THE COUNTDOWN: Kai Lenny Hits the Waves in China

Sponsored By: TAG Heuer  

The ISA World Stand Up Paddle and Paddleboard Championship is November 23 in Hainan, China, at 8:30am.

A new water sport is making big waves: Stand up paddleboarding. Unlike traditional surfing, where riders wait to catch a wave near the shore, stand up paddle boarders stand on their boards and use a paddle to propel themselves through the ocean.

Actually it's not such a new activity: forms of stand up paddleboarding (or SUP) can be traced back nearly 3,000 years in areas as diverse as Peru, China and Israel. But the contemporary version of the sport, which dates to Waikiki Beach in the 1960s, has gained traction in recent years: A 2013 study found it was the outdoor sporting activity with the most first-time participants in the United States and SUP schools and rental facilities are popping up across the U.S.

It's even being considered for inclusion in the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.

And if anyone can bring home the gold for Team USA, it's SUP superstar Kai Lenny, who will defend his crown at the ISA World Stand Up Paddle and Paddleboard Championship on November 23 in Hainan, China.

Raised in Paia, Hawaii, Lenny learned to surf when he was 4 years old, and took up windsurfing, kitesurfing and SUP before finishing the third grade. (His first name, "Kai," means "ocean" in Hawaiian.) Lenny won first place at both the Hawaii Island Finals and Sunset Beach SUP pro championships in 2012 and now, at age 26, is a seven-time world SUP champion.

Surfing offers high-performance maneuvers but Lenny, a TAG Heuer Ambassador, says paddleboarding "is more about the challenge of catching a really big wave in a very critical position and going for the barrel."

"Stepping outside of my comfort zone has always been a way for me to improve as an athlete and a person," he told Magic Seaweed. "The higher the risk, the more award—that's something I've definitely found in the big wave surfing realm."

One of the reasons for stand up paddleboating's rising popularity is that it's an incredible complete body workout—a low-impact combination of balance, strength, and endurance that works your arms, your legs and core. For Lenny, though, the appeal is more transcendent.

"It's [a] high you can't get anywhere else," he told Digital Trends "To be able to capture that and always be a little more special each time is what's the main driving force. I also love competition because it pushes me to a place I could never get to on my own, and other athletes push me to that same level as well. More than anything, it's just that passion I have."