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John Knippers Interview: Aloha From Oklahoma

John Knippers has secured himself as one of the most notable Ultra Long Distance Stand Up Paddlers in the world today. In this interview by passionate paddler Kim Carson, we learn about John's recent accomplishments and why he enjoys distance paddling.

John Knippers is from the state of Oklahoma in the USA and recently made history when he became the first person to complete the Alabama 650 on a stand up paddleboard. Extreme athletes test their strength, endurance, and mental fortitude for the Alabama 650 in what is known as the longest paddle race in the United States covering a total of 650 miles. With rushing whitewater along sections of the paddle, it challenges even the most experienced paddler. Before this incredible feat, John has been slowly establishing himself as one of the best ultra long distance paddlers. He has competed in the previous two editions of Last Paddler Standing where he finished second and third each time and has completed many endurance challenges on a SUP setting records along the way.

John Knippers (JK) founded a new paddle race event last year called the Grand River Dam Paddle which focusses on paddlers competing on shorter courses on the stretch of river John trains and paddles on himself. This inclusive event is for all types of water crafts and ages and John truly loves to share the stoke of paddling with everyone he meets. In a recent community vote by Total SUP, John was voted the Best Male Performance of the Year which speaks volumes for the incredible things he has achieved in our sport of SUP.

So fresh off his Alabama 650 finish, passionate paddler Kim Carson (KC) caught up with John as he talks about that race, his love for sharing paddling with others, and how his past has made him cherish the little nooks and crannies only a paddler can know.

KC: Hey John! What’s up?  How have you been?

JK: I’ve been good. I’m just getting back from France. I went to do the Glagla Race with 650-700 paddlers. All stand-up, in the French Alps. The Europeans are serious athletes and sprinters. Short-distance racing isn’t my forte, but I want to improve and would love to go back. I visited Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on the same little week’s trip. It was pristine and majestic. We paddled on Lake Constantine in Germany and did a 15-mile paddle that covered all three countries. It was cool.

KC: Was that your first international race?

JK: Yes, it was. I had to drive from Dallas to New Orleans to get a same-day passport to do this whole trip, which was almost like doing an adventure race just to get on the airplane! I pulled an all-nighter, leaving Dallas at midnight. It was so far-fetched that I could pull it off, but I did it. You have to have an emergency travel reason. I said, “Hey, you know it’s not like I have a death in the family or something. I signed up to do a stand-up paddle race, and it’s on Saturday.”  This was the Wednesday before.

Credits – Photo 1: Rick White / Photo 2 & 3: Greg Wingo

KC: That’s hilarious and sounds like something you would do! 2023 was quite the year for you. You really started getting noticed after becoming the first-ever finisher of the Alabama 650 on a paddleboard.

JK: Yeah, the Alabama 650 kinda pushed things over the edge. I tipped the scale on that one. I never dreamed it would do that. I just thought, “Hey, I’m going to try and do this. Being the first person to do this on a SUP would be so cool.” That put me in the running for SUP Performance of the Year with Total SUP.

KC: Congratulations on winning that award. You deserved it. I can’t imagine the sufferfest of the 650. Doing the MR340 and thinking of doubling that distance and the number of days…it had to be another level.

JK: I would say it’s like doing three 340s because you don’t have any flow. You are truly out there in the middle of nowhere, and then you have variables like 50 miles in the ocean, with two-thirds of that being really hard.

KC: Did you have previous experience with maritime conditions like those you found in the Mobile Bay?

JK: Not like that. In the 650, there’s a virtual buoy turn at 632 miles. To that point, it had been pretty chill. The first 32 miles of ocean was fairly downwind. Sure, it was choppy and windy, which makes you fall and that wears you out. Because you were allowed to use multiple boards, I got on an actual downwinding inflatable board that made the second third of the ocean section a bit better, but I was still only going like 5 mph working with the waves. Once I got past that section, I stopped with about 18 miles left on a little sandy beach. It was the last chance to get some food, and I was alone on the sand. I dried out my clothes on some driftwood and gave myself a 20-minute break to try and prepare myself for what was ahead. It was about to be 18 more miles upwind with 25 mph winds. As I pushed off into the wide open bay, the waves came right at me, crashing nonstop. It’s also at an angle, so if I took a break for one stroke to have a sip of water I was getting blown way to the left.

