Paddleboard Chicago with Blackfish Rider Kirsten Marina

“The beauty of this sport is that you never stop learning and never run out of different aspects of it and new places to explore”, says Kirsten Marina Lefeldt, Blackfish Paddles Rider, SUP Athlete, Coach and Adventure Mentor. TotalSUP caught up with Kirsten to talk about growing the SUP scene in Chicago, preparing for the ultra-endurance SUP races and the future of the sport.

Hi Kirsten, massive congratulations on a great start to the SUP racing season. How have you been holding up through the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic confirmed for me that when you do what you love, you will find ways to do it no matter what. Beaches and parks in Chicago closed down, early on in 2020. I was the last one on the water with news helicopters circling above my head as the city put up barricades. It was surreal.

But I couldn’t stay away from the water so I drove up North to the one harbor that remained open. We lost access to our beach storage area so I just kept a board on my car and drove around with it all Summer. There were other paddlers equally determined to keep things going and our community grew closer than ever. We still talk about how 2020, ironically may have been one of our best Summers.

It definitely wasn’t easy to make it work. I remember a day when I had to pass road barriers during the riots in Chicago to get my board out of the storage location. Rushing back to my car with my board in hand I tripped and fell causing damage to my board and myself. I showed up at our launch spot up north with a bleeding foot and holes in my board. My friend helped me patch up the board with water weld and my foot with electrical tape and we still got onto the water that day. A bit crazy in retrospect but I believe being able to continue to be outside and see a few friends on the water is what kept me sane through this time.

Much later in early 2021 I actually caught the virus. Thankfully my symptoms were mild but it really took a toll on my endurance. Stubborn as I am, I kept working out at home during my quarantine, riding a stationary bike and doing pull-ups on my doorframe rack. I’m glad I can say that I bounced back 100 %. This whole experience to me was again confirmation how important it is to take care of your body and strengthen your immune system with good nutrition and recovery strategies. It also showed me big time how important it is for me to spend time outdoors.

What’s your take on the SUP and SUP racing world today? Surfing has finally made its Olympics debut… Do you think SUP will go that way too?

I sure hope so! Here in the Midwest the SUP racing scene is alive and kicking thanks to the Midwest Paddle League. We have introduced so many new people to the sport in the past two years, it’s beautiful to watch. The 3 Mile races especially have seen a growing number of women competing. I have seen youth leagues being formed and more and more people starting to understand SUP as a competitive sport. Now it is on us to continue this momentum and create exciting events.

Could you tell us more about yourself?

I grew up in Germany and moved to the United States in 2004. Living on the shore of Lake Michigan, in Chicago, it was bound to happen that I get into a watersport one day. After renting a board only five times I was talked into a half mile race which I won. A light bulb went off and I fell in love with the sport. The way I am wired, when I make up my mind about something, I am all in. So the past seven years I have spent learning all I can about SUP. Taking every pro clinic I could, at races like the Carolina Cup, travelling to SUP at places like Iceland, and hiring coaches – recently even a mental performance coach. I have found that the beauty of this sport is that you never stop learning and never run out of different aspects of it and new places to explore.

As far is my own trajectory in SUP racing goes, I have been Midwest Paddle League Champion for two years in a row and have successfully raced in some bigger races like Chattajack or the SUP 11 City Tour in the Netherlands. That event was extra special because my dream had been to race in Europe. While I love racing and challenging myself, in recent years I have focused a lot on coaching as well. I work for ChicagoSUP, which is the original SUP business in Chicago. Here I have access to lots of equipment at three locations and can build any class format I can dream up. My favorite is to teach Camp SUP, a four week course. Just watching people progress from the first timid strokes in the harbor to conquering often challenging Lake Michigan conditions, all while forming friendships, that’s just so rewarding. Even during the pandemic we still got people on the water and it added so much to their well-being. While I enjoy racing and challenging myself I get just as much, if not more, satisfaction from connecting people with the sport and being a coach.

You’ve been building a thriving SUP community in Chicago. What’s the SUP scene like there?

There is a reason the Great Lakes are often referred to as the Third Coast. Out on Lake Michigan it feels like being on the ocean, minus the sharks. Out here you can instantly forget that we are still in a city with a population of over 9 Million people if it weren’t for the skyline behind you (which does make for great photos though).

But because we are in a big city it’s been easy to meet people and build a community. There are basically two types of paddlers: The recreational ones who will rent or, in increasing number, show up with their own inflatable boards, and the more serious ones, who come out early in the morning, who train and race in the many races the Midwest Paddle League offers. This is the paddling community I have been working to build. We are a tight knit community and when we get together at the races it’s like family.

