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Nearly every day during the summer, a small crowd forms on the banks of the Arkansas River to gawk at a 17-year-old performing stupefying feats on a stand-up paddleboard. Miles Harvey weaves in and out of the rapids at Salida Whitewater Park, occasionally working a 360-degree turn in with other amazing stunts. Some spectators aren’t sure what he’s doing. Is this a new sport? they ask. Yes, he responds. It’s SUP river surfing—though he’s too modest to tell them he’s one of its most accomplished athletes.
You might say Miles is carrying on a family tradition, albeit a fairly recent one. In the early 2000s, his father, Mike, a white-water park designer, noticed that most SUP boards were sturdily made for surfing ocean waves or leisurely paddling on calm water. He and a friend, Zach Hughes, decided to design a lightweight, easily maneuverable model that could navigate around tough river rapids. “We imagined it being like kayaking on your feet,” Mike says. By 2010, the pair had started Badfish SUP—and Miles, at the age of eight, got to test the board-makers’ nimble prototypes.
Within a few years, SUP river surfing became a staple at mountain festivals, such as the GoPro Mountain Games held every June in Vail. There was no junior circuit, though, so when he was 11, Miles began competing against adults in the sport’s two main events: downriver racing (a multiple-mile sprint) and SUP Cross (a shorter race with tight turns, like slalom skiing). While Miles struggled with endurance in long races, he excelled at the creative maneuvers needed for SUP Cross, racking up a slew of top-three finishes.
But Miles is at his best when the waves are too; every few years, epic winter snowfall results in monster river waves of three to five feet—whitecaps that are perfect for free-style tricks. During these rare occasions, Miles draws inspiration from other sports to introduce new maneuvers—such as skateboarding’s “pop shove-its,” in which a board does a flying 180-degree turn—to SUP. In 2016, the last time the waves in the state were high enough to stage such competitions, Miles won the four-stop Colorado River Surfing Championship, prompting SUP Magazine to declare him “The Future of SUP.”
This month, with Centennial State rivers expected to once again reach big-wave heights, the phenom will compete in a run of tournaments, culminating at the legendary FIBArk Whitewater Festival (June 13 to 16) in Salida. After that, Miles will likely spend the rest of his summer at his hometown white-water park, hoping his latest stunts catch fresh eyes. “It’s been a goal of mine to inspire younger kids,” he says, “especially with river SUP being so new.” Then it’s just a matter of riding that wave of popularity into the future.