It was ridiculous. I couldn’t afford to stop–I mean, I was going 2 mph.

I was looking at my watch and thinking, how could I be doing 2 mph working so hard and need to finish 18 more miles? That was tough. I did it on my knees, paddling on one side just to go straight. I couldn’t stand up, which mentally did a number on me. I was at the end of what I could do, and I sometimes wonder how I kept going. My knees were bleeding, and I was thinking about there being sharks out there. I was afraid I was going to become hypothermic out there with 3 miles to go in the dark and freaking DNF or something. I had gone 647 miles and still felt like it would be bad news if I fell in the water. I just kept focusing on staying on top of the board.

KC: Was the final ocean leg the toughest part of the Alabama 650?

JK: That was by far the toughest part of the race, but there were so many spots: choppy lakes, long miles with no current, and one rapid section that I used the inflatable on as well. I used three boards for the 650. Most of it I did on the Enduro Unlimited by Speedboard. It’s fast. I used that for 550 miles or more of the race. I am excited to try it on the MR 340 this year and give it a good test.

Credits – Photo 1: John Knippers / Photo 2: Rick White / Photo 3: Greg Wingo

KC: Lots of racers dream of becoming sponsored athletes. How did your relationships with Speedboard and Quickblade develop?

JK: Speedboard actually reached out to me after my first Last Paddler Standing and said they would like to get me on the Enduro for the following year. I met the founder of Quick Blade, Jim Terrell, at Chattajack and Another Damn Race in Arizona. He’s just been super cool and gave me a paddle to raffle at my race here in Oklahoma. I’m blessed to have a few sponsors…it’s been cool.

KC: You just mentioned your race. I love how much you want to share your stoke. You created your own event, the Grand River Dam Paddle, this year on the Neosho River, right?

JK: Yeah, and I am pumped about our second year because the first one went so well. We had people from 7 different states, including Shane Perrin, the first to SUP the MR340, the Texas Water Safari, and the Sawannee 230. Blake Thornton (who has the most SUP finishes in the MR340) came out with his kids and camped on the cliff at my house. Olympian Mike Herbert drove over from Arkansas to race kayak with his daughter Michelle–they set the course record and now have their names on the perpetual trophy. I made all the trophies out of recycled pallet wood. I even decoupaged a label onto them…so there’s a little bit of me to take home with you! My goal for this year is to tap into some of our locals, get them off their large lake boats, and get them doing something more physical. I want to give ‘em the bug like we have.

Learn More About The Grand River Dam Paddle

KC: How did you become interested in the sport in the first place?

JK: You know, I stumbled into people doing it. I had a condo in Hilo Bay, Hawaii, in 2009 and saw some locals doing it. At the time, I had a sailboat, and I had been taking paddlers out on the sailboat and wanted to get one, but I didn’t stay there that long–I left Hawaii within the year.

Then, in 2015, I was back in Oklahoma where I owned a house in Grand Lake of the Cherokee. I was cleaning boats as a job, and a customer had some paddleboards on his boat and told us we could try them out. I grew up skateboarding and thought you fall down and you don’t get hurt!  How cool is that?  There’s no road rash or sprained wrists; it was great. I thought about building one but happened upon a super deep sale at a random Dicks’ Sporting Goods. From there, I started immediately going out on the lake with the dogs. One at first, then a second dog hopped on after about a year. After work, I took them across to the little beach by my house and paddled with my dogs each night. It was a new thing to the people around here. I started getting little kids from the neighborhood and families on the boards and letting them mess around. Next thing you know, I had a formal business. Then I discovered the river, which was even more beautiful with the bald eagles and the excitement of some current.

