Erika Benitez is a part of SUP racing’s new generation. Often characterized as the future of the sport, Benitez and her teammates at The Paddle Academy have grown older and wiser with each passing year. Her skills as a paddler have improved and time and time again Benitez has risen to the challenge to compete alongside many of the best paddlers in the sport.
Earlier this week I had the chance to speak with Erika Benitez about her progression. At times it seems like it was just a few months ago when she was training on her own, paddling around Naples Island in Long Beach while her father, Erik, shouted out words of encouragement to keep her spirits high. Now a senior in highschool, Benitez is beginning to look ahead towards her own future and how she will continue to incorporate SUP racing into her life.
You have had a busy year traveling more than ever before and competing at an increasingly higher level. What has the experience been like?
Oh my gosh, you have no idea. So much training and training, going from Oregon to the ISA World Games to the PPGs. It was the first time I’ve visited Europe and it was really cool. I went with my parents and we had a great time. It was totally different from what I expected. The people there are so nice. We were there for a week and then I had to return home to go back to school.
You did pretty well at ISA, right?
Yeah! I took ninth in the long distance. It took so much effort. It was more like a mental game than anything physical. It took a lot of effort, but it was worth it! Going to ISA was the highlight of my racing season this year. It was so much fun. Being there for the first time, seeing so many athletes from different countries. I think this year the ISA had more countries participate than ever before. It was really cool!
How long have you been paddling?
I began paddling recreationally when I was nine and began racing when I turned 12.
Erika Benitez. Photo: Erik Benz
And how old are you now?
Standup paddling has been your main sport, correct?
Yes, standup has been my main sport. I did do track in middle school and my freshman year of highschool. I’ve also done a bit of outrigger with Danny Ching and his club.
What motivates you to keep racing SUP?
I really enjoy the opportunity to travel with the sport. There are so many opportunities to visit different states and new countries with SUP racing. The people are super nice. I’ve met so many of my close friends through paddling. Paddling with your friends is always so much fun. I also thrive on the feeling when you win [a race]. I think once I won the Jr. Pro at the Pacific Paddle Games it motivated me to train harder and prepare myself to go to more challenging competitions like Hood River and the ISA Games. That feeling of winning was so nice it made me want to strive to accomplish it again and again.
Do you have a favorite style of SUP racing?
I prefer the long distance races. They involve a lot of strategy and are more of a mental game. I think endurance is one of my strengths. I do like the technical races, but I enjoy the strategy involved in distance racing. If you fall back you can still have a chance to catch up, whereas the same isn’t really true for a technical race because they are over quicker.
Do you prefer ocean racing or flat water?
Definitely the ocean because you can catch little bumps and use them as an opportunity to gain on the competition. Flat water can be kind of boring sometimes, especially if there is no wind…I just really like it in the ocean and find it interesting.
How important has The Paddle Academy been to helping you develop your skills as an athlete?
A lot! I used to train by myself paddling around Naples Island. It was like torture, I hated it so much! The Paddle Academy helps me a lot. Every time I go I’m racing with my friends. I think that really helps me mentally prepare for racing…how to deal with any carnage or unexpected situations.
How often do you train with The Paddle Academy?
Three times a week for about two hours each session – Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
What advice do you have for other kids your age or younger who might be interested in getting into SUP racing?
When I look back at when I was younger, I wish I would have got my friends to do it with me, or paddle with someone else. So, I think paddling with your friends and learning to enjoy the sport before you start competing is an important thing. You have to learn how to love it. Then you’ll find your passion and start enjoying it even more.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m a senior in high school this year, so hopefully I’ll be able to continue competing when I go to college. I’d really like to continue traveling with the sport and perhaps do the Euro Tour one day. And maybe, one day when I’m in my late 20s I might win first place at the Pacific Paddle Games in the technical and long distance!
I think you might win it before then!
Oh my gosh (laughing), I’ll have to start training like Annabel [Anderson]!
Thanks Erika! Good luck this year at the Pacific Paddle Games!
You may follow Erika Benitez on Instagram at: @erikabenitezz