A Post Race Interview With Erika Benitez

After a disappointing outing in the Junior Pro Technical Race on Day Two of the 2016 Pacific Paddle Games, 16-year-old Erika Benitez regained her composure, got a good night’s sleep and rebounded on Day Three with a spectacular victory claiming first place in the Junior Pro Distance Race with a winning time of 1:04.06.48. I first met Erika well over a year ago during a visit to a training session of The Paddle Academy on a cool winter’s evening in Dana Point. It has been exciting to watch her skills progress and notch up a few accomplishments in regional and national competitions along the way. Erika has an incredibly supportive family, a great relationship with her board sponsor – Brawner Boards, and a first-class attitude which will server her well and undoubtedly many doors in the years to come.

I had the chance to sit down and speak with Erika at Doheny State Beach not long after her win. Always smiling, Erika walked me through her performance in the distance race from start to finish and revealed a couple of unique insights from her pre-race training regimen.  

MC: Tell us about the beginning of the race, did you get off to a good start?

Yeah, I got off to a clean start. I was surprised there were not many girls on the start line, I think there was about 10 of us. Right at the beginning I was next to Jade [Howson] and Kali’a [Alexiou] was as few board lengths to the side of us. Right when the race began I heard Jade yell over to me, “Erika, go to Kali’a!” So I went over behind Kali’a, I kind of went in front of some of the other competitors, but that’s what you’ve got to do.

MC: What was your race strategy and did it evolve during the race?

I knew I would have to paddle strategically and I didn’t really want to take the lead since the course was going upwind. I stayed behind other paddlers, like Jade or Kali’a, most of the race. I wasn’t out front for any of it so I could rest and make my sprint at the end. It was a strategic move, but one I had to make because I knew I would wear myself out otherwise.

Erika Benitez, OnIt Pro, Pacific Paddle Games, Brawner Boards, OX Endurance, Pacific Paddle Games, Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, The Paddle Academy, SUP Event, SUP Racing, SUP Surfing

Brawner Boards tents at the Pacific Paddle Games demo zone. Photo, OnIt Pro

MC: Tell us a bit about your Brawner race board. How did it perform?

My board was really good for these conditions. It is a bit more stable than any of the other boards I have and it catches bumps so well.

MC: Did you use the same board on both days of the competition?

No, today I paddled a different board than I used on the first day. The other board is actually for flat water, but it works well to catch waves. For these conditions [today] I wanted a more stable board that could guarantee my stability.

MC: What was it like during the race, when did you decide to make your move?

Towards the end I noticed the other girls were kind of slowing down and in the middle of the macaroni buoy and the red buoy I decided that it was time to paddle away from them because I noticed my board was able to catch the bumps better than theirs. I started catching the bumps and adjusted to a downwind situation. I was behind Jade and I would paddle to catch a bump, but then I would have to stop myself so I didn’t hit Jade. I then separated myself from the other girls using my board and adjusting my technique to the conditions.

It worked out really well and I started to catch all the bumps I could find. Basically in the middle between the macaroni buoy and the red buoy is when I started to depart the rest of the pack.

MC: The current pushed you to the south on your way into the beach. Did you have any concerns that you were not on the best line to the finish?

Yeah, I saw that after a bit, but I was really concentrating and hammering it down. I noticed I was a bit far from where I was supposed to be and had to correct myself at the last minute. Fortunately it didn’t effect me too much and I was still ahead of the other girls. I honestly wasn’t paying attention that much attention [on the way in], but it didn’t effect me that much.

MC: It was really spectacular when you finished as the announcers were focused on the paddlers directly in front of them. What did you think?

Oh, I know! I was coming in and I didn’t hear my name. I was expecting to hear, “Oh, Erika Benitez…first place…or something.” I was a bit far from the finish line. I kind of fell in a couple of waves and was tossed to the side. I had to gain ground and was able to catch a different wave. I shifted myself towards where the finish line was and right when I ran up next to Jade they saw me! No one noticed me coming in, it was kind of funny!

Erika Benitez, OnIt Pro, Pacific Paddle Games, Brawner Boards, OX Endurance, Pacific Paddle Games, Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, The Paddle Academy, SUP Event, SUP Racing, SUP Surfing, Shae Foudy

Erika Benitez and Shae Foudy congratulate one another after the race. Photo, OnIt Pro

MC: What was the reaction from your parents, friends and board manufacturer?

Oh, everybody gave me like 10 hugs on the finish line. My dad came over crying. He said, “That’s how you do it, Erika, good job!” Yesterday’s race went so badly and I knew I could redeem myself and do better. Distance races are my strength. Everyone was really happy and super proud of me.

Today made everything 10x better. I’m very happy with my results, even though I finished fourth overall [in the Junior Pro division] I’m still really happy I got first in the distance race knowing that I was prepared and ready for it and I went through with it.

MC: Tell us a bit about your preparation leading up to the Pacific Paddle Games. How many times a week were you training with The Paddle Academy and what was the intensity like? Did you change the frequency of your practices?

Oh, definitely. Towards the race we tend to slow down a bit. Mainly before this race we wanted to do more ins-and-outs before the race started. We took it a bit easier and our practices were not an hour and a half like they usually are, they were more like 30 minutes. We just surfed and tried to get used to it, to get a good feel for our boards. We definitely took it down the week before [the race].

MC: Do you have a special meal you like to eat before you come out and race a big event?

[Laughing a bit] Someone came over to me after the race and asked me what I had for breakfast and I was like, Cinnamon Toast Crunch!

[Adopting a more serious tone] I think a good breakfast should be a banana or a bit of toast with some Nutella or something like that.

MC: But Cinnamon Toast Crunch worked out for today?!

[Laughing] Cinnamon Toast Crunch worked out today. It was my fuel for the day!

MC: Thank you for your time, Erika. Congratulations on your win at the 2016 Pacific Paddle Games!

Erika Benitez, OnIt Pro, Pacific Paddle Games, Brawner Boards, OX Endurance, Pacific Paddle Games, Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, The Paddle Academy, SUP Event, SUP Racing, SUP Surfing

A smiling Erika after her win in the Distance Race. Photo, SUP Examiner



Matt Chebatoris

Founder at SUP Examiner
Matt is a former national security professional and lifelong adventurer. He has published material on a variety of topics in the foreign policy arena and founded SUP Examiner™ as a platform to share his enjoyment of the sport with others. Matt resides in Los Angeles with his wife Karen and their tuxedo cat Maximilian.