Jade Howson is 15 -- and already one of the best in the world in stand-up paddleboarding
Jade Howson admits she's a "water baby." She surfs, swims, competes in stand-up paddleboarding and has been romping around in the ocean waves near her home in Laguna Beach, California, since she could toddle around the beach.
"It's bad," she says, laughing. "I'm kind of addicted to the water."
It's hardly an accident. Her mom, Kris, and dad, Robert, own and operate a surf shop in Seal Beach, California, called Harbour Surfboards, founded by famed shaper Rich Harbour.
"Our life is focused around the beach," Kris says.
Along with all that saltwater in her DNA, Jade has her dad's athletic ability and an energy level that leaves Kris in wonder.
"She is a busybody like her dad," Kris says. "They have to get what I call their 'ya-yas' out, their physical out, during the day. My husband will get up in the morning, go for a bike ride, come home, change into his trunks, head down to Dana Point and he'll paddle. Crazy. All before noon. She's the same way."
Mix it all together and you get a 15-year-old who's ranked 14th in the world in stand-up paddleboarding (SUP).
In September, Jade won a bronze medal in the 200-meter sprint at the International Surfing Association World SUP and Paddleboard Championship in Denmark. She was the youngest competitor in the event.
She went to Denmark just excited for the opportunity to meet and compete against women pros she has watched and admired. She had no expectations. Winning a bronze in her first world championships was a surprise.
"It was just weird, saying, 'Wow, I'm in a different country competing against people who are doing this for a living,' not only competing against them but representing my country while doing so," she says. "That was a really cool feeling."
Jade has competed in SUP since she was about 8, after trying it with her dad. Since then she has won plenty of races, though her mother sometimes has to do some interrogation to find out.
"She is very humble," Kris says. "She'll come home after winning a race and not come running in and tell me. She doesn't do anything. I'll say, 'How did it go?' and she'll say, 'It went good.' 'Well how did you do?' 'Oh, I got first.' What? That's insane. She's really low key."
Yet there's nothing low key about her preparation: She trains three afternoons a week with the Paddle Academy in Dana Point; two mornings with the school's surf team; and does CrossFit, boxing and mental sports training during the other afternoons after school. CrossFit and boxing help her overall strength and endurance, especially in her shoulders and arms. On her days off, she's either surfing, paddling or at the beach.
"The ultimate goal is I want to be one of those super well-rounded athletes at the top," she says. "A good all-around water woman."
That's important in stand-up paddleboarding, when events include short-distance sprints, long-distance races, surfing and technical races. To win, an athlete needs to score well overall across multiple disciplines.
At this early stage of her career, Jade is best in sprints and surfing, a tribute to her smooth stroke and energy, which helps over quick-burst short distances. She wants to improve in long-distance events so she can be like the all-around pros she admires, such as Americans Fiona Wylde and Shae Foudy, Canada's Lina Augaitis and France's Olivia Piana.
"In paddling you have to be good at all of it," she says. "The girls who are good at the top are good at distance and sprinting. ... I want to improve my distance skills so I can be there one day, too."
Distance races are indeed long, anywhere from about six miles to close to 30. After doing the nearly 28-mile Maui to Molokai race, she said she was awed by the ocean. "When you're out in the middle of the channel, there's so much raw power around you," she says.
Kris says Jade isn't as consistent as she will be in a couple of years -- she's still maturing physically and emotionally, still trying to balance school, training, being a teen and even the expectations that come with success.
"Just go paddle, go do what you love," Kris says she tells her. "Don't worry about winning, placing. Just go and paddle."
But there are other times -- such as in the bronze medal-winning race in Denmark last September -- that Kris sees Jade's "hidden beast." It's Jade tapping deep into her reserves and going all out.
"In Denmark it came out," Kris says. "It just turns on and she just takes off. It's really cool to see that."
In that race, Jade dueled with 26-year-old Amandine Chazot of France for second. Only Chazot's strong finish edged her.
Said Chabot, to a reporter: "I am fully convinced she is going to be one of the best girls in the next years."
Jade's immediate goals are to keep getting stronger and to win big races, such as the annual Pacific Paddle Games in Dana Point and the Carolina Cup in North Carolina. Long term, she wants to continue competing and winning while also going to college to become either a marine biologist or a pilot in the Coast Guard.
No matter what she does, it will have something to do with the ocean. To Jade, spending her life on the water is a joy. Nothing is better.