At the age of 16, Miles Harvey represents the future of the sport of stand-up paddleboarding. 

When Miles Harvey was barely walking, he would toddle up to his dad and point to the rocks. His dad would wedge him into his kayak’s cockpit—despite a bit of chagrin from mom—and they would catch eddies in his hometown river park.

“He would say ‘Behind the rocks. Behind the rocks!.” Yeah, it kinda drove his mom crazy, but ever since then, man, he’s been totally focused on the river,” says Mike Harvey, the stand-up paddleboard designer and river-park builder whose passion for whitewater has sparked a phenom in the fledgling but surging sport of stand-up river paddling.

At 16, Miles is the future of river SUP. There is no Pop Warner when it comes to river play so Miles has spent the past six years stand-up paddling with, and competing against, men 20 years older.

“He had a rough-and-tumble start and just got thrown into it didn’t he?” says Mike Tavares, one of the top three river paddlers in the world who Miles counts as both a role model and a best pal. (Mike T considers Miles an inspiration and close friend as well.) “He’s just the poster child of paddling—he has grown up around the sport and had all of us as role models. We have been teaching him along the way.”

Coming on Strong

Miles has spent his adolescence chasing the heroes of SUP. Now, he finds himself joining them on podiums and expert-only missions. A year ago, he was a soggy wetsuit away from 100 pounds. Today, thanks to a year with a trainer in his hometown of Salida, he’s closer to 150 pounds. The fleet-footed wunderkind has become a contender.

But don’t think stand-up paddling is some cutthroat pursuit. Sure there are contests, but playing in the river is not inherently competitive. It’s expressive, creative and tremendously rewarding without any accolades. Miles gets that. He’s didn’t hit the weights and gym this year to win as much as excel.

“I’m stronger and I can hang with these bigger guys now so, the downriver stuff, it’s getting to be more fun for me,” he says.

Miles impressed at his fifth Go Pro Mountain Games in June. He finished eighth in the downriver SUP Sprint, a grueling push through shallow whitewater where he bested more than 45 other racers, including his dad. In the more strategic SUP Surf Cross race, he battled through a dozen heats to finish in the top six.

It’s helped that his dad is the co-founder of Badfish SUP, the Salida-based designer of river boards that counts Miles as its youngest of more than 20 sponsored athletes. And Mike Harvey, a kayaking and stand-up-paddling engineer, built the Salida whitewater park, where his son still spends most of his summer days. He was kayaking in his own boat at age 4. He ran the FIBArk downriver race at age 6, guarded by Olympians and world champions like Scott Shipley and Clay Wright who volunteered to shepherd the paddling polymath.

In 2012, Miles found himself possessed by stand-up surfing in the waves his dad built on the river in downtown Salida. Zach Hughes, the other half of Badfish, would spend hours at the hole with his business partner’s son, carefully watching how the pint-sized ripper navigated the whitewater. Hughes, a kayaker, surfer and board shaper, built several prototypes to keep Miles shredding. Miles is still influencing Badfish’s line-up of boards.

“Zach stands on the bank and gets all these ideas, just watching Miles,” Mike says. “For Zach, it’s important to have someone like Miles because Miles is always wanting to learn new stuff, which provides Zach a platform for creating new boards.”

A few years ago, Hawaiian waterman Kai Lenny competed in the GoPro Mountain Games. Miles watched his every move. Within a day, he was mimicking the legendary ocean surfer’s footwork, sculpting his own style in the river.

“I’ve never known anyone who can visually learn something as quick as he does. Even when he was little, he’d see some heavyweight, like Dan Gavere, doing something in a video on YouTube or something and then he’d be doing it in the whitewater park the next day,” Mike says. “He can just watch people and transfer it over almost instantly. The visual-to-physical connection seems to work really well for him.”

Miles, who will be a sophomore at Salida High next year, is an eager pupil on the river. But academically, he has to work harder than his peers. A couple years ago, tests identified some learning difficulties and he’s spent the past two school years working with a tutor and studying online, learning new strategies to overcome those challenges. Those strategies boiled up from his hard work in the river.

The Next Generation

Today, Miles pedals his bike and surfboard down to the Salida wave twice a day for surf sessions that draw crowds. Many of those watchers are younger kids who aspire to be the next Miles Harvey. He welcomes that responsibility. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I hope I’ve helped with the river surfing scene,” Miles says. “It’s what I’ve spent most of my time doing, trying to spend time innovating tricks and really I love helping kids learn new stuff.”

When Miles and his sister were very young, Mike asked kayaking icon Eric Jackson for tips on raising kids who share their parents’ passion for the river. It’s a question countless of mountain athletes have asked as they nurture the next generation of rippers. Jackson, whose son Dane and daughter Emily are world-champion kayakers, advised Mike to simply let his kids come to the sport on their own.

“My analogy is the dedicated hunter dude. His kids aren’t going to one day say ‘Dad I’m going to play soccer,’” Jackson says, as he prepared to compete against Miles in the GoPro Mountain Games SUP Surf Cross contest. “It’s so fun watching Miles, not just because he has awesome skills but because he’s just so happy to be on the water. He’s always having fun. He’s got a lot of confidence but he doesn’t need to win to show how good he is. It’s just evident in his paddling.”

Miles hopes to work more on his photography and video talents, helping to showcase the growing sport of SUP for more people. He travels the world with some of stand-up-paddling’s top athletes, paddling alongside them and watching them with plans to expose the thrills and excitement of river SUP to the masses.

“He is growing the sport in his own way. When I think of the legacy of what we leave as paddlers, it’s about enabling people like Miles to pass it on to the next generation,” says Tavares, a fellow Team Badfish athlete who won the GoPro Mountain Games SUP Sprint and finished third in the cross contest. “Kids are already looking up to him and he is helping to create and evolve the culture and sport of the mountains. Always smiling, ripping hard and having fun. That positive energy and his focus and determination, it’s just amazing.”