Text by Tetsuhiko Endo; Photo Bernie Baker, www.surfersvillage.com
Paddleboard racing is the hardest adventure sport you've never heard of, which makes Australian Jamie Mitchell the best athlete you don’t know. On Sunday, July 26th, Mitchell won the unofficial world championship of the sport – the 32-mile Rainbow Sandals Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Race – for a record eighth consecutive year, clocking in at four hours, 58 minutes and 25 seconds. While such dominance is almost unheard of in any sport, it is especially impressive in Mitchell’s case, due to the nature of paddleboard racing in and the difficulty of the Molokai to Oahu race.
Paddleboard racing is surfing without any of the fun parts. It is like rowing, but you do it over longer distances, while kneeling or lying on your stomach, using your arms instead of oars, and usually on the open ocean. That last point is especially daunting in the Molokai where paddlers must brave the infamous Molokai Channel, known for its rough waters and river-like currents. If the weather cooperates, racers can ride open-ocean swells on their long, specially designed boards for a hundred yards or more. If not, they spend 32 miles battling currents, crossed up swells, and waves that refract off of cliff faces and capsize unwary paddlers.
This year, the winds were up and the currents were strong. Mitchell called it “the toughest (race) of the last three or four years for me.” As if the difficulty of the paddling weren’t enough, racers must also endure rashes and chafing from long hours rubbing wet stomachs and knees against their boards. At the finish of the race, the tops of Mitchell’s feet looked like someone had taken a baseball bat and a cheese grater to them.
Perhaps the only difficulty that does not have to do with the Molokai Channel is the almost complete lack of prize money and sponsorship in this grueling endeavor. This year, Mitchell was awarded his first ever prize purse for the race, taking home a humble $3,000.
The low wages don’t discourage him, though. He trains two to three times a day, six days a week, for four months prior to the race. Of course, in order to make ends meet, he has had to find some day jobs. Construction work? Bar tending? Try professional big wave surfing and stand up paddling – in both sports he is considered one of the world’s elite.
Regardless of his achievements in
other waterborn disciplines, Mitchell considers himself first, and foremost, a
paddleboard racer. He will never get the recognition or the money he deserves
for his accomplishments, but judging by his interviews, those things have very
little to do with his motivation.
“There are very few people who are capable of investing as much of their
life in something or sacrificing as much as it takes to win the Molokai,” he said in a 2008 press release. “And because of that, they can’t understand why
it’s such an accomplishment.”