It would be fair to say that Coronado Lifeguard Carter Graves exploded in a major way on the international paddleboarding scene. Currently 22, Graves has pursued her interest in the aquatic endeavor for four years. Competing in the 2014 International Surfing Association’s World Standup Paddle and Paddleboard Championships in Lake Granada, Nicaragua, Graves won four silver medals in the competition which ran May 3-11, 2014.
Graves, whose somewhat unusual first name is also her grandmother’s maiden name, has an unusual background for an elite aquatic athlete. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Graves graduated from Arcadia High School in the Phoenix area. But her introduction to the ocean came from spending her summers in Coronado. “I did Junior Lifeguards and surfed,” Graves said of her summers. “That’s how I got into the water stuff.”
Graves described her early introduction to swimming. “I’ve been swimming since the age of four or five and swimming competitively since six or seven. I won the California State Games and ever since then I wanted to be a lifeguard. Tom Groark (CHS ’00) taught me how to surf. I still see him around town. I knew I wanted to be a Coronado lifeguard.”
Pretty quickly during our interview, it became apparent Graves is much more than a kid who spent her summers hanging around the beach. She said of her academic background, “I was my high school’s salutatorian and finished second in a class of 350 students.” Graves also had a distinguished prep swimming career, earning All-American honors in her specialty of the 100-yard Butterfly. She also won a total of eight state championship titles in Arizona among the 100 fly, the 100 backstroke, the 200 fly and the 200 backstroke. For fun she also won a few July 4th Rough Water Swim events in Coronado.
After high school, Graves attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, continued her swimming career and pursued a degree in history. She swam for two seasons at Rice, where she was a conference finalist in the sport and was named to the All-Academic Swim Team in Conference USA. Graves is now attending Point Loma Nazarene University to complete her degree.
Perhaps the obvious question at this point would be, ‘How did you start your paddleboard career?’ Graves replied, “I was a surfer and a swimmer and I wanted to do something to cross train in the water. I went to Island Surf and owner Manny Granillo let me borrow a race paddleboard. The first time I was on a board, I paddled all the way from Coronado to Point Loma, which was about five miles total. I can get lost in (absorbed) the ocean really easily. I paddled for an hour and a half and just fell in love with it from the first time I got on a board. Then I got a board shaped by Joe Bark a couple of years ago when I started racing. There are two guys at work, Robert Phelps (CHS ’09) and Jay Sheckman, both of whom had paddled competitively in the past and they helped me.”
If you think five miles and 90 minutes on a paddleboard is extreme, last summer Graves kicked it up several notches. Graves said, “With Phelps and Brant Bigham, who is also from Arizona, I started training hard. My goal was to paddle to Catalina. Its 25 miles from Manhattan Beach to Long Beach and another seven miles north to Catalina. It’s kind of a rite of passage everyone should experience who is a water person here. I wanted to do it and set high goals for myself. I ended up winning my Women’s division and finished seventh overall. It was my greatest athletic achievement and life achievement. For me it was a test that I knew I had to put my mind and heart into. Nobody knew who I was because I was so new (to competition). I had a natural gift and a love for paddling. I loved it and I love being in the water. I do it because I love it.”
So to re-cap, this isn’t just about covering the 32-mile distance to say you’ve done it. There is the added element of racing other competitors for six hours and 42 minutes on a 12-foot, 18-pound paddleboard in the ocean.
Graves competes in both the prone event, where she is on her knees in the classic surfing/paddling position, and also in the standing event. She described the physical characteristics required to compete at the international level. “It requires a lot of flexibility. I do a lot of yoga and balance training. To knee paddle well, you have to have strong quadriceps muscles, strong abs, a strong back and spine. You can’t paddle well if you don’t have a strong spine. I have taken yoga for three or four years and it took my athletics to another level. It helps provide flexibility and balance, which are huge. Plus you have to have a strong upper body and the core is huge in any sport.”
In addition to attending college, Graves is in her third summer as a Coronado lifeguard. She is also an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). Graves credits Coronado Lifeguard Captain Sean Carey and Lifeguard Sergeant Damon Bassett for their assistance in her athletic career. “Sean is the best captain I could ask for. He is supportive of my sports and he allows me time off to go on these trips because I am representing our agency. It is really, really neat to have that support. Sean is a role model for the younger lifeguards. Damon has been very supportive and is a role model for me for life in general. He pushed me, has always been positive and helped me achieve my dreams. It’s cool to have supervisors who are accommodating to balance work, school and athletics.”
