Pro Stand Up Paddleboarder Gillian Gibree
Standing Up and Giving Back:
Pro Stand Up Paddleboarder Gillian Gibree
Written by Mei Ling Starkey
When Pro Stand Up Paddleboarder (SUP) Gillian Gibree is not winning competitions, she can still be found in the water giving back to others. From helping with surf camps to teaching water safety instruction, her passion is inspiring others to do what they love and give back to the community. Even though she has several SUP titles to her name, Gibree stays grounded by taking the focus off herself and using SUP to raise awareness for other organizations. Risen sat down with her to talk about how she got started in her career, what she has learned from her mistakes, and why she enjoys helping others.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You grew up in Massachusetts out in the country and played softball in college. How did you start doing Stand Up Paddleboarding?
Gillian Gibree: I started out lifeguarding in Cape Cod and did it throughout college. I was also a competitive swimmer. As a lifeguard, you get into beach running, prone paddling, and other water sports because everyone that you work with loves the ocean. You all live together in these townhomes right near the beach. So in the morning we would get up, go surfing together, train for work, go to work, then go surf or hang out at the beach. That is what really got me into the whole beach lifestyle fitness scene full time. After college, I lifeguarded in New Zealand. I wanted to try lifeguarding in one of the most difficult places in the world. It was really challenging and I wanted to experience a different culture. Then I moved to San Diego and things transitioned from there with competing as a professional athlete and teaching SUP fitness.
Risen Magazine: Wow! You moved to New Zealand to experience some of the toughest lifeguarding. What was the most challenging thing that you faced?
Gillian Gibree: Their season is opposite of ours, so our winter is their summer. The hardest thing I had to do was a body recovery on Christmas day. In the United States, you have towers spread out across the beach and everything is pretty condensed. When you call for a rescue, ten fire trucks come. However, in New Zealand, there is a lot of rugged coastline and less lifeguards and rescue teams. There is a lot more going on and a lot more responsibility. It was definitely challenging. Even though I considered myself a water person, it taught me a lot. It also taught me a lot about water safety.
Risen Magazine: How have you taken that experience and translated it to your career?
Gillian Gibree: I have had to make rescues in crazy rips and surf and in dangerous conditions. It made me more comfortable in the ocean. Now I am confident when I am competing in races where you have to go in and out through the surf. In Hawaii, we will be in these down winders out in the middle of the ocean and the winds are 35+ mph. I now feel more confident being in water and those types of conditions. I also have the opportunity to teach certification to other people who want to teach SUP yoga. The biggest thing that they are lacking is water safety skills. Many teachers think that SUP is very easy and it is, but when you are bringing 10-20 people out in the water and the winds pick up without notice, you have to know what to do. I try and teach the instructors what to do in emergency situations.
Risen Magazine: How do people view SUP as compared to surfing?
Gillian Gibree: There is some tension, but some of the best surfers in the world are hooked on SUP. The guys don’t even want to look back to surfing. You have guys like Gerry Lopez, Laird Hamilton, and Dave Kalama some of these guys have been charging on short and long board for years. They really have embraced this whole new lifestyle. SUP is more diverse than just surfing. Surfing is about two percent of the industry as a whole. SUP is recreational and really uniting because a lot of people can do it. Families or a group of friends can do it together. Whereas, surfing is really high impact and you have to be a pretty decent athlete or you will get drilled into the sand. SUP is more put-the-board-in-the-water and go. Sometimes there is tension in the water in the line up when people are trying to catch a wave. But it stems more from people who don’t know the rules of the water or are trying to snag all the waves. Because SUP is not restricted to the ocean, it is becoming more widespread. People are able to do it on lakes and rivers. People are also doing white water SUP and fitness classes.
Risen Magazine: You recently mastered a brand new SUP race format to win the elite “Survivor SUP” at the Quiksilver Waterman Collection Waikiki Paddle Festival. How did you prepare for a race that hadn’t existed before?
Gillian Gibree: It was sprint in and out with a lot of buoy turns. It was similar to what I have done before at the Battle of Paddle race. The Battle of Paddle is the biggest race in SUP. Both Quicksilver and Battle of Paddle are very similar to lifeguard competitions. You sprint, you have your heat and then you get ready for the next sprint. Doing a lot of lifeguard competitions helped prepare me for that race.
The part that was completely different was that from when the first person finishes, you only have five minutes to recover before you have to race again. You can’t just slack and say, “Oh I made my heat,” because then you would have less rest. You have to strategize, “Do I want more rest between races and push myself harder during the race?” or, “Do I sit back, not exert myself and have less rest?” There was a lot of strategizing. Mid-way through the day, I decided that I didn’t need to win every heat, but just do well and then go all out when the final came. Sprints are fun for me because some of the other competitions are five or six miles, whereas Quicksilver is more like one-mile formats, which I do better at given my swimming and softball background. I’m used to sprint swimming and stealing bases. That is an advantage for me as compared to other SUP competitors who are better at distance and enjoy doing 30-mile competitions.
It is so touching to hear all the amazing things that people are doing and using SUP as a platform to do it.
Risen Magazine: It’s really interesting to hear how the different sports you played and experiences you had have helped you in your SUP career. What advice do you have for readers who are often told to focus on one activity so that they can become proficient at it?
