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Stand-up paddle instructor wins prestigious international award

A popular Paddle Niagara kids’ instructor has been recognized by one of the leading media bodies in Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP). Last Thursday, SUPConnect named Welland native Maddi Leblanc their 2020 Woman of the Year.

A popular Paddle Niagara kids’ instructor has been recognized by one of the leading media bodies in Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP). 

Last Thursday, SUPConnect named Welland native Maddi Leblanc their 2020 Woman of the Year. Leblanc edged out women of all ages from around the world to earn the prestigious honour. Just days after finding out, she is still getting used to the accolade.

“I feel like the reality of it hasn’t really set in yet,” says Leblanc. “The amount of messages and support I’m getting from this is truly incredible. When I first found out Thursday, I was kind of in shock. It wasn’t really until I drove home (from NOTL) after work, that’s when it hit me, and I had tears in my eyes.”

In her profile on the SUPConnect website’s awards page, she is described as inspirational, dedicated, selfless, strong and passionate. Their editors say that she embodies all that they look for in a woman of the year.

To have a conversation with Leblanc is to bask in positivity. Her words are regularly punctuated with genuine laughter, and she speaks with an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious. She brings that energy and enthusiasm to her sport, to her teaching of the kids with whom she works, and to her efforts to improve her community.

Leblanc became fascinated with stand-up paddleboarding on a family vacation at the age of 10. She spotted two men gliding on top of the water on Lake Huron. When they came to shore, she inquired about their boards. They offered to let her try one out, and she immediately fell in love with the sport.

She begged her parents for her own equipment, and finally, about a year and a half later, there was a shiny new board under the Christmas tree. When the following spring came around, she could be found on the Welland River honing her skills. 

A year later, Leblanc turned her new passion into a tool to improve her community. 

“It was an idea that very naturally came to me one of the first times I had taken my board out,” says the 23-year-old. “I thought, hey, what if I make a stand-up paddleboard fundraiser, and my parents totally helped me implement my idea, and On Board was born in 2014.”

The annual SUP event was conceived to honour two friends who lost their battle with cancer in 2011. Lynn Lambert, Leblanc’s neighbour and a popular DSBN French teacher, passed away in March of that year after fighting skin cancer. Then in December, a classmate of Leblanc’s, Julia Turner, succumbed to a brain tumour seven months after diagnosis. Leblanc felt she had to do something to honour their memories. 

In July, 2014, Leblanc paddled 10 kilometres down the Welland Canal, from the Welland International Flatwater Centre (WIFC) heading north to the Welland Community Boathouse, then turned around to paddle back to the WIFC. More than 100 participants came out to watch her journey and to donate to her cause, raising just over $4,000.

Since then, the annual event has raised more than $40,000 toward brain cancer research in honour of Lynn and Julia, as well as two other young people, McKenna Modler and Dalton Jacques. Maddi no longer paddles alone for the fundraiser — each year she is joined by a growing number of paddlers who give their time and donations to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Paddle Niagara owner Tim Bala took part in On Board for the first time in 2017. He told her he was starting a SUPKids program the next summer and she was stoked about the news. Leblanc came by for a one-day paddle, and the next year she became an instructor in Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

Her presence working with the kids for three summers has been instrumental in growing the sport in Niagara. “She just has this way of connecting with them,” says Bala. “I really admire it. I think it has to do with her passive, carefree, positive attitude. She doesn’t really let anything faze her. It’s nice to have someone who is able to relate to the kids like Maddi. Kids see her and they just sort of light up.”

Like many who participate in board sports, Leblanc has a keen interest in ecological issues. Last year she completed an undergraduate degree in Environmental Resources and Sustainability at the Brock University. Through the co-op program, she worked for the City of Welland’s water and wastewater department and at the Woodend Outdoor Centre. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Brock’s Faculty of Applied Health Sciences. Her thesis topic is right up her alley — it’s a study of stand-up paddleboarding and children. 

On the water, she’s been bitten by the competitive SUP bug. Maddi started racing in 2016, and claimed the Ontario SUP Series overall open female category the following year. At the end of that season she signed on as a team rider with Starboard, one of the world’s leading SUP companies. In 2018, she won the overall elite female category at the Ontario SUP Series, and also captured the overall title and the yellow jersey at the 2018 and 2019 Mammoth Race in Toronto. All of this got her an invitation to represent Canada at the 2018 International Surf Association (ISA) World Championship in China.

Now that the ISA has finally claimed the right to govern SUP internationally, there is a good chance that SUP may eventually find its way to the Olympics, a prospect that excites both Leblanc and Bala. 

“I would love to see Maddi train and paddle in the Olympics for Canada,” says Bala. “She has the technique, the drive, the skill to clearly go far as long as she’s given the opportunity. She paddles every day and that’s the only way to get better.”

“Oh gosh, it’s a huge dream,” says Leblanc about the potential to compete in the Olympics. “I think I can be happy with the fact that at least once in my lifetime I was able to represent Team Canada on an international stage. But I feel like I’m not done, and if it were to be an Olympic sport, that would just fire me up so much. We’ll obviously have to see in terms of life circumstances when that happens, but as of right now, absolutely.”

These days the Leblanc family needs space for at least five boards in their garage, one for each of the three kids and her parents, Dan and Jacki. Of course, Maddi’s board spends the least amount of time in that garage. 

And she may be taking it with her to new waters in the near future. She is in early talks with a major SUP company for a job in their eco-project department. The company’s headquarters are in Thailand.

The recognition by the top SUP media organization is still sinking in, yet Leblanc remains as down to earth as ever. At such a young age, she has reached the pinnacle of her favourite activity, but it’s clear that she has so much more room to grow as both a paddler and a person.

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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