Every so often an ambassador from the world of action sports transcends mainstream barriers to make a meaningful impact on the world at large. On March 28, 2010, former professional surfer Jodie Nelson joined those ranks by becoming the first woman to complete the 39.8-mile paddle from Catalina Island to Dana Point, California alone. While the physical feat itself is impressive, Nelson managed to inspire the nation by raising over $100,000 for the Keep a Breast Foundation and Boarding for Breast Cancer in the process. We caught up with Nelson to hear the story behind a journey she called Paddle with Purpose
How did you first get inspired to not only support Boarding for Breast Cancer and The Keep a Breast Foundation, but to do so by becoming the first woman to complete the 39.8-mile paddle from Catalina to Dana Point alone?
A good friend of mine, who has been a mentor in my life, has been battling breast cancer on and off for the last 11 years, and they found three new tumors in her brain that all started with breast cancer. She’s one of the most amazing women that I know, and I just felt like there’s got to be something else I can be doing to help her (aside from providing moral support by going to chemo therapy). There were some days that she’d rather let the cancer win, and so I did the Catalina Challenge last year to help, and I was part of the first girls team to do it with Brigett Saeman.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I had only done half of it. I told all my friends and family that if I ever talk about doing that race again, please talk me out of it. Then, as it started getting closer to that time of year again, I kept seeing Catalina on a lot of clear days, and I’d make little remarks on my Facebook, and my SUP friends on Facebook were egging me on like “Do it! Do it solo!” It doesn’t take much to get me challenged. I don’t need the glory or anything like that, and I was like, “If I am going to do this how can I do it to help others?”
Everyone thought I was crazy that I wanted to paddle from Catalina to Dana Point solo, because only three guys had ever done it, and then when I said I wanted to raise $100,000 everyone thought that was crazy, too.
What was the most difficult aspect of completing the 39.8-mile paddle?
Honestly, there were more emotional things going on this year than the physical; the physical part was hard, but it was almost like my Forrest Gump moment. I needed it.
I had so much stuff going on because I lost my business partner, my best friend, and the cancer’s going crazy in my friend Angela’s body, and my friend Megan Abubo’s sister was down to a hundred pounds and was in the hospital in New York battling breast cancer, and there was just a lot of that going on. I had everyone’s name written on my board that was my inspiration. During those 40 miles, I mean, yeah it was exhausting, but the best way I can explain it is like in Forrest Gump.
You ran into a minke whale you named Larry during this paddle. Was there any significance to the name? Tell me about that experience.
There’s no significance to the name. I was just wrapped up in the moment and enjoying that time with the whale. It was hard to breathe, and my adrenalin was going like crazy while he was there. I kept reminding myself to enjoy it.
When the whale showed up, I instantly knew and I said to everybody on the boat, “Larry is going to get us a hundred grand. Guaranteed.” The story just has so many different layers to it and I think we’re just at a time right now in our country and our world where there are so many bad things going on just showing that if you set your mind to do something, there’s a way to make a difference just being one person. I don’t think people should ever underestimate what they can accomplish.
You were featured on Ellen, The Early Show, and plenty of other mainstream media outlets for your accomplishments. Considering you’re a former pro surfer and often host contests and shows, it’s almost as if your pedigree was ideal for an event of this nature.
I’ve been doing a lot of media work for the last five years in our little Action Sports world, and I take it upon myself to be an ambassador for our sport and our industry. I know something like this helps our industry. It’s not about me. The Action Sports Industry is a family for me. It’s been supporting me for my whole adult life, so I take pride in representing it well, and I was glad I was able to do that through this.
So what’s next for Jodie Nelson?
I’m going to keep plugging away in our industry, and there are a lot of opportunities coming down the pipeline in the mainstream world, and that’s exciting for me so I’m working on some opportunities there and with Larry the Whale and Breast Cancer Awareness. We’re working on a full-length documentary and will enter it into a few film festivals and do some fund raising at premieres and then I’ve got media work for events coming up like the Nike 6.0 event at Lowers and the Hurley Pro and all that stuff, so I’m continuing all efforts there as well as my side business, The SUP Spot, so I kind of have a lot going on…