Before she could even swim, 18-month-old Izzi Gomez was riding a surfboard. But it was really no surprise -- Izzi, now 15, and her brother Giorgio, 18, have had the same kind of access to boards that most kids have to Lego toys because their grandparents own and operate the oldest surf shop in Florida.
Gomez had swimming dialed in by age 2. By the time she was 5, she was short-boarding on the same waves as all of the adults at the beach. She had her first go on a stand-up paddleboard when she was about 7.
"We got our first ever paddleboard when the first ones came out. It was a huge, 12-foot board," Gomez recalls. "I was just messing around. I had no idea how to hold the paddle. When I caught a wave, I'd hold the paddle in one hand. My brother and I would go tandem and bring it to surf camp. People freaked out and said, 'What is that thing?'"
Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, has grown exponentially in the past few years, spreading from beaches and lakes, to rivers and even whitewater. The International Surfing Association's World Championship saw a 40 percent jump in SUP participation between 2013 and 2014, with 250 competitors from 27 nations and all five continents. Also, according to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2011, 1.2 million people tried SUP -- up 18 percent from 2010.
Competitions are sometimes races based on speed -- whomever can negotiate a course the fastest in a river, lake or ocean wins. But Gomez's specialty, SUP surfing, is a judged event similar to traditional surfing contests, in which each athlete's wave ride -- flow, technical moves, speed and overall look -- is ranked subjectively via a point system.
Three years ago, 12-year-old Gomez was still enjoying traditional surfing on a short board. She also played soccer and tennis (her dad, Raul, is a tennis pro and has his own training facility in Naples, Florida) and loved to sing, play guitar and record songs (check them out here). But SUP became her major pastime after she got a custom board.
"My brother loved it and was really good," she says. "He didn't realize how good he was until one of these guys at the beach was like, 'You should be on the tour.' So we went to our first world tour event and he did pretty well."
He wasn't the only one. Giorgio Gomez landed a victory in the men's open surf event at Huntington Beach, California, in 2013. Izzi Gomez, trying her first contest just for fun, walked away the winner of the women's event -- and grabbed the attention of the main sponsor, SUP board company Starboard.
"They saw Izzi surf and said, 'You didn't tell us you had a little sister that was this good. We need to sign her.' That was it," says Gomez's mom, Brandi Brady.
The teen has been dominating women's SUP surfing ever since. She regularly outmaneuvers competitors twice her age, and has won international contests in Brazil, France and Abu Dhabi. Just last month, she represented the USA at the 2015 ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championships in Sayulita, Mexico, and came away world champion.
Unlike her competitors, Gomez has homework to juggle. She is home-schooled by her mother, who also travels the world with her.
"Those people who are very traditional are like, 'What are you doing about school? Where are you going to college?' I get a lot of pressure sometimes about that," Brady says. "Giorgio is college-aged right now and he could go, but he's taking this year off because he's traveling so much. I reassure myself that I'm making the right decisions with them.
"The things my kids are learning, being able to travel and experience so many cultures and environments, is valuable."
As for making a living as a professional SUP surfer, Gomez isn't there yet. The world championship-level event in Mexico this spring was only the fourth ever held, and the honor of a medal is all winners get from the ISA Championship. And generally, the women's prize purse for winning SUP events is between $1,500 and $2,500.
So, it's safe to say that as far as prize money is concerned, the financial backing is still growing with the sport.
"I'm hoping with the growth of the sport that the dollars will go up so when she's older she can buy herself a house and a car ... all that good stuff," Brady says. "I assume the prize money will go up. If you look at the history of surfing, there's so much more money involved than there used to be. The way SUP surfing is growing, it's got to happen."
And for the little girl who learned to surf before she could swim, she's proving her buoyancy in plenty of big waves.
"The whole time growing up, my brother was always dominating. In 2013, I went into it with no expectations," she says. "Now obviously I have expectations. It's cool because there are so many people paddleboarding now. It's a festival on any body of water and good cross-training for any sport. It's taken me so many places I would probably never have gotten to go short-boarding. I just love it."