PARK CITY — Trent Hickman doesn’t exactly know why surfing captivated a kid from Utah.
“Maybe it’s because my mom is from Malibu (California),” he said. “I’ve always had an affinity for surfing; I’ve always wanted to be a surfer. I remember going to visit my grandpa and trying to learn how to surf. It seemed like Mission Impossible for a kid from Utah.”
Hickman may not have had a lot of opportunities to surf as a youngster growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, but he made the most of every opportunity he had.
In 2004, he moved to Costa Rica. Six months of the year he lived there and spent much of that time surfing. The other six months, he was in Utah, working and wishing he could find a way to ride the waves in the desert.
About five years ago, he found a way to bring his passion to Utah.
“Someone said, ‘You’ve got to try stand-up paddle boarding,’ ” he said. A Park City couple who were among the first to preach the benefits of the sport, Bob and Betsy Risner, took Hickman out for a little demonstration on Jordanelle Reservoir.
“I stood on the board, and I instantly knew I was going to do something with the sport,” said Hickman, founder and owner of Park City Stand Up Paddle, a company that offers classes, tours and hosts competitions, including the Park City SUP Cup this weekend. “I bought four boards, started taking people out and placed second in my first contest.”
Hickman has seen the sport explode in Utah, especially the last couple of years. What was an oddity at the Outdoor Retailers five years ago now dominates the first day, referred to as Demo Day, of the massive convention that features outdoor products. And the growth isn't just in the number of people enjoying stand-up paddle, it's also in how SUP lovers expand their sport.
“It’s grown a lot,” Hickman said. “Initially there was one shop. I was kind of the only one out there doing tours. Now you walk into REI and it’s mainstream. They carry boards at Scheels and at Outdoor Retailer, it now has a whole tent.”
The growth is not a local phenomenon. In fact, in many ways, Utah grew a bit slower than some other land-locked communities, but that began changing a couple of years ago.
“It took a long time to catch on,” said John Becker, 55, Eden, a retired commercial fisherman and life-long surfer who now designs boards for Lahui Kai and is the uncle of Matt Becker, an accomplished professional in the sport. “Matt and I thought it would grow faster here, but the last couple of years, last year in particular, it’s grown exponentially. Finally it seems to have caught on.”
He said there may be a few reasons why the sport grew a bit slower in Utah than many enthusiasts initially expected.
“I think it’s human nature,” Becker said. “People are afraid of failure. They’re curious, but they think, ‘If I can’t stand up on a surfboard, I can’t stand up on a paddle board.’ And in the beginning, they were super tippy, very difficult. That’s not the case anymore. There are boards for everybody.”
Trisha Worthington, Park City chief development officer for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Foundation, saw the sport as the perfect way to help her new staff gel. She and about 10 colleagues spent a day with Hickman at PCSUP paddling around Deer Valley’s man-made waterway, Pebble Beach.
“I wanted to do something fun, something physical,” said the 45-year-old, who spends her time raising money to support elite skiers. “It’s different. Rather than just have lunch, let’s do something together.”
Most of the staff is pretty active, but only a few had tried stand-up paddle before their adventure with Hickman last week.
“Everyone loved it,” Worthington said. “I think Trent gained a few fans. A lot of the staff will go back and try it again. I don’t think any of us had ever done yoga before on a paddle board.”
Hickman’s philosophy isn’t just that anyone can enjoy the sport. He’s also constantly coming up with ways to play on the board in new ways. He competes himself, so he sees what’s happening in surf-loving communities, and he tries to persuade Utahns to give it a try.
“The competitions are really fun,” he said. “I started traveling and competing a bit. One thing I quickly realized, we were missing some good races here. The local scene needed to grow. It was kind of a bummer to have to drive to California to compete.”
So three years ago, he started hosting races. He wasn’t just the host, however, as he was also a competitor.
“Some people gave me a hard time about racing in the races I put on,” he said laughing. “But I love racing, and I hate to have to travel to the races.
This is Hickman’s third summer hosting races, including this weekend’s two-day event. He created the first co-ed tandem races three years ago, and on Aug. 9 is their annual “Paddle Pedal Paddle,” an endurance event that combines mountain biking and SUP.
Park City SUP holds camps for children, tours and lessons of all ages and abilities and competitions with categories for just about any and every level of skill.
One can quietly paddle around a placid lake or ride down a raging river. Hickman’s PCSUP Cup will feature the world’s first boat wake surfing contest, in which suffers use the wake of a boat to create the waves where they perform their tricks.
Setting up shop at Deer Valley allows him to teach children in just about the best situation as the water is warmer, more shallow and the young surfers are always close to land.
“The kids really love it,” he said. “The addition of the beach access has been wonderful.”
Hickman is so convinced he can teach anyone to SUP, he invited some reporters to give surfing in the boat wake and paddle board yoga a try two weeks ago. (See related column.) While it was harder for some than others, there were definitely aspects that make it easier than learning to surf in the unpredictable ebb and flow of waves made by Mother Nature.
And while Hickman said he paddle boards because it’s a blast, the former trainer also sees the health benefits as unmatched.
“I’m really biased, but obviously activity is good for the body,” he said. “SUP works your whole body, your stabilizers are working, it’s a great cardio workout, you get strength and balance. It’s really sort of the complete fitness workout.”
Hickman said a short lesson or tutorial on the sport can make an initial experience more enjoyable.
“The biggest misconception I hear is, ‘Oh, I don’t need a lesson,’ ” he said. “And yeah, you can figure it out. But I’ve seen people holding the paddle backward, hands too close, it’s not vertical, and it’s OK, they’re still having fun. But if they’d look up how to hold the paddle on the Internet or take one lesson, I think they’d have so much more fun.”
So what started as something surfers used to compensate for age or to catch bigger waves is now it’s own unique sport. And while there is still some animosity between surfers who paddle and those who don’t, even that’s subsiding as the sports naturally complement each other.
Becker said the use of the paddle with the surfboard allowed him to re-embrace a sport he thought he’d have to give up because of shoulder replacements.
“I saw a short video clip with a friend and we’re both guys with both shoulders rebuilt,” he said. In the fall of 2003, he and a friend fashioned their own cumbersome setup, but it was still glorious.
“I was totally hooked,” he said. “I couldn’t physically paddle on my own, so surfing stopped for me. I could actually paddle out. We weren’t very good, but we were having so much fun.”
He has friends in their 70s who paddle regularly.
“My mom paddles, and she’s 84,” he said. “The boards have gotten much more stable. They’ve gotten much more affordable. The biggest draw here has been from canoe and kayak, just like in the Midwest. It’s a completely different (experience), a much better workout. It’s just really different.”
Worthington, who is not a life-long surfer, said she bought her own equipment after being introduced to the sport a few years ago. She paddles once a week with her two daughters, who are 7 and 10.
“We just learned last year,” she said. “And they love it. They absolutely love it.”