Erika Benitez is not your typical American teenager. Yes, she goes to school like the rest of the kids her age, but that is where the similarities end. Instead of chasing boys at the mall, 14-year-old Erika is chasing them down on the water. More often than not, she wins. As the popularity of stand up paddling continues to grow, more and more young paddlers are gravitating towards the sport. This is particularly true in Southern California where a hip surfing vibe permeates the SUP community, regardless of whether or not participants themselves actually surf. Erika first tried stand up paddling in 2009 in flat water conditions at Alamitos Bay in Long Beach. According to her father, Erika began to get serious about her training regimen the next year.
Committing oneself to a training schedule can be tough. Most of us have a range of responsibilities from work to family, along with a mix of additional obligations which altogether make it challenging to carve out the time to get on the water multiple times in a week and engage in something that vaguely resembles a training regimen. The daughter of a commercial diver and nursing assistant, Erika and her parents have dedicated themselves to a schedule which enables her to train four times a week at The Paddle Academy in Dana Point – an approximately 74 mile round trip journey from the family’s home in Stanton. “It feels like driving to Las Vegas twice a week, but its all worth it,” her father told me. “She is so happy when she is training and I’m so stoked to see her improving and getting stronger. I believe my passion and her passion for SUP creates the right balance.”
Each trip lasts around four hours when you factor the length of time necessary to drive there, train and return home. Erika typically does her homework and reads during the journey. An excellent student, her favorite subjects are Science and English and she is currently enrolled in advance placement courses in Math, English and Spanish. Erika possesses unmistakable natural talent and she focuses the same level of dedication and effort to her academic studies as she does SUP. Passionate about helping others and intrigued by anatomy, Erika would like to one day pursue a career as a physical therapist.
I first met Erika during a visit to The Paddle Academy earlier this year after having previously heard about her accomplishments from a mutual acquaintance. Her smiling, buoyant enthusiasm and humble demeanor was readily apparent. “Erika’s life is totally different from what it used to be. Before The Paddle Academy, we would train in Long Beach twice a week, but when she started training with The Paddle Academy, Erika’s perspective on paddling changed, she found an extension of her family,” her father told me.
Stand up paddling has opened a number of avenues for Erika to make new friendships and connect with the ocean. “Erika loves training and spending time with her friends at The Paddle Academy,” he said.
Erika has been a fixture on the Southern California Winter Series this season (a collection of events organized by local outrigger canoe clubs running from October through March), often times competing in both the grom and open class races. A cursory glance at her results on the race management site Paddle Guru indicates she is no stranger to the podium, although you would never know it from the consummate professionalism she displays both on and off the water. Indeed, if one were to draw a comparison between Erika and a top professional athlete from a whole person perspective, the most plausible individual would likely be Danny Ching.
In a winning streak last fall which her father calls the Trifecta, Erika dominated her competitors by winning first place overall in the Junior 5 mile race and 1.5 mile sprint at the Sunday Sunday Sunday event in San Diego. The next weekend she competed in the Battle of the Paddle-California where she took first place in the kids race and finished second during the four mile open race in the 14 and under division [and was the fifth female paddler to cross the finish line]. Erika then delivered an encore performance with a first place victory the third weekend at the Urban Surf 4 Kids Paddlefest in San Diego. “I couldn’t believe all she accomplished in those two weeks…and that’s why I call it the Trifecta,” said her father.
While her efforts on the water have met with numerous success stories, Erika’s favorite events are the Race Lake of the Sky where the crystal clear water and mountain scenery captivated her spirit and the Los Angeles Waterkeeper’s Stand Up for Clean Water event at Paradise Cove in Malibu. “It was a beautiful beach and location. It was a very organized event with live music and amazing food,” commented her father.
Erika’s SUP racing continues to take her to new and exciting locations, however, her favorite place to paddle remains the Naples area of Long Beach where she took her first strokes on a paddleboard at age nine. Even so, she longs to one day paddle in Hawaii, “she’s been dreaming about it for the last two years,” her father told me.
Whatever the future may hold for Erika, her ascent as one of the world’s top young paddlers and strong academic performance suggests she will likely find success at whatever endeavour she sets her heart on.