle League took a moment to recognize the folks who made the community better, AND who showed competitive excellence by winning or placing in the top 5 of their respective classes. The awards ceremony was held at Lucky’s in Gun Lake shortly following the conclusion of the season with the Whatever It Takes on Gun Lake race just down the street.
In the spirit of “community first”, the league chose to recognize individuals who made significant contributions to the league on and off the racecourse. These individuals embody the spirit of community, and inspires us all to keep coming to races, making new friends, and making the Midwest Paddle League better.
The league wouldn’t even exist without the initiative and efforts of Doug Vojtko. In recognition of his immense contribution to the league, Doug was given a gift certificate to Great Lakes Surf Shop, and a hearty and sincere round of applause.
Elizabeth Maxwell – Shaka SUP Racing
After a race earlier this year, race organizer Daniel Novak commented “there are no winners without participants, and there is no race without volunteers.” Probably the greatest of volunteers is the promotor and race director of a race. They front the costs of a race, get permits, insurance, set the course, timing, handle logistics, get awards, race sponsors, and a whole host of other duties many of us take for granted. And the brutal truth is, most races don’t make much if any money at the end of the day. While “competition is second”, it is the cause for us to get together and enjoy a day on the water.
Our first appreciation award went to Elizabeth Maxwell, the force behind Shaka SUP Racing. Elizabeth and her team promoted 5 races this year. She got us started with the Gun Lake Paddle Battle, and kept her foot on the gas for a pair of races in Indiana, Paddle to the Max in Culver, and Sky an Oar in Noblesville. Finally, she organized the two final races of the year Paddle for YOUR Cause and Whatever it Takes on Gun Lake, the site of the season-end awards.
In addition to her tireless efforts to provide races for us to participate in, she also donates a portion of every race entry to a supporting charity. This season, that total exceeded $1500.
Shaka SUP Racing events have allowed the Midwest Paddle League to reach more paddlers across southern Michigan and Indiana and provide a geographic connection for the series between Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. Shaka events are accessible for beginners, with short fun races and kids’ events whenever possible. Elizabeth Maxwell went on to say:
Before joining Midwest Paddle League, my events felt like a little mom-and-pop kiosk. After joining the league oh, I feel more like a brick-and-mortar. Hoping to grow into a large department store. Midwest Paddle League helped me find new adventures across the ocean by helping me leave sight of the shore.
Dave Meade – Great Lakes SUP Challenge
All events are fun, from the smallest of turnouts to the full-blown festivals. However, looking back at the season, one event stood out as being particularly well organized, promoted, and fun. The Great Lakes SUP Challenge had it all, great promotion, fantastic swag bags, a free clinic from Matt Hassenrink, a social event, the night before, and of course a great day of racing. Great awards and thousands of dollars of free swag were just icing on the cake.
Dave Meade and team resurrected the Great Lakes SUP challenge after the event went on hiatus after 2014, adding a welcome open-water Lake Michigan race back onto the schedule. They got all the details right.
The Great Lakes SUP Challenge has established itself as a premier event, worthy of destination travel and has quickly become the crown jewel of the Midwest Paddle League. Dave added:
Although I don’t do much racing these days, I had an amazing experience as a first-time race director. Having the Great Lakes SUP Challenge be part of the Midwest Paddle League helped to make it a huge success. The Midwest paddling community is energized, and I’m stoked to be part of it!
Isn’t there some kind of rule about an author writing about an award he received? I wrote some stuff, made some facebook posts, got a couple of sponsors on board. I paddled 10 races, had a great time, and have a tremendous sense that I contributed in some meaningful way to a sport that I derive a lot of joy from. I am humbled to be recognized for my contributions.
-Paddler of the Year
This year’s award went to Robert Wilkinson. Rob is a quiet guy, an art teacher in the gritty south side of Chicago, who’s only been paddling a couple years. Rob switched from the short distance to the longer races after the first race of the season and never looked back completing 10 races, as many as anyone in the series. Rob faced his challenges head-on and was a picture of composure and perseverance on the water, he never looked discouraged and always finished with a smile on his face. Off the water, his calm quiet demeanor and words of encouragement where a constant presence to all paddlers, whether he knew you or not. Rob hasn’t had the chance yet to stand on a race podium, but for all brings to the league, we wanted recognize and award him the top of the podium for the community. Robert Wilkinson:
Midwest Paddle League race season was an awesome experience this Summer. It was definitely an epic journey that I would not trade for anything. The cool friends that I made and great paddling community is what made our group special. Already looking forward to Midwest Paddle League 2020 race season!!
