Over the Thanksgiving weekend I was fortunate enough to return to one of my favourite places in the entire world. I was able to participate in the Tuff City SUP competition in Tofino, British Columbia, as a qualifier for Team Canada for the ISA Worlds in Puerto Rico. My goal for this competition was not to qualify for Team Canada, but to compete in my first SUP Surf competition and see where I stack up against the best SUP surfers in our country. A special mention goes to Tim Bala, the owner of Paddle Niagara who sponsored this trip. I could not be any more thankful for him for not only paying for my flight but also for supporting my dreams.
I left Toronto early Friday morning (midnight to be exact) and arrived in Vancouver just after 2am (BC time). I grabbed my paddle bag, left the airport, got in a taxi, and arrived in Tsawwassen at 3am. I sat outside the ferry terminal for 15 minutes until a staff member opened the doors for me so I could wait inside. I hopped on the phone with David from Paddle Logger while I waited for my 5:15am ferry. I slept on a bench for an hour, and shortly after it was time to go. I got on the ferry and slept for another hour before meeting my friends Kristy and Adam Schell. I found them at breakfast, walked with them to their car, and soon we were driving off the ferry to Tofino!
It was really nice chatting up with Adam and Kristy about SUP surf strategy, logistics, and past competitions. Adam asked me about my current life status, and I explained to them both that I’m pursuing an athletic career as a SUP athlete. They both said that it is fantastic that I’m pursuing my dreams; I truly love that everyone I’m telling agrees with my choice to try to pursue SUP full time, it makes me feel like my future is less scary and unknown. As I sat in the backseat, I could not help but look out the window the whole way to Tofino, even though I’ve done this drive many times now. The lakes and mountains will always take my breath away.
We first stopped in at Tofino Paddle Surf to see if Catherine Bruhwhiler was around - which, unfortunately, she was not -, then made our way to Tin Wis to see my friend Garrett McLeod who I planned to stay with all weekend. Garrett and I made our way into town, and grabbed lunch together at Adriana’s. Garrett had to head back to work, so I stayed in town a bit longer. I had coffee at Tofino Sea Kayaking, read a bit more of my book ‘Gifts from the Sea’, then decided to walk the Tonquin Trail to stretch my legs after the long journey. I walked slow and steady through the trees, taking in the view I’ve seen so many times before. I breathed heavy soaking in the ocean air as I kept looking up into the tall trees. I thought about how happy I was to be back in a place that has always felt like a second home, but sad at the same time knowing I was missing my family on thanksgiving weekend. I had no idea what to expect in terms of how I was going to perform in the competition. I was sacrificing family time to be there so I only hoped it would be worth it. I tried to let that pressure fade away from me as I walked through the forest.
At the end of the trail I made it to Mackenzie Beach, then Chocolate Tofino, then lastly Swell Education inside of Hotel Zed where I caught up with my friends Fellipe and Bridget. Garrett finished work and met us at Hotel Zed; we grabbed two SUP surfs to use for the competition and then we were on our way to the Pacific Rim National Park for a surf. We had a beautiful sunset surf avoiding the fog at Florencia Bay. The waves were a bit dumpy, but it felt nice to shake off the tiredness from my travels in the ocean. It felt good to feel the waves' power in the ocean again since the waves are so different from home on the Great Lakes. We surfed till dark, got out of our wetsuits in the night, drove to Ucluelet where Garrett lives, and rode our bikes down to the Ucluelet Brewing Co. for a late dinner. We went to bed well-fed and tired ready to take on the competition the next day.
Saturday we woke up at 6:30am, got breakfast at a bakery nearby, then headed straight to Cox Bay. We met Bridget and Emre (the owner of Swell Education) in the parking lot and walked down Maltby Road with most of our gear. We said hi to a few people then joined the surfers’ meeting. The comp was on and the first heat of the men’s was up!
