WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NORTH CAROLINA, USA – An avowed “couch potato” eleven years ago, North Carolina’s April Zilg is now a dominant athlete on the international stage of paddle sports.
In one short decade, April Zilg captured top honors in dozens of paddle sports competitions in oceans, lakes, and rivers around the world. She was named Salt Life’s National Champion and the World Paddle Association’s World Champion. Zilg is currently ranked second in the world overall by the Association of Paddlesurf Professionals.
Even so, with all her achievements and accolades, Zilg’s most sought-after standup paddle goal wasn’t realized until 2021 – winning the Carolina Cup Graveyard Race in her home state of North Carolina.
One of the world’s largest and most prominent paddle sporting events, the Carolina Cup returns to Wrightsville Beach, April 27-May 1, 2022. The 11th Cup is a five-day festival of clinics, product displays, demonstrations, and competition – including six rousing races featuring amateur and professional athletes using paddleboard, kayak, surfski, and outrigger canoe. Organized by the Wrightsville Beach Paddle Club, all activities are based at Blockade Runner Beach Resort.
In a recent interview, April Zilg talks about her start in paddleboarding and how it changed her life; factors contributing to her success; female participation in the sport and her efforts to increase the numbers; a description of the Carolina Cup Graveyard Race course; key competitors she expects for the women’s title in 2022; whether or not she will compete on the APP World tour; her business ventures and the high cost of global competition for athletes; her thoughts about having an East Coast location for global competitions; and, what she thinks about Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
How did COVID impact you over the past two-plus years?
It was a very interesting time that impacted me on multiple levels. I had to move back to North Carolina from California at the height of the beginning of the pandemic. I was still trying to train and compete in 2020, alongside packing up all my things and moving back to North Carolina for my husband’s career. It was an incredibly stressful time, not knowing the depth of COVID and the length of what we were going into.
It was also a bit of a silver lining when a lot of the events were canceled because I had time to finish moving, unpack all my things, and get settled in my new home. It also brought to light a couple of large holes in my training methodology, where I realized that up to that point, I had been training at too high of an intensity too frequently and contributed to a bit of an over training syndrome, something that’s called aerobic deficiency syndrome. And I was feeling pretty burned out at about that time. I think this echoes a lot of the sentiments of the other top racers. Had COVID not come along, the burnout might have ended my paddling career. But I was able to dial things back and fix a lot of the issues I had because I didn’t have any events on the calendar and had time to work on myself.
I’ve watched your career for over 10 years – first, as a novice paddler, and now, you have a string of impressive titles, victories, and rankings in paddles sports. Last year you won the Carolina Cup’s grueling Graveyard distance competition, and then you picked up the sprint title the next day. APP has ranked you second in the world in women’s distance and sprint combined. How did you get started in paddle sports? How do you continue to outperform, and how do you keep it going?
Goodness, it’s been a long road. I do not come from an athletic or a paddling background or too much of a sports background. I dabbled a little bit in boating on lakes and rivers when I was a kid, a little bit of kneeboarding and wakeboarding, but nothing dedicated or committed. I didn’t know anything about training, anything about nutrition, anything about competition or strategy. All of that was completely foreign to me.
In my early twenties, I had a bit of a health scare, and I needed something that made me healthy and happy. I needed a good hobby to just get my body moving, get my mind clear and blood flowing. And I didn’t really care for running, still don’t, didn’t really care for cycling. A lot of the top popular sports just weren’t for me. I found standup paddling on a vacation in Florida. A friend of a friend brought one out and said, this is this new thing; you have to try it. And so, I did. I hopped on it, paddled 15 minutes around in a lake, a little puddle and said, my God, I absolutely love this; this is what I want to do.
At that time, it was just going to be a hobby. Ten years ago, I couldn’t paddle one mile without stopping and couldn’t finish my first Carolina Cup. Instead of giving it up and saying, this is stupid, and I’m not good at it, I wanted to stick with something, and paddleboarding was the only thing I found that I liked. So, I took a couple of lessons and joined a couple of clubs in Wrightsville Beach. I just really ran with it and entered the same race the next year and was second place.
And that’s when I decided I wanted to see how far I could take my standup paddling career. It was something that gave me health; it gave me freedom, and it really did change my life. And not only did I want to get the most out of it, I wanted to be able to give back what it had given me, which was so many things. Confidence, help, and friends, and the list goes on and on.
