International accolades were the furthest thing from Bart Schade’s mind when he went to Santa Cruz this summer for the Jay Moriarty Memorial Paddleboard Race.
While the race would, for the first time, decide who was going to join the U.S. team at the world championships in September, the truth was that the 55-year-old tech executive from Solana Beach went more as a lark, simply for the sake of competing. He gave the 12-mile course his all, finished in a distant but perfectly respectable fourth place, and headed home ready to resume his training with the North County Paddlers.
And then, one by one, the racers who beat him in Santa Cruz had to back out. Before long, Schade was on his way to Denmark for the International Surfing Association’s SUP and Paddleboard World Championships, where he would compete alongside and against the sport’s top athletes, nearly all of whom were half his age — and in many cases, significantly less.
The outcomes of his two races in Denmark were, to a degree, limited. Australia and New Zealand dominate prone paddling to such an extent that the only real question was which would win gold and which would settle for silver. For the rest of the racers, the sheer size of the field — 42 countries were represented in Denmark, nearly twice as many as any other year — meant it was anybody’s guess for third place on down.
“It was an opportunity, so I figured go enjoy it,” Schade said. “I really had no expectations.”
For two hours, 10 minutes and 20 seconds, Schade paddled his 12-foot board through Copenhagen’s historic harbor and canals, nearly 20 kilometers in all, to claim the bronze medal.
Schade’s second race — held a few days later in Vorupor, a seaside town known by paddlers as “Cold Hawaii” — was of the “technical” variety, a shorter race around a smaller course that wove in and out of the surf line. In that race, Schade finished fourth, which by ISA rules earned him a copper medal and a second trip to the winners’ podium.
Those third- and fourth-place finishes netted more points than any of the U.S. team’s 10 other racers —a roster that included several world champions — and helped lead the U.S. to 5th place overall.
Schade’s bewildered surprise was made all the sweeter, he said, by the fact that his prone-paddling teammate — Donna Jo O’Brien, a 51-year-old from Redondo Beach who earned her spot through nearly identical circumstances — also had two strong showings.
But as remarkable as that experience was, Schade has been more than happy to focus his attention closer to home as the North County Paddlers train for the circuit of local races that start back up in the spring. The informal but tightly knit group counts everyone from CEOs to triathletes and teenagers to septuagenarians among its membership, which hovers around 75 active members at any given time and more than 600 on its Facebook page.
Even in the dead of winter, a half-dozen hardy souls make it to Cardiff state park for their pre-dawn, four-hour sessions.
“It’s an underground crew that’s really dedicated,” Schade said. “This group is really great. We raise money for foundations. It changes people’s lives. It’s just the best people ever.”
His sights are already set on defending his win in last year’s Waterman Challenge, the 15-mile race from Swami’s to Windansea that draws hundreds of competitors. The world championships might have unmatched prestige, but it’s the local races that have the kind of cachet Schade cares far more about.
“These races are just a bunch of us doing our thing,” he said. “It’s what I paddle for,” he said.
Before long, that mantel will pass to his son Andy, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy who captains the school’s surfing team as well as its water polo team. Son bested dad for the first time at the Powerhouse Paddle in Del Mar at the end of last year, followed by another defeat in their first race of 2017.
And lest he bask too long in his Denmark glow, Schade was served another stinging reminder of time’s cruel march three weeks after his return when the duo went down to the wire at the Pacific Paddle Games in Dana Point. After six miles and nearly 60 minutes, son edged out dad by a scant three-tenths of a second. The margin: the slightest of stumbles as they hit the sand and sprinted to the finish line.
With his son seeming to grow stronger with each race, Schade is at this point hoping just to stay competitive for another year, maybe two.
“Nah,” he joked. “I don’t think that’s possible.”