Only a few heats ran, and then the fog rolled in. Since the judges couldn’t see anything they had to put the contest on hold, but only for 20 minutes. Shortly after, my heat (round one) was on. I was competing against Catherine Bruhwhiler, Liz Tatchen, and Jessica Hicks. The horn blew, I paddled out back and waited for a good opening wave. I looked over my shoulder and saw all three women catching waves on the inside. I got antsy and wanted to catch a wave soon. I remembered at that moment some wise words Emre told me last year. He said that the ocean will always provide a bigger wave at the end of the set, so if you’re patient you can catch the bigger, better wave. That’s exactly what I did, and the plan worked. I was rewarded in my patience with a beautiful left wave. I paddled, dropped down the face, and made two top turns before finishing the wave. I jumped off my board and couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t believe I rode a wave so perfect. My heart was pounding and even more adrenaline kicked in.
I paddled back out so I could catch another one. I waited again and caught another good left. I caught another decent sized wave that broke right and got one solid turn in. The horn blew and I came in with my board. I felt happy and confident even though I had no idea what my waves scored. I checked the board five minutes later to see that I came in 2nd place behind Catherine. I couldn’t believe it! I felt like I had won! I didn’t think I was going to do so well right off the hop! I walked over to the Swell Education crew sitting on the beach and gave everyone high fives; I was so stoked! I told Emre that I waited for the bigger wave in the set just as he had told me to last year and he smiled.
After a small lunch, I watched Garrett surf in his opening heat, stretched, and waited for my semi-finals round since I skipped the elimination round. It was Catherine, Bridget and I surfing in the semis. I thought I had to win my heat to move on, and because of this I wasn’t as calm and collected as I was in my first heat. I wanted to win desperately so I tried to catch every wave in sight. I caught three waves for the whole heat, but none that I was super proud of. I came out of the water disappointed. Shortly after I checked the scoreboard and realized that my 2nd place finish in the heat was enough to put me into the finals. Once again I was shocked and so thrilled that I was going to surf a third heat for the day!
The fog rolled in once more so we had to wait a half hour for it to clear. The men's finals heat was up first and then the women’s. Before my heat started as I carried my board to the water, I took a moment to think of all of the people and sponsors that I was thankful for. I stared at the Cox Bay lookout, then the ocean, leaned over my board and took a few deep breaths. I hopped in the water, the horn blew, and it was time to go.
I learned so much in this heat surfing with the best women in our country. I learned how to call for the right of way, how to not drop in on someone (which was totally by accident), and how to be selective when choosing a wave to surf. I was exhausted by the time the heat was over and knew I gave it my all. I came out of the water at first super disappointed knowing that I didn’t do well, but Lise chatted with me as we walked back up the beach, giving me tips on how to improve for next time. That chat made me feel better. Everyone started to congratulate me on making the final as I came out of the water, and that support made me feel better too.
We packed up our stuff and headed over to Long Beach Lodge for the awards ceremony. It was fun chatting with everyone about the day and how much fun we all had. The results came in. For the men it was Jake Collard in first, Emre Bosut in second, Riley Richters in third, and Adam Schell in fourth. For the women it was Catherine Bruhwhiler in first, Lise Richard in second, Kristy Schell in third and myself in fourth. I felt proud to be standing there alongside so many phenomenal people. We have a unique surf scene here in Canada, and in that moment I was honoured to be a part of it. This is truly a trip I will never forget. I’m so grateful for everyone who made this trip possible, Tim Bala, my family, my Tofino friends, Swell Education, and more. I am deeply grateful for every single one of you for allowing me to pursue SUP as a career, and to become the entrepreneur I have always wanted to be.
Words by Maddi Leblanc. Photos by @pacificrimeventphotography.
Maddi Leblanc is a Niagara born, Toronto-based stand up paddling athlete for Team Canada, SUP instructor, and lake surfer. Maddi is also the new General Manager at Surf the Greats. She has been paddle boarding for nine years, competing in SUP for six years, and surfing the Great Lakes for six years. She recently just completed her Masters at Brock University in Recreation & Leisure Studies. Find her on Instagram.