It’s surreal to say that I set out to reach a goal, and ten years later was able to achieve it. Sticking to something and seeing results gives me newfound confidence.
How I keep it going is to maintain my training and my schedule. I do use my new Athlete Agenda. I like the training aspect of things. I like breaking my goals down into digestible pieces that I can work towards on my own, regardless of the outcome of the competition. It keeps it fresh for me, and I try to keep myself always improving, regardless of whether other people have improved faster or slower than me.
You participated in the Carolina Cup every year except for one. So, let’s talk about the grueling Graveyard Race. How would you describe this race to an amateur or professional paddler?
The Carolina Cup is one of the toughest races in standup. It has a little bit of everything, and it does benefit you if you’re a very well-rounded paddler. You never know what the size of the shore break of the surf is going to be on race day. And North Carolina’s weather is very fickle. It can be beautiful, sunny, and calm one day and tropical storm conditions the next. So, you’ve got a surf launch, you’ve got open ocean conditions, and then you have two inlets. And depending on which way the course is laid out, you have to either be able to punch out through the surf and/or surf in through the surf. And then you have wind and tide usually in your face for the better portion of the backside of the race.
So, your ability, not just to be able to stay on your board and apply good power through a multitude of different conditions, but to be able to read water and know where you need to be in the different channels in the inlet and line yourself up for success. If you’re an amateur, start reading books on water reading skills and practice every imaginable condition. Don’t skip your practice paddle because it’s windy out. Because chances are, you’re going to encounter a lot of wind. Experienced paddlers, make sure you brush up on all your skills to make sure that you’re confident in everything you know how to do coming up to race day.
And to confirm, you will be back at the Carolina Cup?
That is correct. I will. As always, I’m going into it with no expectation, but my speeds are better than they’ve ever been. Danny Ching at 404 came out with an amazing new board. It’s interesting because Danny comes from a big paddle sports background, and people often say he could paddle anything, and he would win, but not me. So, I need all the help I can get because I wasn’t born an athlete. I’m just coming into my own as an athlete.
It’s been ten years that I’ve been at this, and I’m finally approaching the mythical 10,000 hours it takes to master something. And even that, I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered paddling. There’s still so much to learn and so much to do. But with the new 404 jump board, I’m feeling very confident in my improvement as a paddler. Whether that puts me on the podium or not for another win, I’m not sure. But I’m paddling fast for me.
A lot of athletes will be watching you very closely and going after the title. Who do you think your key competitors will be?
Everyone. No one comes all the way to the Carolina Cup who doesn’t want it. Every competitor shows up wanting it. And it is anyone’s race. Like I said, from the surf start, you could trip a little in the soft sand, and you could get hit by another paddler that doesn’t know what they’re doing right off the start. You could pick a bad line in the inlet; you could pick a bad line on the backside, and you could miss a draft train. This is anybody’s race. But I would say Juliet Duhaime is coming back after last year; she and Kim Barnes were duking it out the entire race. And it wasn’t until the very end that she fell back. So, I bet she’s hungry; she would like to come back and show that she’s got what it takes, not just a battle, but to take the whole thing.
And Kim Barnes as well, who wound up in second last year; I know she’ll be back. And then, we’ve got a couple of the greatest of all time coming in. We’ve got Candice Appleby, who I don’t think has a Carolina Cup title, but she’s won every other major standup paddle race that has ever been held. So, I would definitely keep an eye on Candice. And she’s coaching Juliet as well, so they will probably work together. So, I’d keep a very close eye on them as a team.
Four-time male champion Danny Ching said that the race is always determined when you go through the inlet the final time and into the ocean. Is that correct?
I would agree. And that follows popular conventions as well, where about three-quarters of the way through the race, you should get yourself in the position you want to finish in, so the final moves and everything will be made there. And it’s a place where everything gets mixed up too because things are going to happen there. There are waves, sand bars, and channels. There’s a lot that happens, and you can’t draft anymore. So, when that draft train explodes and spreads out, everybody makes their move. If you still have the energy, then it’s your race.
Do you plan to compete in the APP world tour this year?
It is on my agenda. It is on my plan. It is difficult, though, with so many races trying to come back onto the calendar and the error of my previous ways being like, you want to do it all, and you can’t. There’re financial limitations. There are just bodily limitations. I’m 35, which is fine for endurance racing, but you can’t neglect recovery after the events.