Footstake – Sponsor of the Year
Sponsors are the life blood of any non-profit sporting organization. The provide the means
to pay for awards, web hosting, promotion, and anything else that takes cash to do. No other sponsor has done more this season than Footstake. In addition to being a series sponsor, they also sponsored several races in the series, and donated thousands of dollars in products for raffles and give-a-ways. They attended more than a half dozen races, set up a tent and given away a ton of stuff. There also great guys who bring a great sense of humor and encouragement to the events. The Midwest Paddle League wouldn’t be here without them. They even brought 2 custom made Midwest Paddle League beach tables to the event and a limited edition run of Midwest Paddle League hats made. Tim Grant from Footstake:
As a new product vendor charting out a path for building relationships beyond sales meant everything to our team. When Doug approached me about a possible relationship with the Midwest Paddle League it was a perfect fit. The personal relationships and support we have built with so many of you is the highlight of this season. We don’t feel like another vendor showing up at an event we feel like we are part of this community building something bigger and better in the future. Thank you for welcoming us into your family!
Women’s Long Distance
Kirsten Lefeldt dominated this season’s Women’s long-distance division with 6 wins in 6 starts. Kirstin has come into her own as an athlete, showing her fastest ever times in competition. In addition to league races, Kirsten has also made her presence known winning several non- sanctioned events such as the Des Plains river marathon and a strong 3rd place showing at the 11 City Tour in Europe. Kirsten is also the promoter of the Chicago event and board member of the league. Kirsten elaborated on her season:
Midwest Paddle League means putting lots of miles on my car, always running into the same usual suspects near some body of water in some state in a 8 hour driving radius of Chicago, it means challenging myself to become a better paddler and it makes for countless great memories. Glad we are keeping the stoke alive.
Wendy Anderson was able to squeeze in a win at Paddle for Your Cause, to cement her 2ndplace overall standing, capping off a season where she never finished lower than 2nd. Wendy had a few things to add:
The Midwest Paddle League is an amazing collection of people and races who truly put community first and competition second, to the betterment of all who attend. I couldn’t be more proud of my second place season award for the women’s long 14′ and under, as it brings to mind the wonderful venues I paddled in and the people I met on my way to earning it. Thank you Midwest!
Kattie Carpenter placed 3rd overall with strong finishes throughout the season, only slipping of the podium for a single race. Kattie on her award:
This has been my first season racing SUP, and it seems like I got into it at just the right time! I can’t imagine trying to do this sport and taking part in competition without this amazing community! I have learned so much from and been overwhelmed by the generosity of fellow racers. This is where lifetime friendships develop.
Men’s Long Distance
Much like Kirsten in the women’s division, the Men’s long distance was similarly dominated by Great Lakes Surf Shop owner Brian LeFeve with 5 wins in 5 starts. Brian led many events from start-to-finish and was able to build considerable margins over some very strong paddlers. He looked incredibly strong all season long, and even found time to promote his own race, The Lexington Huron Challenge. Brian also donated his time holding free race clinics at multiple events. Brian went on to state:
I started racing 8 years ago and absolutely loved the small community of racers and like-minded people! Props to Dave Schuster and IIlya for organizing the Midwest Racing series for 7 yrs. As the sport grew, we saw a decline in race participants, and eventually the Midwest Race Series slowly came to an end. With that being said, 3 paddlers stepped up to revamp and renew a sport and race series we all hold dear to our hearts! They took the reins and started the Midwest Paddle League and rejuvenated interest in racing and community again! Without these guys this season would not be what it was! I am truly grateful and thankful for what these 3 have accomplished in such a short time and the resurgence of racers stepping up and challenging themselves in some crazy tough Midwest conditions. Thank you, Midwest Paddle League, for bringing community first and racing second!!
Alex Sandler took 2nd overall in the series, he collected 3 race wins during the course of the series. In fact, he only finished off the podium a single time. Alex has also coached several racers, myself included, free of charge between races, and has more than done his part in increasing the level of competition in the series. Alex reflected:
This season was amazing and I am truly sad to see it go, but I am PSYCHED for next season to arrive! Will be happily anticipating next Midwest SUP season all winter long. Second Youth! That’s what I call it!
