SUP and SUP Racing is a sport that increasingly is attracting athletes from varied backgrounds. Many competitive paddlers have a background in watersports but an increasing number of SUP Racers have been competitive at a high level in other, completely unrelated sports. SUNOVA fan Polona Pusljar is one of those athletes who has already had a sporting career at the highest level and now is helping promote Slovenia as a SUP destination with the Adria SUP Challenge. Chris from TotalSUP found out more…
Hi Polona, welcome to TotalSUP! The Adria SUP Challenge is coming soon, on 2-3 September 2023. The location looks fantastic, can you tell us about the event and how you joined the SUP Alps Series?
Hi Chris, great to be here on TotalSUP. The idea of organising a big competition in Slovenia has been brewing for many years. We have had a major event in the past, but the event organisers never decided to take that step. This year there is a new club, club NNN – Naredi Nekaj za Naravo (Do something for nature) from Koper-Capodistria, and a new showcase event with the support of leading racing competitors in Slovenia, the idea for a big competition in Koper matured.
Some of the top Slovenian paddlers already knew of and took part in competitions for the Sup Alps Trophy, and the idea that our Water Sports Center, the city beach and the Bay of Koper will host one of the competitions from this series seemed insanely good. After a few meetings, we realised we could make it work and said, let’s go, let’s do this!
I already knew Gerd Weisner, the head of Sup Alps Trophy series, because my daughter Hana used to be a Lightboard Corp team rider, so communication was quick and easy. Gerd was thrilled with our event location and the facilities at our water sports centre and was excited with the idea that the Sup Alps Trophy would reach on the other side of Alps, to the Adriatic sea. He said YES!
Sounds like a very good match taking racing to a new location which looks amazing. There must be a huge amount of work involved in hosting a prestigious event like the SUP Alps series, what happened next?
You are right, there is a lot of work! So far this has been the biggest project we ever held/organised. But with the help offered to us by our friends with plenty of experience from the organising committee of the race at FaakerSee and Gerd as the heart, brain and soul of the Sup Alps Trophy, we are positive that we are capable of holding a competition on a high level.
And how does an event like this impact the local SUP scene?
Having such an important European race series here in Slovenia will help to popularise stand-up paddle racing in Slovenia, enabling Slovenian competitors to compete domestically with European competition at the highest level.
That is super important for our club. Three of the goals of the NNN club are; to bring stand-up paddling as a competitive sport closer to young and less young paddlers. To raise the level of competitive stand-up paddling in Slovenia and lastly to support the Slovenian Surf and Sup Association in its efforts to popularise and develop this sport.
We want to introduce the competitors from Central Europe to the southernmost destination of the Sup Alps Trophy as a potential training destination for the colder winter period or anytime they wish to join Slovenian paddlers on Adriatic sea training. The doors of the NNN club are always wide open and all sup friends are welcome in our sup centre in Koper Bay.
It really does sound like you have a brilliant location and with such a welcoming attitude I think paddlers will be heading your way. Your journey to SUP racing has been a little different to most, how did you get involved with SUP?
That is right, I have been involved in sports my whole life. As a child, I did sports gymnastics but literally grew up too fast, I am 1.81m tall. This pushed me towards sports for taller people like handball and volleyball. But it was not until my later youth that I became addicted to soccer. Due to my height and control over the game, I quickly became a goalkeeper for the Slovenian women’s national football team. Just as I was supposed to turn pro, with the possibility of playing abroad, my life took a 180-degree turn. My life brightened up with the birth of my daughter Hana. My sports career was on hold for a couple of years since I switched to motherhood, which was my first priority.
I quickly returned to sports – MTB, road cycling, and later marathon long-distance running.In 2016 injury made me look for change from running and I found SUP which at the time was a “new” sporting discipline, perceived more as a recreation than a “serious competitive sport.” But even then stand-up paddling showed great potential as a competitive sport…
That first paddle in 2016 must have been memorable?