Gillian Gibree: Try as many different things as possible. Organized sports were great for me growing up. Once I got to college, I played softball and realized that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like getting screamed at by a coach three times a day or having my whole schedule controlled. With SUP, my schedule is a lot more flexible. I am able to train and still work. Find what works for you and what sports you like. Some people need structure; others need to be outdoors with nature. Try everything, see what resonates with you and then go for it!
Risen Magazine: You paddled 36 miles across the Cape Cod Bay to raise money for the Boston Children’s Hospital. How did you decide to be a part of that event, because it sounds like you have a pretty busy schedule?
Gillian Gibree: It’s a really special event to me. It’s nice to be able to give something back that’s not, “Hey look at me. I just won a race.” It does something for people that need the extra help. Everything about that event is special to me – the location, the people, and the cause. I grew up in Cape Cod. I do the race with my friends and then at the end I get to see my family. They don’t always get to see my races. Thirty-six miles is a long way for an athlete and a lot of these people that do this race are not athletes, they’re full-time working people. They don’t even have professional race boards. They do the race on their beginner boards, but they do it because they are passionate about the cause and giving back. I was shocked by their dedication and everyone worked hard to raise money for the cause. The creator of the foundation was there as well. It meant a lot to me to be a part of that event.
Risen Magazine: Why is it important for you to give back to the community?
Gillian Gibree: It makes you feel good. I love being able to use my passion to be able to help other people. Everyone should do that in life. Once you find what you love, you should share it and help other people. In SUP, it is amazing to see how many people are doing that. People are doing distance paddles to raise money for breast cancer. It is so touching to hear all the amazing things that people are doing and using SUP as a platform to do it. There is a woman who paddled down a dangerous river in India to raise money for young girls who have cervical cancer. For me, it is great to be a part of it. One of my sponsors has a non-profit called Surfers Healing. The founder has an autistic son and started the organization. They do surf camps all over the country for autistic children. I got to be a part of that this summer which was really special. There is something about the water that calms the children. There is something about the ocean that is healing to them. It was really great to get to be a part of that this year and I hope I get to do more camps next year. It is cool to work alongside other athletes who are giving back as well.
Risen Magazine: How do you physically and mentally prepare for your competitions? You talked about one-mile sprints and 36-mile paddles, which require completely different ways of conditioning.
Gillian Gibree: My training is so diverse as compared to an Olympic sprint runner who will do one specific race. With SUP, there are so many different types of races. I do distance, sprint, and there are different types of water such as river and ocean, which affect the race as well. I have to maintain overall fitness. I do a lot of running and SUP surfing. I do interval workouts three times a week, which is an hour to an hour-and-a-half on flat water going all out. Once a week, putting in an eight to ten mile distance paddle. In the spring, it is easy for me to keep a regimented schedule. In the summer, when I am competing it is harder because I am traveling. I do yoga sculpt to build my core strength and get some cross training too. In the winter, I get to do more relaxing yoga. I do a lot of pool swimming for my prone paddle races. SUP athletes are very diverse. Many come from an outrigger or kayak background. Even though SUP is relatively new as a recognized sport, the athletes are not new to water sports. One just got an Olympic gold this summer in kayaking, another is an Iron Woman athlete, and another is an Olympic trial swimmer. The competitors have diverse backgrounds, so our training has to be very diverse.
Risen Magazine: In the ocean, it is all about picking the right wave. Pick the right wave and its smooth sailing, pick the wrong wave and it could wipe you out. Looking back on your life, how have you seen that play out?
Gillian Gibree: Sometimes you do end up picking the wrong wave and you learn from it. All of this didn’t happen overnight. There are times where I picked the wrong wave, I learned from it and got back out there. People look at what I am doing now and they get really excited, but what they don’t realize is that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It took me three years to balance being a professional athlete and owning my own business. There are a lot of learning experiences, but you grow by learning from your mistakes. As long as you have that end goal, you keep going forward. You have to stay focused and not allow things to set you back. Whatever you are doing, there are always going to be those waves or things that set you back, but you have to keep things in perspective and keep going forward. Two of the people that inspire me are Jeremy McGee and Jeff Denholm. Jeremy was in a terrible motorcycle accident and now he can’t feel from his waist down. He straps himself to a surfboard and goes out with a kayak paddle. Someone watches him, but he is more fired up than ever before. He also skis and drops into these back country ski locations to inspire people. Jeff had his arm ripped off in a fishing accident. He attaches a prosthetic arm and does a 32-mile paddle out in the middle of the ocean. That puts things into perspective for me.
Risen Magazine: Where would you say you are at on your spiritual journey?
Gillian Gibree: I grew up Christian going to church every week with my family. Doing what I do makes me thankful for every single day. I feel extremely spiritual when I am out in the water. Being around dolphins, seals, and sunsets is very spiritual for me. I have so much appreciation for it. It gives me gratitude for everything I get to do. Being able to give back with SUP has helped me to take the focus off me and put it back on others.
Risen Magazine: You are one of the pioneers for women in SUP. What type of legacy do you want to leave?
Gillian Gibree: It encourages me to hear stories from others who are being impacted by what I do. Because so many people are able to do the sport, I get to hear stories from people from all different walks of life. There was a woman who had breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She said SUP yoga helped her to get through it. For many women, SUP is inspiring. Sometimes I feel silly for posting a video, but then I hear feedback from a woman that said she watched it and it helped her in her healing process. I want to inspire women to live healthier lives. I also want to help certify others so that they can help train others showing women that they can do anything. A lot of women fear the ocean, but this sport gives women confidence. I want what I do to inspire others.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2012