North Vancouver athlete a paddleboard pioneer at Pan Am Games

Mike Darbyshire hones his craft year-round in Deep Cove

A Deep Cove athlete can take a bit of credit when paddleboarding makes its debut at the Pan American Games later this month.

While other Canadians put water sports on pause for the winter, Mike Darbyshire can be seen – sometimes shirtless – in Deep Cove churning through frigid water and chunks of ice on his paddleboard.

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Stand-up paddling was a foreign concept in these parts 10 years ago. An avid surfer at the time, Darbyshire took up a teaching job at Deep Cove Kayak Centre.

“When I started in 2009 they had two paddleboards that were kind of tucked away behind the kayaks and were a bit of a toy – no one would really rent them,” recalls Darbyshire.

The offshoot of surfing was already taking off in warmer locales – California, Hawaii and Australia. Darbyshire would routinely make trips down south in the winter, spending sunrise to sunset on his board.

Around 2011, a wave of enthusiasm for stand-up paddling hit Deep Cove and B.C.’s South Coast. Seeing the sport was about to go mainstream, Darbyshire collaborated with a couple SUP counterparts to write an instructional program for paddleboarding in Canada. Today, the program is still recognized across the country as the primary certifying body for SUP.

“So I got to be on the forefront of that – which is pretty cool,” says Darbyshire.

Of course, the sport has exploded in Deep Cove and around the world in recent years.

Darbyshire will be front and centre when stand-up paddling makes a splashy debut at the Lima 2019 Pan Am Games, July 26 to Aug. 11. The Deep Cove resident will represent Canada in SUP, along with Vernon’s Lina Augaitis, Tofino’s Catherine Temple and Finn Spencer of Whistler. The majority of their SUP opponents at the Pan Am Games hail from South American countries.

In a paddleboard race contestants start on the sand and run toward the water carrying their cumbersome paddleboards before launching into the oncoming waves.  Five kilometres of catching and riding swells comes to a dramatic end, as exhausted paddleboarders sprint across the beach to the finish line. Darbyshire will be competing in a field of 10 racers.

“The biggest wildcard in these races is the surf,” he says. “Depending on how big the waves are and what kind of wind we are dealing with, it can create very dynamic conditions to race in. Catching a favourable wave – or not – can very quickly and easily change the outcome of a race.”

Competitive paddleboarding requires not only a high level of fitness but also a strong ability to read and ride waves. One of the bigger challenges for Darbyshire is not getting enough time to practise in a choppy environment. 

“Living in Deep Cove means I have excellent water access but not exactly the dynamic surf conditions that I may come across in a race,” he reveals.

Darbyshire builds upper body strength through cross-country skiing in the winter months, along with hitting the gym three or four times a week. And despite its leisurely appearance, paddleboarding is not as easy as it looks.  

“The big thing is, like any sport, as you get better and better you have to put in so much more work to make such little gains,” says Darbyshire. “There was a long time that I was behind two or three guys and I never beat them – they were just always stronger.”

Outside of the water, another obstacle Darbyshire faces is how to finance his way to these world-class competitions. His family held fundraisers after Darbyshire qualified in 2016 to represent Canada at the world paddleboard championship in Fiji.

“My goal with these championships is I’ve tried to be at the front of the working crowd – the people who aren’t full-time pros,” explains Darbyshire, who has a young family to support. “It’s pretty hard for me to realistically compete with guys who actually do it for a living. Certainly, no one is paying me to be a paddleboarder.”

Now in his early 30s, Darbyshire knows his Olympic window is closing. Surfing has gotten the nod for Tokyo 2020, but there’s no word on when stand-up paddleboarding will make its Olympic debut.

“The Pan Am Games, for me, is my Olympics almost,” says Darbyshire.

In addition to hopefully medalling in Lima, Darbyshire’s goal is to earn more attention for the sport. The Pan Am Games, he says, is a big step forward for stand-up paddling, in terms of attracting future support from corporate sponsors and the federal government.

“The Pan Am Games, I’m going to be there with the sprinters, the track and field athletes, the gymnasts, the swimmers, the divers – all the sports people recognize from the Olympics,” says Darbyshire. “That’s pretty cool.”

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