Yes, my first reaction was that I did not like it at all! We were on a family vacation on the Croatian island of Lošinj. I had a little fear of the water, but my daughter and partner encouraged me to try it out. The waves and the wind played with the board and with me, and I spent more time swimming than paddling.
Ha ha! I am sure that resonates with many first-time paddlers!
Yes! But Hana, my daughter picked it up quickly and became obsessed with the sport. Next season she was already participating in the Slovenian Sup Cup competitions and the Slovenian Sup National Championships, where she regularly reached high rankings.
And her competitive success inspired you to join in?
Eventually. Another running injury left me with no other choice than finding another sport that was easier on my legs. Hana and my partner Dušan convinced me to give stand-up paddling another try, this time on flat water and I started to enjoy it.
The competitive spirit awoke in me again, I joined Hana for some of her training sessions and the Family competition became more and more fierce and, as a result, I got better and better at SUP. I started to compete and in 2019, I achieved 2nd place in the National Championship SUP sprints – only my daughter Hana was faster. A complete family success. Victories and podiums for the Slovenian Sup Cup and National Championships started lining up.
From not paddling in 2016 to national SUP race titles in 2019 is a very impressive progression in the sport.
Thank you, we can be very competitive! That desire to compete meant we wanted to push ourselves more and more so the next step was to try our first competitions in Austria and Italy, facing real European competition. This was a real push and stand-up paddling became a serious family competitive sport, with serious strength training in the gym and sup technique on the water.
In 2021 my daughter gave up competitive stand-up paddling for her studies in Sweden. I was left without my favourite training buddy, but with the support of my partner who is researching SUP technique and taking care of my training on a nearby lake, I continued and was determined to get even better.
In the same year, 2021, I attended my first ICF Sup World Championships – at Balatonfured in Hungary. It was a tough learning experience, especially facing world competition in the 40+ category. Rankings – hmmm, don’t ask, but the experience was invaluable.
Sadly the Slovenian Surf and Sup Association withdrew from the organisation of SUP competitions, and the interest of sponsors and distributors of sup equipment was getting smaller and smaller. My old club shut down but luckily I found my new SP home among friends in the NNN club who welcomed me into their midst and provided me with excellent conditions for training and competitions.
In 2022 I attended my second ICF Sup World Championships in Gdynia, Poland. Rankings were much better this time: sprint 9th place, and technical race 8th place in final. 2022 was my last season racing in the 40+ age category, for the 2023 World Championships in Pattaya, Thailand I will be competing in the 50+ category in the ICF World Championships and I am really looking forward to it.
Congratulations on your 2022 results. Recently your social media has started to feature one of the distinctive SUNOVA Allwater FAAST Pro boards, is this a new brand for you?
Yes, it is, well-spotted. Throughout my development, I have always ridden one brand, but when we bought a new race board in 2020 … how to say this. We did not get on! I went back to my board from 2017 and was looking for a new one that would allow me to perform better, have greater stability, speed and manoeuvrability…
At the Slovenian Sup National Championships, I had the opportunity to try a SUNOVA Allwater FAAST PRO and it was love at first sight, at first touch, at the first wave, first kilometre…
I have the same model here in Sweden, it sure is a nice board!
The thought of that SUP board haunted me all the way to the ICF World Championships in Gdynia, Poland, where my friend Susanne Lier sold me her winning SUNOVA, with which she became World Champion again that day.
And today that happiness continues?
Yes! I have been with SUNOVA for almost a year, and my enthusiasm for the wooden-blue beauty is growing. It responds perfectly to the changing Adriatic sea conditions, excels in chop, is stable for downwind, fast on flat water… well it could be faster on flat, but that’s why I informed my partner/coach that my Blue SUNOVA needs the company of the turquoise, SUNOVA Flatwater FAAST Pro.
That is a SUNOVA model I have only paddled briefly, can you tell us a little about it?
