Photography courtesy of Kirsten Wilton.
Kirsten Wilton has taken a leap into the unknown, followed her passion, and is changing the way that female paddle boarders are seen by New Zealand, and the world. Despite some initial hesitation from others in this male-dominated industry, Kirsten has shown that she has what it takes. Through her stand up paddle (SUP) company Liquid Stixx, Kirsten is spreading her love of the sport and forming a unique community of female paddle boarders. Here is a bit of her story.
Can you give a little background on yourself?
I am a wife, mother, grandmother and athlete. That describes me to a tee! I have two sons and a daughter and a lovely wee granddaughter.
I grew up in Southern California and moved to New Zealand nearly 24 years ago in my early 20s. Growing up near the beach with an extensive background in competitive swimming, surf lifesaving, rowing and surfing, SUP was a natural progression in sport for me. It gave me all the aspects of water sports in one.
I am an active surf lifeguard for Omanu Beach Life Saving Club and compete in the Masters programme. I also hold a position on the Omanu Beach Surf Life Saving Club Board of Directors.
I was recently the only woman in a small crew (myself and two men) that set out to become the first to SUP the entire length of the Waikato River (320 kms in four days), in the process raising close to $50,000 dollars to support the family of fellow surf clubbies whose only child was suffering from a terminal disease.
How did your SUP journey begin?
My journey began just before my youngest child was to begin school. I was still competing in Masters swimming, but after having three hip reconstructions, I was losing motivation in the sport, as I was unable to use my legs for several months. I saw SUP happening in America on the internet and really wondered why nobody in NZ was doing it. I thought, with all our waterways this is an amazing place to explore! Then it hit me: I will race SUPs! So I bought one from Australia, and it was all go.
I knew I didn’t want to go back to working in an office. It just wasn’t me. I thought perhaps I would go back to university and study something in sports rehabilitation or nutrition.
But then in 2010 my husband suggested that I start a business with SUPs. That way I would have a job as well. So I did a small amount of research and drew up a business plan in about a week and presented it to him. Much to his surprise he said, “You can work this”! And basically it grew from there.
What was the motivation behind creating your own brand of paddle boards?
I really wanted to see something local in NZ and have something I was proud to promote. There are still no local brands designing just SUPs. There are a few shapers that do the odd board, but nothing like Liquid Stixx.
I wanted something original, something that people would really want. The only way to do this was to basically customize all the boards. So that is what I did.
I approached Andy Jordan, and originally he wasn’t wild on the idea. At that time (2010-11) SUPs were still very much taboo amongst the surfers. We are gradually changing the minds of many.
How would you describe Liquid Stixx in three words?
Innovative, Unique, Original. Unless we can say “One ofa Kind.” Haha.
As an ocean-loving lady in an industry still dominated by men, what have been some of the challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?
- Men are more apprehensive to discuss boards with me. I guess because there are not many women doing what I do in the world, they expect to talk to a man. Some men have even called Andy Jordan first and asked if I was okay and if I knew what I was doing. To overcome this situation, I just keep researching, testing and communicating. I often challenge their knowledge in board sports and so on, and when they see me paddle, the proof is there. They quickly discover I am actually “onto it” and the barriers fall.
- Another main challenge has been that nobody took me very serioulys. It is hard for people to imagine this is a job. I just worked really hard at promoting myself as a business and brand and eventually I became so busy that people realised I was actually working. This is Liquid Stixx’s fifth year in business, producing a great product that people are stoked with. I guarantee everything, and my customer service is impeccable.
You’ve taken the initiative to start up “Chix on Stixx,” a SUP class just for women. What’s it like to be part of a growing community of female paddle boarders?
I think it is amazing! I love how the women are so into this sport because literally anyone can enjoy SUP. I really have a passion for women to find their way and discover themselves on the water.
Women tend to commit more than men to weekly classes. They often see faster results with paddling too–not just physical results but mental as well. It really is good for the soul.
It is a perfect way to de-stress after a rushed day or morning. These ladies meet new friends and build so much confidence, especially the ladies that were not really into water sports ever before. It is also great as we make it so that everyone has fun and it’s so easy. All you have to do is show up with a smile and a drink bottle.
What does SUP mean to you?
SUP is so much to me now. When I started, it was a way to train hard and relax. It now is a way for me to be creative, innovative and structured. I absolutely LOVE paddling, designing and exploring. I have grown leaps and bounds since I started paddling SUPs six years ago. I decided that I would keep my competitive edge in the surf lifesaving scene, as I really enjoy SUP too much to become competitive. I have competed and done quite well in SUP racing but find, in a way, it takes the fun out of it for me. Every session becomes a training session and that is not what I want to portray to my clients. Competing in surf lifesaving helps make it a great balance.
What inspires you?
Firstly, my health. I have suffered from hip problems for most of my adult life and needed something that would use up my endless energy and not hurt my body anymore. SUP does even more than that. It makes me strong, healthy and happy.
Next, my children inspire me. I love their energy, and they have plenty of that! I want them to be proud of their mother/grandmother and say, “WOW she was really out there going for what she wanted!” I want them to do the same.
I am inspired by seeing women that are not athletic become athletic. This is a sport that inspires and builds so much confidence in people that are not used to being equal to others in sport.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paddle boarders?
Have a lesson or two. Learn to paddle properly, so you paddle efficiently. It will help with all aspects of SUP, whether it be flat water, downwind, surf or whitewater. It will also save you from injury. Know your limits, and learn about the environment you are paddling in.
Get out there with friends. It makes it even more fun. SUP is great exercise, and when you do it with mates it hardly feels like it. You can also push each other a bit.
And most definitely don’t buy gear you haven’t tried! If you haven’t paddled before then find a company to paddle with that can help you test gear out without a commitment. You will learn very quickly what kind of board will suit your style of paddling before you fork out a bunch of cash.
Maddie Buresh is a writer and photographer with an unquenchable desire to explore the great outdoors, from the ocean to the mountains. She finds joy in trying new things, living in community, and crafting stories that encourage people to go outside, have adventures, and enjoy this big, beautiful world.