Winters in Chicago, of course are long but you learn to adapt. We suit up and still get out until the water freezes over. We even have this icebreaker board, an old beat up rental board that we use to break the ice to just get a few more days in. I also don’t mind giving my body a bit of a break during these months and focus on strength training. Being an outdoor enthusiast in a big city might seem counterintuitive but here it’s not just possible, it’s special.


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A post shared by Kirsten Marina Lefeldt (@kirstenmarina7)

Could you share your mini SUP-guide to paddleboarding Chicago?

Chicago has twenty nine beaches and so much green space! If I showed you where I live and how quiet it is in my street, you wouldn’t believe we are only three miles from downtown.
My top advice for anyone looking to SUP in Chicago, well, other than simply getting in touch with me, would be to definitely get out early in the morning while the city is still asleep. The lake tends to be calmer and you will encounter close to no boat traffic.

Diversey Harbor is a great launch spot. From there you can access the lake or, if the lake is too rough, you can stay in the Lincoln Park Lagoon. SW wind is always best for us, NE wind quickly turns the water into the spin cycle of a watching machine or, as we call it , a chop factory. If conditions are good and you have the time and endurance, my favorite route is to paddle south from Diversey. You can literally go sightseeing on your board. You will go past Navy Pier, the museums square and Northerly Island, always with the skyline right next to you.


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A post shared by Kirsten Marina Lefeldt (@kirstenmarina7)

The Northshore also has a great paddling scene. Northshore Yacht Club is a hidden gem. They are an all-volunteer club in Highland Park with a small beach and plenty of equipment.
Look for our group “Chi SUP Club” on Facebook to get social with Chicago Area paddlers.

Could you tell us more about your collaboration with Blackfish Paddles?

A friend introduced me to Peter Allen, Blackfish team member in Vancouver. We chatted and I really liked what I learned about Blackfish Paddles. A company that cares about sustainability and handcrafting their paddles, that resonated with me. Shortly thereafter I travelled to Vancouver to try out ONE boards and Blackfish Paddles. I also met Blackfish Founder David Smart. Both him and Peter are just great guys who have helped me out so many times with anything I needed in terms of gear, while never being sales people trying to push anything onto me. People matter in my opinion and when the gear is top notch on top of that, that’s the kind of collaboration I want to be part of.

What are your Blackfish Paddles of choice?

I love my Blackfish Viento Black Series. It’s the lightest and most efficient paddle I have used. The handle and shaft just feel ergonomically perfect and I never feel like my hands are slipping. I can get a clean catch and a quick release and lots of power through the water. I think this paddle has changed my stroke. I can paddle with a higher stroke rate where previously I feel I was more muscling through my strokes.

As a pro-SUP athlete, what would you say to the next generation of paddlers entering the SUP racing scene?

I struggle with the word „pro“ because I want to stay humble knowing that there is still a lot for me to learn and improve and maybe that is what I would tell anyone new to the sportDon’t focus too much on the outcome of a race. It sounds like a cliche to say “just enjoy the journey“ but make sure to always stay stoked. Get on the water, get the miles and the hours in. You will likely have to train a lot harder than you think because there are really good racers out there but every stroke you take matters, every little thing your learn, every person you meet, just absorb it all.

What’s in the pipeline for 2021?

I just finished my last race of the Midwest Paddle League and for the next month my focus will be on training for the SUP 11 City Tour in September and shortly after that, Chattajack.

I also just started training our own small racing team here at ChicagoSUP. I am excited to work with them and keep growing the community. I‘m also still balancing a fulltime job as a Construction Quality Manager but fortunately my company supports my need for flexible hours so I can still spend most mornings on the water.

Really, I am just learning that while I love competing, there are so many other ways I want to be involved in the sport and especially grow it here in Chicago. From hard training sessions to leading groups out on the lake for sunrise or just answering emails or organizing our storage container, it’s all part of it. It’s where I feel most present and on purpose.


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A post shared by Kirsten Marina Lefeldt (@kirstenmarina7)

The SUP scene has globally exploded. What are your predictions for the SUP industry in the next 6 months?

What happens next is up to us, to every coach, athlete and sales rep. We have to keep all of these people who bought their first inflatable board during the pandemic excited. That means teach good lessons so they can enjoy the sport, put on events that are inclusive of all levels but also make it known what kind of challenging and exciting sport SUP is. We have an opportunity now, that we cannot miss.

Thank you for your time Kirsten and good luck with the rest of the SUP racing season!

To find out more about Blackfish Paddles and their progressive, refined, handcrafted designs, visit

*All images courtesy of Kirsten Marina

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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