Getting humbled by your peers can be a deeply difficult experience. But when the person serving up that slice of humble pie is a quiet and petite teenage girl, well, you just have to surrender to the jaw-dropping magnificence of it all.
Such is the Abby Brown experience. Freshly minted at 19 years young, Brown, for all her unassuming sweetness on land, is an absolute monster of ferocity when paddling on the open ocean.
Though a relative newcomer to the sport of prone paddling, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed La Colina Junior High School alum has won three of the Northern Hemisphere’s most prestigious paddle contests over the past four months. And this week, in the warm waters off Fiji, Brown may be crowned the world’s best, as she has a legitimate shot at winning the International Surfing Association’s Paddleboard Championship.
Simply put, she’s gnarly, and she’s just getting started.
To the outsider, open-ocean prone paddling looks a lot like torture — all the pain of surfing, none of the fun. You paddle for hours either on your belly or your knees, with your arms, back, neck, and butt doing the lion’s share of work as you make your way across a surging seascape. The elements beat down from above and unknown creatures lurk below as lactic acid builds to a sharp crescendo in muscle groups you never knew you had. The safe shore is often several miles away, so should you need help, it’s up to you to find it, which just means more paddling. It’s a special sort of suffering.
“You really only get into this one of two ways: either through lifeguarding or surfing,” explained Brown to me one recent morning, as we sat on the couches at Breakfast Culture Club on Chapala Street, talking story about her rapid rise in the paddling ranks. “I guess for me it was surfing.”
Born “one minute after” her twin sister, Paige, Abby called Mussel Shoals home in her early years, a twist of geographic fate that guaranteed being in the ocean early and often. The fact that her dad, Mike, was a surfer and her mom, Sharon, was an avid water skier only amplified the love affair. From there, she checked the usual boxes of a water-woman-in-training: swim class to competitive swimming to junior lifeguards to full-blown surf addict.
But she wasn’t the best aquatic athlete in the family. “My sister was always faster than me back then — Junior Guards, swimming comps, whatever — she usually beat me,” recalled the sixth-generation Santa Barbarian. “She doesn’t do much of that stuff anymore, but it pushed me then. She was faster, always kicking and scratching.” It’s clear in her tone that Abby did not enjoy her runner-up status.
Her surfing passion quickly led to contests and high hopes of becoming a pro. She got sponsor stickers on her board, she was regularly surfing with J.P. Garcia’s Santa Barbara Seals program, and, after only two weeks at San Marcos High, she started homeschooling to make more room for her surf dreams. She killed time as a shop rat at Channel Islands Surfboards and enjoyed all-day sessions at Rincon, her mom often filming the action from the beach. In January 2014, Brown, then 16, became a viral video sensation known as “dolphin girl” when footage of her surfing alongside a porpoising member of the Delphinidae family during that year’s Rincon Classic blew up the Internet, even landing on Good Morning America.
It was around this time that I first remember seeing Abby, her tiny blonde head bobbing in the lineup nearly every day at Rincon. She looked the part of a serious young athlete and was confident beyond her years in the water, but what struck me most was who she gravitated toward in the Rincon soap-opera scene: people five to 10 years her senior, the majority of them not really “contest surfers.” Brown sparked that special flickering light of a free spirit finding her way in the world, opposed to the more jock-inspired protocols adopted by most groms chasing the elusive pro-surfing carrot.
Legends in the making, such as Brandon Smith, Connor Lyons and Simon Murdoch, became Brown’s de facto mentors and friends. In relatively quick order, Brown got interested in the dark art of surfboard shaping, started riding boards of all weird shapes and sizes, and began incorporating more ’80s neon and thrift store finds into her wardrobe than most teenage girls would be cool with. “Abby is too legit,” summed up her shaper and friend Ryan Lovelace. “She is still a full-on grom with the perfect side of nerd.”
From my view on the sidelines, it was a curious pivot. But had I known that this teenager was crazy about activist/author Edward Abbey (“I just really like how he speaks his mind, no matter what,” she said) and idolized distance runner Steve Prefontaine (her Instagram profile touts his famous line: “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die”), then the evolution would have made more sense. Not long after that dolphin girl video, Brown was all but done with surf contests, and the paddleboard was floating her way.