Bryan Block came in 3rd, and most likely also deserves some sort of award for miles travelled. He attended 10 races from his home in Moline, Il., which is 3 hours west of Chicago.
Capturing 4th place is Bret Schapman, a strong paddler who only finished of the podium a single time in 6 races. A cattle farmer by trade, Bret fit racing and training into a busy summertime farm schedule and proved consistency pays off. Bret Couldn’t make the season Finale, but sent along some thoughts:
If it weren’t for the MWPL, I would have only participated in two events this year. I met several new friends and can’t wait for the start of the 2020 season. I hope Doug and his crew know that they started something special and have positively impacted the lives of many.
Rounding out the top 5 is Midwest super star Karl Eugster. Karl did 10 races from the schedule this year and did them all on a 12’6” or an inflatable. He brought out his new BlkBox Surf 14’ hardboard for the last race of the season, and he was fast on it. He’ll be sure to challenge up the order next season. Karl had some of his own thoughts on series:
I’m happy to be part of this wonderful Midwest paddle league group, I’m always looking forward to next event just to meet up with everyone. I’ve been Sup’ing for 10 years, done 100 races, 15 this year including a new adventure in Holland, the weekend stage of the sup11citytour, I have been on the podium many times but haven’t done much to be competitive the last two years, I would rather see new faces up there.
Wes Harpham was edged out by Karl by a single point but had an incredible season with 2 podium finishes and deserves a mention here. Wes also shared a reflection:
This season was an amazing experience! I felt more of a competitive spark this year, which pushed me to work more on my technique and race endurance. I’m honored to finish so close to the top five and be amongst these amazing racers. The tougher and bigger the competition, the better the race. There’s nothing like a race when there’s 40+ of us at the starting line and you’ve got incredibly talented paddlers like Brian, Alex, Matt, Ben, Dan (and the list goes on and on here in the Midwest 🤙) on your left and your right.
I came to my first race three years ago and I’ve bonded with this community more and more every year. Having the Midwest Paddle League this year has made the community aspect that much stronger and every race a blast. I hope to see more athletes at more races next year. Congratulations to all of the athletes and these incredible racers ranked in the league! I am a better paddler thanks to each of you. Can’t wait to see everyone next season!!
Women’s Short Distance 14’ and Under
We saw a lot of different faces in the Women’s Short Distance this year, but two of the most exciting to watch was Laura Kinnie and Ryan Meade. Ryan is a teenage up-and-comer, with a great attitude and infectious smile. Laura meanwhile has a few more years and is in her second season of racing. The two have a great relationship of encouragement and support, and everyone around them can just feel what a good time they are having. The two of them personify the type of community that can be built and fostered through healthy competition. Ryan reflected:
The Midwest Paddle League has been awesome this year. I love being able to travel to all of the events and compete with everyone throughout the Summer. Even more than that, our paddling community has allowed me to meet new people and has given me so many amazing mentors to look up to. I’m sad to see the season come to an end but am already looking forward to paddling with everyone next year!
With her win at Lake Lansing, Ryan Meade was able to drop her lowest 5th place finish and take the overall win. Laura Kinnie fought hard this season for her 2nd place, and she’ll continue to push Ryan next season. Laura commented:
I found SUP 6 years ago. We have a good community in West Michigan. I was introduced to racing last year, the races I attended, I loved. Dislocating my shoulder for the 2nd time last year derailed my plans. This year I was able to paddle the races I wanted and found the Midwest Paddle League in the midst of it all. Every race we meet new people, we try other people’s boards & paddles, ask how they do this or that… everyone helps each other out. Each time I came to a race we greeted each other with smiles, fist bumps and hugs. I love this community and the friends I have made. I’ve padded with Ryan for 4ish years. We have fun together & learn from each other. She is a great paddler and competitor. I look forward to racing with her next year. And the trophies are the best ever!
Men’s Short Distance 14’ and Under
Nashville musician Adrian Barnett burst onto the Midwest scene late in the season completing his first race in the series in August at Lagoonapalooza. He immediately asserted himself as a top competitor placing 2nd in the race, and following up with back-to-back wins at Culver Indiana, and Noblesville. He and Doug Vojkto traded wins the remainder of the season, and in the end, it was a tie for the season championship. They both had the same number of wins (3), but we’ll let Adrian explain the tiebreaker in his own words:
I participated in my first ever SUP race last September (2018). Finding the Midwest Paddle League, meeting and racing alongside such fantastic people, and being welcomed into that community was an incredible way to celebrate my first year of racing!