All of which now leads us to Nicaragua, where a total of 250 competitors, both men and women, assembled for the ISA World Championships. As you may have noted in the first paragraph of this article, Graves won four silver medals at the event. An American sports comparison might be that Graves is the Kevin Durant of women’s paddleboarding, while Australian Jordan Mercer is the LeBron James of the sport. Graves finished behind Mercer in two individual events and the USA Men’s and Women’s combined relay team finished in second behind the Aussies. The USA Team finished second to Australia in the Overall Team standings.
But none of that seems to deter Graves. “Jordan Mercer has been my inspiration in paddling for the last year or two. She is a role model in my athletics. She is the three-time Molokai (a 32-mile, open ocean event from Molokai, Hawaii to the island of Oahu) champion since the age of 17. It was really cool to see someone doing what I loved and to be able to have someone to chase. I did my best to keep up with her, especially with the distance race in Nicaragua. I was able to keep up with her for about two-thirds of the race. We have a friendly relationship and Jordan has invited me to train in Australia. It wouldn’t be fun to not have her push me and for me not to have a goal to achieve. It’s intense in the water, but fun on land. It’s really good for the sport to have that friendly camaraderie.”
Graves described the distance event in Nicaragua, which covered 18 kilometers (11.18 miles). “The race course was throughout the islands, with the water at 90 degrees and the air temperature was 105. It was very new to me to compete in those conditions. It was one of the hardest races I have ever done. Shae Foudy is 15 years old and she is an up-and-coming stand-up paddleboarder. They started a few minutes ahead of us, but I waited for her and we crossed the finish line together. I had second place in the bag and it was worth it to me to wait for 20 or 30 seconds at the finish line to cross together. She is like my little sister and it was really an incredible experience.”
The other individual event Graves competed in was the 5K Race which requires paddleboarders to do triangles and squares around eight buoys in the preliminary rounds and six buoys in the event finals. “You start in knee-level water,” Graves explained. “And it is much more like lifesaving. This is a very lifeguard-oriented sport. It’s like paddling in a figure-eight. We did three laps of one mile each. It’s practice for lifesaving and it includes board strategy and technique.”
There is a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ element to paddleboarding. “I’m moving to Australia in the fall to train,” Graves said during our interview. “My boyfriend lives there. I’m going to be in the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club and train with the best ocean athletes in the world. That will really help me.”
You can’t compete at the international level without sponsors, because flying all over the world for training and competition gets expensive. Graves thanked some of the people and firms who make it possible for her to compete. “Joe Bark Paddleboards has been just great at helping me shape my boards and Joe has provided a lot of emotional support. I probably wouldn’t be racing but for Joe. Oakley has been really good to me and I work with Oakley Women’s as an ambassador. Jolyn Swimwear custom made a special swim suit for me for the competition that said ‘USA’ and had stars on it. Patagonia has helped me out with wetsuits, shirts, suits and jackets. Surf Diva Surf Shop, is an all-women’s surf shop in La Jolla. They really promote women’s fitness and getting women out into the ocean. My second sponsor was Rickaroons, which makes organic macaroon cookies. They are also photographers. And my first sponsor was URT clothing, owned by Ian Urtnowski and Dougie Mann. They were the first to believe in me. Also there is Stu Kenson, who shapes surfboards. He has also been very supportive in my ocean sports.”
Over this past weekend, Graves entered the Loop Race, which is competed locally and she finished first, including beating all of her male competitors in the 12-foot and under stock paddleboard category. On the horizon is the July 27 Molokai2Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. Graves said of the competition, “This is a totally new challenge with different water and heat. Jordan Mercer is going to be on a 17-foot board and I’m on a 12-foot board. I need to be on the longer board for at least seven months to get used to it. In the future I hope to race in the Unlimited Division with her. Robert Phelps and Alex Ratcliffe (CHS ’02) are doing the Molokai2Oahu as a relay team.”
Graves will go it alone in the Prone Stock, Women’s Open Division, competing against the best of the best. If dedication to her sport is any indication of future success, I’ll bet on Graves to easily conquer Molokai2Oahu.