Investing in youth paddling is essential to growing the sport of standup paddling. While this notion has been gaining traction recently, the Big Winds Junior Elite Team (JET) represents a prime example of how to effectively run a successful youth paddling program. Now in its 11th year, this program was started by the late Steve Gates in Hood River, Oregon. Having founded the legendary Big Winds outfitter in 1987, Gates strongly believed in investing in the future of our sport, and the JET Team was his answer.
One of those young paddlers he invested in was none other than Black Project athlete and World Champion paddler, Fiona Wylde. While the paddling world lost Steve to cancer in 2019, he passed the torch to Wylde, who has proudly carried on his legacy as Head Coach of the JET Team. Black Project is proud to support this incredible program and recently caught up with both Fiona Wylde and Assistant Coach Bruce McPadden to learn more about the JET Team, the importance of youth paddling and the secret to keeping kids on the water. See our full interview below.
Can you talk about the success of the JET Team and your personal experience with this program––ranging from your days as a youth paddler to now becoming Head Coach?
Fiona Wylde: I’m incredibly proud of this team and am constantly blown away by Steve Gates’ foresight into the sport of SUP. Personally speaking, it’s thanks to Steve and the JET program that I learned how to paddle and my love for the sport grew. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I’m reminded why I fell in love with paddling.
Being able to share my standup paddling experience with kids of all ages and abilities, while also seeing their skills improve, that’s one of the biggest rewards I could ever ask for. Standup paddling is about sharing the water and introducing new people to the water in ways they didn’t know existed. That’s what SUP taught me and that’s what I hope to teach the new generation of JET kids. It’s an honor to be their coach.
Steve left an incredible legacy in the Hood River and beyond. Talk about his influence on your paddling career and what it means to carry on his legacy and coach the JET Team?
Fiona Wylde: Steve Gates was an instrumental role model in my life and the lives of many others. He was the kind of guy that when he asked you to do something, you did it. You did it because you knew he had your best interest at heart.
That’s what happened to me when he said that JET Team training was going to start at 6:30 in the morning during summer for a bunch of teenagers. You can imagine the four of us standing, jaws hitting the floor. But we didn’t argue, we showed up at 6:30. It took me a few years to realize it, but through the JET program, Steve taught all of us about work ethic, showing up on time, responsibility, respect, and having fun. Steve would bring a speaker down to JET practices and at 6:15 in the morning, tunes would start! Even though it was early, we were there to have a good time. That is what mattered most, having a good time and working hard.
These are all lessons that I learned through the JET program and I’ve taken them into my everyday life. It was an honor when Steve and I sat down and he asked me to take over as Head Coach. We coached together in 2019 and I was able to watch the details of the way he worked. He was methodical, he paid attention, and no kid went unnoticed. I hope that I can provide similar opportunities to kids, both now and in the future. I am where I am today thanks to Steve, and my love and respect for him and his family goes beyond words. I hope to share what he taught me with the next generation of young waterwomen and watermen.
Bruce McPadden: Being invited to work alongside Fiona and MacRae to continue Steve Gates’ legacy is the greatest of honors for me. When I saw Steve and Fiona working together with the JET Team, there was no doubt something very special was happening.
Fiona brings lessons from years of professional training and success on the world stage. Her commitment to the youth of Hood River and Steve’s vision is a prime example of “Paying It Forward.” Away from world stage of competitive paddling, Fiona’s endless hard work in the Hood River community and beyond goes forward with humility and makes a grand impact in the region.
What is your favorite part about coaching young paddlers and what advice would you give to fellow coaches?
Fiona Wylde: My biggest piece of advice would be to keep it fun! I learn so much about my own paddling when I work with the kids. The more fun we have on the water, the more we improve. I really like to focus on the “team” aspect. Paddling is an individual sport, but it can be a team sport in the same way cross-country running or skiing is. The more we support each other as a team, the better we’ll all be.
Bruce McPadden: My favorite part of coaching young people is being able to watch them grow through challenges and have fun doing so. I enjoy helping create an environment of team accountability and working on areas of discipline that carry beyond the program and into regular life.
One of Steve’s quotes was on timeliness: ”If you are early, you are on time; if you are on time, you are late; and if you are late, it is unacceptable.” That’s a solid foundation to remember while moving through life’s experiences.
How many JET Team paddlers participated in the 2021 Gorge Challenge? What was your favorite moment of the weekend?
Fiona Wylde: We had 22 JET Team members participating in the Gorge Paddle Challenge this year. Throughout the weekend, it was amazing to watch the team grow closer. They gelled together in a way I didn’t expect, but it was spectacular to see.
My favorite moment was towards the end of the Grom Race. It was really windy for the kids’ races, something like 20-25 knots. Everybody was doing so well, powering into the wind and yelling “I LOVE THIS!” on the downwind section. (I was out on the water, so I could hear all of it.)
However, one JET member had a hard time with the wind. You could tell he was frustrated––as most adults would be paddling into a stiff headwind––but this paddler didn’t stop. He kept going. I was on the water with him and when he came around the last buoy to head into the beach, ALL of his teammates were standing on the finish line, cheering for him as loud as they possibly could. To me, there is nothing better. That is what it means to be on a team and I’m so happy this is happening in our sport.
You also started the Monday Night Family Races this year, how did those turn out?
Fiona Wylde: Yes! I started a local SUP and Running series called RiveRun! It was a complete blast. The goal was to provide an opportunity for people and families to compete in a friendly and fun atmosphere. For five Monday nights in a row, we hosted 1.5- and 3- mile SUP Races, as well as 1.5- and 3-mile running races.
You raced in SUP or Run but not both. Both races shared a start line, so when the race started, paddlers ran to their boards in the water and runners took off the other direction. The goal was to provide an option for people who didn’t paddle to still be part of the local event. We had many people participate throughout the summer, especially when we had Dress-Up night. That was a blast!
I’m really looking forward to more hosting more of these events going forward.
Black Project helps support the JET Team with paddles, talk about the importance of equipping kids with quality equipment?
Bruce McPadden: Without equipment for the JET Team, things would become challenging. We aim to supply equipment like boards, paddles, fins, and PFDs for team members who don’t have their own gear. Having quality paddling equipment in design and fit is essential for optimal performance at any level.
Through the Gates family, Big Winds has always been central to providing quality performance gear for JET members. In recent years, Chris and the Black Project team have always been willing to provide the JET Team with high-quality paddles and fins–– this season was no exception. Black Project sent over a full set of Junior paddles to support the entire team and it contributed to a stellar season, culminating in JET Team success at the Gorge Paddle Challenge. Black Project also sent new race paddles for the season to several long-serving team members.
Success breeds success and I would like to extend our deep appreciation to Chris and the Black Project team for their very generous support. They continue to grow excellence in the sport of SUP and I’m already looking forward to next season!