I would also like to note that Doug Vojtko and I tied for points at the end of the season, but he let me have the championship trophy by citing “most miles driven to races” as being the tie breaker. Which goes to show it’s not just about pushing yourself at each race, but it’s also about supporting everyone at every race. Community first. Competition second. Thank you to everyone involved for such a fantastic experience!
Midwest Paddle League executive director Doug Vojtko was everywhere this season. From setting up the league, getting the races on the schedule do doing promotor relations on race day. On top of all of that, he’s also professional photographer who is responsible for many of the great images contained in this article and other promotions. Oh yeah, he’s also a really great paddler, who managed 6 podiums with 3 wins in the short distance, and even managed a podium in the long distance just for good measure. His consistently fast results earned him 2nd in the championship for the season. Doug had something to say about the competition with Adrian:
Giving credit where credit is due, Adrian Barnett had the better score in less races, as well, won the actual tie breaker besting me 3 to 2 out of 5. He’s a rockstar! (Pun intended) Actually the best part of the day, after pounding for 3.5 miles against Adrian at Whatever It Takes, was going back out and paddling to complete the 6 (7) mile race together. Fun on the water.
Michigan waterman Patrick Reeg stayed close to home in the Spring Lake/Grand Haven area and turned consistent finishes and 2 podiums into 3rd place overall for the series.
Scott Meade won 4th overall. If that last name seems familiar, it’s because he’s the brother of Event of the Year winner Dave Meade, and uncle to Women’s Short Distance winner Ryan Meade. While this qualifies the Meade family for the unofficial paddle family of the year, Scott worked hard in his own right and earned his award. Scott completed 7 races in just his second year of competition and continues to get faster each time he comes out. Scott Meade:
I was super excited to be a part of the Midwest Paddle League. At the start of the summer I could not wait to race. It’s a great community and everyone is supportive. I was super stoked to watch my niece compete and also watch my brother direct his first race.
Women’s Surf Style
The most accessible class to just about any paddler is the Short Distance Surf division. Just about anything without a displacement hull finds a home in the class. It’s an important division for attracting newer paddlers and getting them hooked on racing. The downside of the class is it also attracts a few people for a one-time close to home experience. However this season there was a clear stand-out in the Women’s Short Surf division, as Angelique Meiu charged on the scene, completing 7 races ( 6 short, 1 long), making her the undisputed season champion. Angelique had this to say:
I’m grateful for the opportunity to race. It adds a new dimension to my paddling by allowing me the opportunity to challenge myself on waters outside my comfort zone, improve my skills, and most importantly compete in a non-intimidating, friendly, fun atmosphere. I have met some really great people. And the trophy is very cool!
Men’s Surf Style
It’s hard to say surf style in the Midwest without thinking of Mike Bartos. Mike has come to define the class, consistently finishing at the top of every race he’s attended in the last 4 years. Incidentally, Mike does own a 14’ race board, he just prefers his trusty surf style. Mike is a big, powerful paddler who climbs waves like nobody’s business and manages even the long-distance races aboard the surf style. He’s also one of the nicest guys off the water. He always has a kind word to say, and when appropriate and legal, he may also have some fireball to share. Mike commented:
I love MY paddle family! Such good/fun friends that I get to share Summer with!! Missing it already! CHEERS !!
Raffles and Swag
We also had some really great giveaways from some of our sponsors. Shaka SUP Racing had some items. Footstake made 2 custom made Beach tales with the Midwest Paddle League logos. They also had some hats made up that were raffled off. SIC Maui donated a boxful of shirts and hats. Sutton’s Bay Bikes donated an NSP paddle bag and a carbon paddle. Lockrack donated a complete rack system of the winner’s choice. Everyone walked away with something, thanks to our generous sponsors!
That’s a wrap…for now
The racing is done and the trophy’s handed out, but the hard work is just getting started. Keep an eye out for a season recap article in the immediate future. The Midwest Paddle Crew is going to take a few days off and then get started planning for next season. We’ll be working hard on finalizing the schedule, getting a few new sponsors on board, stay tuned!