The following year, I stumbled into a guy at the gas station who noticed the boards on my car and mentioned that his son raced paddleboards. I got his son’s phone number and ended up talking story with him for an hour and a half on the phone. He was an original Chattajack racer, and he invited me to come out and watch the race. I went, rang the cowbell, and cheered him on from the sideline with my dogs. It was history from there (chuckles). That’s my story.

Credits – Photo 1: Carolina Cup / Photo 2: Alex & Lacey Photography / Photo 3: Sandy Goynes Yolney

KC: In our interactions on and off the water, I notice how much love and gratitude you show for others. You always throw out mahalos to your support system. Have you always been so positive like that, or have you learned that along the way?

JK: You know, that’s probably something that has evolved over the years–my gratitude for life in general. Gosh, man…a lot of people don’t really know, but I had a close encounter with death that made me realize life is so fragile, and you just can’t take it for granted. That’s what motivated me to take time to travel and live in Colorado to work as a chef on the top of Keystone Mountain. It was me just not wanting to take life for granted and taking the opportunities. From there, I went to Hawaii and had the same feeling. It just kept getting cooler. Oddly, I ended up back to where it all started in Oklahoma, where I almost got snuffed out (John was the victim of a shooting in which he sustained life-threatening injuries); it was really hard to be back.

Then, I discovered paddling again. And paddling made me appreciate all the places in life that aren’t Colorado or Hawaii…like the rivers, the place where you and I met (we met during the 2021 MR340 on the Missouri River), not far from me. How truly beautiful all these nooks and crannies are, off the beaten path, where most people really don’t venture. I am still one of the few people out here paddling in my backyard. I bought a place on the cliff here, overlooking the river.

“So yeah, life. Life is fragile, but people have been good to me. I have been really blessed and surrounded by good people who have shown me the way and led me to where I am.”

For example, the guy from the gas station and his son who got me into racing. I still think about how they got me into all this. The paddling world is so full of good people. I have the best friends in my life, and they are all over the world. I can go all over the globe.

KC: What does this upcoming race season hold for you?

JK: I am doing the Texas Water Safari in June. The Everglades challenge is something I am interested in for the future; I just don’t think I can step away from the responsibilities of life for long enough to do both this year. The Texas Water Safari says they are the toughest race in the work, and hardly anybody has done it on a standup. Personally, I hope it’s easier than the 650, or else I probably wouldn’t be doing it (chuckles) because the 650 was so dang hard. But you never know. The bugs will be bad, gators, snakes, and then, of course, those last 5 or 10 miles in the ocean is a portion of pretty rough water at the very end. On the paddleboard I think it will be okay–it sounds like a fun thing to do. Then maybe the MR340, my race at home, and I would like to help somebody (as ground crew) on the Alabama 650. I would love to go down there and be a part of it again. I’m gonna do the Yukon someday, but I don’t know that it will be the 1000. Maybe it’s the River Quest.

UPDATE: John completed the Texas Water Safari in a time of 81 hours and 58 minutes. More details to come soon.

KC: I have loved dipping my toe into the long-distance world and meeting all of you maniacs! It’s such an amazing world.

JK: That’s what keeps me doing it. There’s such a good group of people. You’re surrounded by people who have either been through crazy stuff in their lives or are just crazy people who love a great challenge. There are big races all over the world, too. Australia, France…someday I would like to do those. You don’t have to try to podium. It’s just the experience, the scenery, you know, and the adventure.

KC: Well, John, I am stoked for you and all you have accomplished in the past couple of years…it’s impressive. Good luck in the Texas Water Safari! Is there anything else you want the community to know about you or your story?

JK: No, that’s good for today (chuckles). We can save some surprises for another time.

We look forward to hearing what John is planning next for an ultra distance challenge! We hope to catch up with John soon ourselves for a video interview, but for now, there will be more to come from John and his incredible feats on a paddleboard. Thanks to Kim Carson for the interview. Thank you for reading

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