Former Teacher Launches New Career in Stand-up Paddleboarding
Despite her easy laugh and carefree, sunglasses-and-sandals style, Kristin Thomas admits she likes her ducks in a row. Organized, disciplined and driven, the Southern California super mom makes a plan -- and sticks to it.
While raising her three children in Laguna Beach, Calif., the former elementary school teacher volunteered in local schools and helped run a fundraising foundation for her district. In her 40s, she went back to school and hung out a shingle as a private college admissions counselor.
"It seemed perfect. I could help with the college bills, have flexible hours and work in the education field that I love," she says. "I was totally planning on this being my last career and working on it until my husband retired."
But when Thomas discovered a new passion for paddling giant surfboards several years ago, she glided onto a career path that wasn't previously on her life map.
Thomas tried a friend's stand-up paddleboard (SUP) two summers ago, fell in love with the smooth ride and core workout, and tracked down a used board through Craigslist. Two weeks later, she entered her first race, the Hano Hano, a 4-mile course in San Diego's Mission Bay. Thomas then entered as many competitions as she could find -- and quickly started winning.
"It was kind of a wild thing that you could be successful at a sport at this age," says Thomas, who turns 50 in November and beats women less than half her age. "I wasn't expecting to do as well as I did. Now I've won races against women from 16 to 60."
A lifelong ocean lover who swam competitively in college, windsurfed in her 30s and took up surfing in her 40s, Thomas naturally dove into what has become the hottest new trend in water sports. Today, she's sponsored by top SUP and sports companies and has raced in more than 60 competitions throughout the country. "My competitive nature kind of came back," she says, laughing. "Now I'm obsessed."
Although the sport is so young sponsors still are working out their ranking system, Thomas consistently places among the top 20 fastest women in the country.
"Inspiring doesn't even begin to describe Kristin," says Andre Niemeyer, president of Supconnect.com, who promotes the SUP sports community and also races. "She has less time in the sport, is a woman, and has her age counting against her. And yet, she is beating people in every age, experience and gender group. How many people do you know her age who reinvent themselves in such an impressive way? I don't know any."
SUP industry boosters are recruiting her to help start a nonprofit business to promote the sport. Thomas, excited by the opportunity and in the best shape of her life, is ready to jump on board. The trick is how to let go of her hard-earned, lucrative counseling job for an uncharted career with no safety net or certain income.
"I'm usually a planner," says Thomas, who timed her first two pregnancies to deliver her daughters in time for her summer break. "I went back to school, had this business. I even made a deal of sorts with my husband to pay for at least one college education. This new career is definitely taking a risk."
Thomas feels ready to push her comfort zone.
"I'm more comfortable with insecurity and the unknown," she says. "I know it will all work out. I know I won't ruin my life."
Thomas intends to keep her part of the bargain on financing one college education, and is maintaining her college counseling website as a backup.
"It's a little uncomfortable for me," she says. "I've always made decisions and stuck with them. But there's the excitement of reinventing yourself. I find it exhilarating. That's what's supposed to keep us young, right?"
Read more: Paddle Surfing's Ripple Effect