And there’s going to be an ICF world championship in September, and an ISA world championship, both for SUP, in October. And then I’ve already made the US team for outrigger for the world Va’a Championships, which is sprinting in August. So, I already have a lot of world championship events, and APP events are often challenging from a logistic standpoint because they’re in very far-off and cool locations. But the world championship events are easier to get to logistically with equipment or equipment is provided.
What do you think about the APP in 2021 and now the ICF in 2022, teaming up with the Carolina Cup?
I do think it’s very interesting. As an athlete, I want what’s best for the athletes and in the industry as a whole. I’ve actually seen this since the start of my career 10 years ago even as a recreational paddler, someone who wasn’t at the top of any event at all. I like it when all the governing bodies get along and try to create a cohesive tour for the sport. I don’t think standup paddling is big enough to divide us in any way. I do wish that there was one cohesive standup thing, I don’t know how to say that.
I am very excited about the ICF partnership. They put on a phenomenal event at the world championships I attended last September in Hungary. From start to finish, it was extremely well run and extremely professional; I loved it. I have nothing but amazing things to say. And the same with the APP World Tour; I love being a part of the tour. I love that there’s something for paddlers to aspire to that’s beyond just their local races. Local races are great and world championship races are great but having a world tour and being able to travel to compete and see new places and meet new paddlers, I think that’s phenomenal as well.
Then there’s the ISA, the International Surfing Association, and their world championships. And I like their format. It’s up there with the top of all the formats where you have the distance, the tech, and the sprint racing. But they have the technical racing in and out through sizeable substantial surf. And I think that is what makes standup paddling unique. And I do worry sometimes that standup paddling is leaning too much towards flat water and it’s losing those surfing roots. So, every entity that is working to organize standup is doing a phenomenal job, but I do hope that they can somehow work together because right now it’s a full calendar, and it’s not feasible.
Do you think the Carolina Cup, a West Coast location, and perhaps a Hawaiian location, should permanently be on a world championship tour? To be more direct, should the East Coast of North America always be included in a “world tour?”
Absolutely. We have some of the best paddlers in the world. Florida has an ongoing race league that meets every Tuesday for the better part of the year. There’s a huge paddling community up in Vermont, New York, and Virginia, New Jersey, Philadelphia, South Carolina. So, the entire Eastern seaboard has huge paddling communities. And in terms of standup, the East Coast rivals the West Coast. West Coast is still a little bit more outrigger; standup is not as popular out there.
And where I see standup growing currently, it’s going inland. So, there’s a lot of lakes and rivers and people are taking to the sport, but they’re mostly east of the Mississippi. So, yes, I do believe that having a centralized location for a major standup paddle board race annually in North Carolina or somewhere on the East Coast is imperative for paddlers that want to race and try their hand paddling against other very good paddlers. I think the talent pool on the East Coast runs very deep.
What is the female to male ratio in paddle sports?
Paddling overall, it’s about a 60/40 split. But when you start talking about racing, the participation is closer to like, 80/20 or even 90/10 on some of the big races. When it comes to competition, males greatly outnumber females. I do believe it’s a confidence thing. Men tend to sign up for a race and race with their buddies whether they think they’re going to win or lose. For whatever reason, society has conditioned women that if we go and we don’t win as a woman, then somehow, we are less than – and that’s simply not the case.
You recently launched the Athlete Agenda campaign on the I Fund Women platform. What is the Athlete Agenda, and is this designed to improve female participation in paddle sports?
Although the Athlete Agenda is gender-neutral, as a coach for athletes, I believe the Athlete Agenda can help increase female participation in sports. The Athlete Agenda is an agenda unique to each person, it’s yours. What is your agenda? Is it better health, happiness, me time? Do you want more freedom? Do you want more adventure? Do you want to hang out with your friends more? What is your underlying agenda? We all have an agenda, and the Athlete Agenda is about prioritizing your fitness, whether you want to run a mile without stopping or just go for a 30-minute walk every day. Even if that’s your goal as an athlete, that’s fine. You need to take that time and prioritize it.
Same if you want to win a world championship, you can’t let other people run over your time and your schedule. Set your agenda, set your schedule, and prioritize your athletic practice every day. Because no one else is going to do it for you. No one’s going to make sure you’re going for that 30-minute walk. No one’s going to make sure that you’re running so that you can run the first mile you’ve ever run without stopping. No one’s going to do that for you but you.
