Written By: Lori Wilson
When I arrived at the Carolina Paddleboard Co. nearby the Wrightsville Beach bridge, April Zilg was on a long phone call with her dear friend Tanvi Jagadish, whom she met while living in India several years ago. As newlyweds, Zilg traveled with her husband to the Asian country to spend more than a year there for his work. Just before leaving for their new adventure, Zilg won second place in the 6.5-mile race of the West Marine Carolina Cup, an internationally recognized stand-up paddle board competition (SUP) held on our local waterways.
Zilg didn’t expect her first SUP victory to take her much further, but paddle boarding continued to inspire her nearly 10,000 miles away from her Cape Fear home. For a bit, Zilg tells me, she lived with the Indian surfing swamis, Hare Krishnas who enact surfing as a spiritual discipline. Here, she bought a new board and continued to practice, which inspired Jagadish to do the same.
Five years later, Jagadish will compete in the same 6.5-mile Carolina Cup race that Zilg once conquered as a beginning paddler, while Zilg will compete in the 13.2-mile race, also known as “the graveyard,” against top racers from Italy, New Zealand, and beyond. Since returning home to Wilmington, Zilg has become a thriving competitor, ranked tenth among female paddlers in the world, and trains women such as Jagadish who aspire for the same achievement.
But Zilg’s first attempt at the Carolina Cup wasn’t so successful. In fact, she didn’t even finish the course.
“I DNFed,” she announces. “I did not finish. I was holding my paddle backwards, too. That’s how bad it was. It was embarrassing to the say the least. I said, ‘I’m not going to be defeated by this. I’m going to stick with it. I’m going to go to the paddle board shop. I’m going to get the right kind of board.’”
And she did. At that time, she met Jason Colclough, another impressive paddler, who greeted me upon my first entrance into the shop as well. While Zilg was still on the phone helping to guide Jagadish through her training, Colclough and I chatted a bit.
“I remember when she said she doesn’t train, she just paddles,” he says and laughs. “I remember when I had to convince her to enter a race.”
These words shocked me when Zilg joined us. She arrived in board shorts and a tank that clearly exposed her strong upper body muscles. Her hair was bright blonde, the kind you can’t duplicate in dyes, evidence that she spends most of her waking hours in the sun.
We decide to go outside to chat, and I ask Zilg about her paddle board career among views of the same waters of her first competition.
Zilg reveals that, before her paddle board triumphs, she was overweight and critically unhealthy. Seeing her current athletic demeanor, I have a hard time believing this, only until she began talking about pizza and hot dogs with a spiteful tone as she remembers the daunting presence of these foods in her previous life. Nowadays, Zilg works with a nutritionist to create the best diet for SUP training.
“I had all these health problems, so I said ‘I’ve got to make this stop,’” Zilg says. “I think I had an addictive personality when it came to food. Being addicted to paddle boarding is so much better.”
Before she went “overboard” with a passion for paddling, Zilg worked at Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science after finishing a master’s degree in the subject.
“The reason I went into marine science was because I wanted to be active,” she says. “And I ended up sitting at a desk for nine hours. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. That’s when I bought my first board, and the second I got off work I would just go out and paddle really hard because I had been sedentary all day.”
“I see horseshoe crabs and stingrays and dolphins all the time,” she says. “The first time I stood on a board I was like I can do this every day of my life.”
And she is. She’s now sponsored by major retailer Hobie SUP, coaches all levels, offers several workshops, and attends national, international, and local races.
Oddly enough, the Carolina Cup in Wilmington is one of the biggest races she attends, almost bigger internationally than it is locally. In terms of participation, it is one of the largest races—in the world—with thousands of attendees, both at professional and recreational levels.
Zilg’s smile shows how excited she is to race in it for a seventh time.
The West Marine Carolina Cup occurs April 19–23. For more information, visit wrightsvillebeachpaddleclub.com/carolina-cup/.