Testing boards can be difficult but Christian Taucher, the head of the Austrian SUP Association switched to SUNOVA this year, and he joined us at one of our club Saturday training sessions. That is where I had first the opportunity to try SUNOVA FlatWater PRO… a new love was born!
A few e-mails with Susanne and a SUNOVA FlatWater PRO was on the way to Slovenia. It arrived last week and I am really looking forward to the performance gains that this flatwater-focused model is going to make possible for me in competitions that are ahead, especially the ICF World Championship in Pattaya, Thailand in November.
Yes, I am really looking forward to meeting the SUNOVA team, they have organised a training Camp before the World Championships and a tour of the factory where the development and production of SUNOVA boards happen. I will meet Susanne again and hope to meet and socialise with other SUNOVA team riders, new knowledge and experiences on the water that I don’t know yet.
I am so grateful for the SUNOVA family, which supports us and will provide us with excellent conditions for preparations and rental of SUNOVA boards at World Championships, making it much more accessible for European competitors.
Hopefully you will have a successful World Championships. Back to the national sport in Slovenia, growing the sport is a challenge for many national bodies around the world so Slovenia is not alone with the struggle for future development. How is the SUP Scene in Slovenia?
When Hana and I entered competitive stand-up paddling, Manca Notar, a world-class sup paddler and world champion, was setting the pace for Slovenian sup paddleboarding. The Slovenian Sup scene and sup competitions were flourishing on the wings of her successes. The competitions in the Slovenian Sup Cup were very successful and continuously, more people were switching from inflatables to racing boards. At individual competitions, with the support of sponsors, and distributors of sup equipment, 60 competitors gathered, and it seemed that we were witnessing a competitive sup explosion in Slovenia… oh boy, we were wrong.
The Slovenian Surf and Sup Association changed their attention, focusing mainly on the Elite category, neglecting the multitude and development in the Inflatable/Fun category. This led to the decline of introducing SUP to younger generations and impacting on the nurturing the junior divisions need. Eventually the Slovenian Surf and Sup Association withdrew from the organisation of the Slovenian Sup Cup and the competitive SUP scene slowly fell apart. Fewer and fewer competitors showed up to sup events, and the competitiveness and the quality of races declined.
I think that this is a common problem, getting younger paddlers into the sport and keeping them. Focusing more on Elite paddlers is in many ways easier to do but when those paddlers move on or retire who takes their place?
Yes! The reason this sport is still alive in Slovenia is only because of the persistence of individuals, who covered the costs of training and competitions without any financial support from sponsors, the association, society and the country. And through the support of other SUP enthusiasts who took over the organisation of sup competitions for the Slovenian Sup Cup.
Now we have competitors from Slovenia increasingly participating in races outside Slovenian borders – Germany, Austria, Italy and Croatia. For Slovenian competitors, these countries offer extremely interesting and highly competitive nearby sup races, such as SUP Alps Trophy series, especially The Lake Rocks at Faaker See in Austria, The Legend of Ox at Wolfgang See in Austria, Supalot at Altmühlsee in Germany… as well as individual Eurotour races in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal.
And of course, in September 2023 our NNN club is organising the first Sup Alps Trophy series competition in Slovenia in the Bay of Koper – The Adria Sup Challenge, which will be the only competition at the Adriatic sea, a sup competition on the sunny side of Alps!
Thank you, Polona for taking the time to tell us about the Adria SUP challenge, I am sure that with the work that has gone into the event, it will be a huge success!
Polona Pusljar is a SUP Racer and one of the organisers of the Adria SUP Challenge, which is taking place in Koper, Slovenia on 2 and 3 September 2023. The event forms part of the SUP Alps Challenge. We hope to see Polona at the sharp end of her event and on podiums through the season on her new SUNOVA Flatwater FAAST Pro.
The some fantastic images used in this article are from Uroš Kekuš Kleva and you can see more of his work on his Instagram and he will be the official photographer at the event so smile if you see him! Other images from Polona, the Adria SUP Challenge and from SUNOVA.
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