The Athlete Agenda has four chapters of guided prompts that help you state what your goals are and refine it down. And then it does a gap analysis; it helps you walk through the steps of the gap analysis and break your goal down into digestible chunks so that you can more readily achieve it, so it’s not so big and daunting. Especially for me, it’s something like winning a world championship. How do you do that? How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. You can’t just say I want to do this.
The Athlete Agenda is a viable route to improve self-confidence and make your athletic practice your own. So, when you get to race day, it’s more about having fun with your friends and just seeing where you stack up in a competitive environment. It’s a game; we’re playing a game. It’s a sport and sport is supposed to be fun. Sometimes, I think our society focuses too much on winning and performance and forgets the lighthearted enjoyability of athletics. So, let’s bring that back and just compete, but mainly against yourself.
Is the Athlete Agenda primarily oriented to paddle sports?
It is not. I want this to be something that speaks to anyone regardless of their athletic pursuit. And again, like someone who was like me, I was a couch potato before I found paddling. if you don’t feel a call to paddle or a call to run, the agenda will guide you through different activities in different sports until you find something that you enjoy; something you actually look forward to that can keep you healthy.
Let’s talk about money for a minute. Competing on the pro circuit is very expensive. Unfortunately, sponsorships do not cover your costs. How do you address the gap?
In addition to private coaching, I’ve had to be very creative. The launch of the Athlete Agenda is my second endeavor. My first business is Paddle Ninja, an online training platform for paddlers with Danny Ching, Johnny Puakea, and Paolo Ameglio. I love sharing training, training plans, and physiology. The Athlete Agenda complements the training program – it’s a natural fit. These programs help others to train effectively and achieve their goals. Meanwhile, they help me offset a portion of the cost of being a professional female athlete.
Sponsorships are difficult for an athlete in our sport to obtain, but I do have some amazing sponsors. Garmin, 404, Hippo Stick, and Puakea Designs help me out with equipment – Salt Life gets all the tech clothing and everything I need as well as helping me get to races. In addition, Blockade Runner, the host hotel of the Carolina Cup has been hugely supportive … I used to work at the Blockade Runner. They were insanely supportive in the early days of my career – enabling me to have a paycheck and make that transition from full-time worker to full-time athlete.
What do you think about Wrightsville Beach and the venue?
It’s phenomenal; I love it. I think it’s got a smaller town feel versus the APP events that are in larger cities. I love being in Wrightsville because there’s good food and there’s healthy food. You can bike everywhere, and you can walk and there’s just miles of beach, and you can cruise over to Masonboro Island and see one of the Rachel Carson Reserve Islands. There’s so much to do, and it’s not too busy, and it’s not too crazy. Paddleboarders should be coming to the Blockade Runner in the fall and early spring and practice the 13-mile Graveyard Race, not just during the Carolina Cup. I’m honored to have my name on the Carolina Cup trophy in the lobby of Blockade Runner. I worked there after my college days when I was starting my paddle career; they’re a huge part of my name being on that trophy.
Will you be offering in person instructions at Carolina Cup?
I am not hosting any clinics this year because of the launch of the Athlete Agenda.
And will that be available at Carolina Cup?
It will. I will have a few copies available. I believe you will be able to purchase those at the Blockade Runner Gift Shop.
If someone wants to learn more about the Athlete Agenda, where should they go?
You could head over to my website, which is just aprilzilg.com; but you can also check out the crowdfunding campaign on the I Fund Women website (ifundwomen.com/projects/athlete-agenda). One of the supporter tiers for Athlete Agenda is a full-day paddling workshop, eating the delicious food of Wrightsville Beach, and hanging out at the Blockade Runner. We can paddle the Graveyard, paddle the inlets, and go to Masonboro Island and go surfing. It’s up to you.
The Carolina Pro-Am is the weekend before Carolina Cup. You are participating in both events. Take a moment and tell us about Carolina Pro-Am.
The Carolina Pro-Am is probably the largest standup paddle surf competition on the East Coast. So, it is well worth coming in, grabbing your room for the full week, and doing the surf competition. Enjoying all that Wrightsville Beach has to offer and then staying through to the Carolina Cup. It’s a unique format as well, because you have your typical sup surfing teams, but then they have a sup longboard division, where judging is based on the more fluid and graceful longboard style maneuvers. That’s my favorite to watch.
April, thank you for your time.