“I never doubted her. I just didn’t see this coming,” explains Jim Brewer, the man responsible for putting Abby Brown on a paddleboard, who remains amazed at her sudden dominance on the international paddle circuit this past summer. “I did not think it could happen this fast. To be able to flip the switch like that — I had never seen that before.”
The former owner of Santa Barbara’s BlueLine paddle shop, Brewer and his wife have long counted Abby’s parents as close friends, their kids all chasing stoke side-by-side in the swimming pool and sea. His oldest, Ben, is one of the top competitive lifeguards in the country and is also one of Abby’s best buddies. Brewer recalls those fateful first days in the summer of 2013 when Ben and Abby, opting to stay away from the stand-up paddleboards that their dads were riding, instead went for the prone option. “Ben was pretty into it because of the lifeguarding thing, but then Abby just went for it, too,” he remembered. “Pretty much right away, they were paddling all the time.”
Brown credits the seasonal lull in surfable waves. “It gets really boring here in the summer, so paddling was something we could do,” she said. “It felt good to just be out there on the water and doing something. I think we went from the Pit [Hendry’s Beach] to the Harbor like every day for a couple weeks straight. Paddling in a downwinder [with the wind and waves pushing you from behind] was as fun as surfing, maybe more fun. … It sounds cheesy, but if you are having a bad day, paddling helps.”
That summer, during the annual Friendship Paddle fundraiser, Brown attempted a solo crossing of the Santa Barbara Channel, a roughly 30-mile slog of saltwater brutality, and then competed in the annual Malibu Downwinder race a few months later. But ambition wasn’t enough to pull her through: Both ended in disappointment as well as hypothermia in the Malibu event. “She had the fire and talent, but she didn’t quite have the stamina,” said Brewer. “I should say, she didn’t have the stamina yet.”
In June 2015, about a year after paddling for the first time, Brown traveled up to Santa Cruz to take part in the Jay Moriarity Memorial Paddleboard race, a 12-miler held off of Capitola Beach. Despite being the rookie in her division, which included women ages 18-49, she won. “That experience really did it for me,” said Brown, who won that race again this last summer. “I was hooked.”
She came home and began training with conviction — paddle sprints in the Oxnard Harbor, predawn workout sessions — all in the hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Molokai 2 Oahu race in Hawai‘i, arguably the most famous and grueling paddle in the world. She was just happy to be accepted, explaining, “It is just such a crazy race. I wanted to go see what it was like.”
So on July 31, Brown ate up more than 32 miles of open ocean with swells so big she often couldn’t see land or her support boat. Six hours, 29 minutes, and 47 seconds later, the 18-year-old came out of nowhere to win her division. But Brown even downplays that, offering modestly, “There aren’t many other girls who compete.”
A month later, Brown went down to Manhattan Beach to prove Molokai was no fluke. Another 32-mile crossing, the Catalina Classic was founded in 1955 and attracts the best of the best from the United States and beyond in a race from the mainland to the popular island. Once again, Abby Brown took first place, crossing the finish line less than one minute ahead of the runner-up.
“Catalina was so hard,” she said. “It was sort of the worst I have ever done. I mean, eight miles from the finish line, it was pretty clear I had no chance at winning. I was so far behind [that] I just put my head down and went. I couldn’t believe it when I passed [the leader] in that last quarter mile,” said Brown without a hint of braggadocio. “I was real surprised to win that.”
Abby Brown’s trifecta of high-profile race victories this summer is not often seen in the paddle world by man or woman. She’s not even done with her third full season in the sport, but because of this remarkable momentum, Brown has a real chance to win the women’s stock division world title in Fiji, which occurs on Thursday, November 17.
So what is her secret? “I don’t know,” blushed Brown, showing her age for the first time during our conversation. “I think all my surfing experience helps me read the conditions and maybe notice things other people don’t. Maybe. I have no idea.”
A few follow-up questions later, she lands on something closer to the truth. “This isn’t some huge sport with lots of money,” she said. “It is just a bunch of characters who go out and have fun and enjoy the challenge. We all know each other and travel together and try and have as much fun as possible.”
What about the actual paddling and the pure physical misery that it entails?
“It is mostly a mental challenge. I would rather paddle with a headwind than on calm, flat water. It is just more interesting to me,” she said. “When it is howling and white-capping and no one is out there and no one is even on the beach, that’s what I love. You can’t tell if you are having tons of fun or if you are scared. I mean, sometimes I even forget I am paddling.”