FRENCHTOWN POND – As a group of wheelchair users met here to try paddleboarding on adaptive boards, quadriplegic athlete Joe Stone watched from the dock.
The 29-year-old Missoula man, who suffered a C7 break in his neck in a speed-flying accident on Mount Jumbo in 2010, had a confession to make before his turn on a board.
“I’ve never paddleboarded in my life, able-bodied or disabled,” Stone said.
Stone and a friend who also uses a wheelchair are among the competitors in the second annual Windermere Real Estate SUP Cup, a stand-up paddleboarding competition Sunday on the Clark Fork River.
The adaptive crafts, created by Hawaiian native Kawika Watt’s Onit Ability Boards, are less than an inch thicker than a regular model and have pontoons like an outrigger canoe. A wheelchair sits in grooves on the top of the board and is secured by a locking mechanism.
According to Stone, the importance of the Frenchtown event – and Sunday’s benefit competition – is more than giving back to the community. It also shows that people with disabilities can overcome their impairments.
“This race is going to be important for the community as a whole to really see that people are active with disabilities,” Stone said.
Inspired by the national real estate company’s well-known rowing competition in Seattle, Missoula’s Windermere office is the only one in the country to host a spinoff.
Andie Zielinski, one of the competition’s organizers, said the event has received international attention, with competitors coming from as far as Canada this year.
The four races are separated by gender and experience level – recreational and elite. Competitors will start at the Sha-Ron Fishing Access Site in East Missoula and end a little over four miles downriver at Bess Reed Park in downtown Missoula.
Recreational competitors can win prizes ranging from a Kialoa race paddle valued at $500 to gift certificates from the Good Food Store and Caffe Dolce, while elites can take home up to $1,000 in cash.
Zielinski said the success of the competition wouldn’t be possible without the support of the community and Windermere employees, who will spend their day off volunteering at the races.
Proceeds from the SUP Cup will go toward the restoration of Brennan’s Wave and the Watershed Education Network.
WEN executive director Deb Fassnacht said the event will be a great reminder of the river’s value to Missoula.
“We are absolutely thrilled to have a community event that we’re so connected to,” Fassnacht said. “It’s even more rewarding for us that it’s an event where people can appreciate our healthy, clean rivers while playing on them.”
The competition will end at a luau-themed party catered by Brooks and Browns and Five on Black, with live music by singer Kevin Van Dort. Hawaiian shirts are encouraged.