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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When 24 paddlers put their boats into the water at Fort Hamer Park in Bradenton and 62 baton twirlers performed virtually before judges on Saturday, July 18, it was the first Sunshine State Games competition in 132 days.

The Karate/Katsu Challenge was held on Sunday, March 8 before the coronavirus brought sporting events to a halt nationwide the following week.

The 24 paddlers in the Sunshine State Games Canoe/Kayak Championships featured 11 in boats for the six-mile short course and 13 in the 12-mile long course. The event, on the Manatee River, also gave the athletes a chance to gain points in the Florida Competition Paddlers Association (FCPA) Series.

“I was surprised at the number of paddlers who competed,” said Sunshine State Games Canoe/Kayak Sport Director John Edwards.  “I was very pleased. It was a great day to be out on the river.  There was a little breeze, but it got pretty hot as the day progressed.

The top time in the six-mile short course race came in the Men’s Open Kayak event as Josh Ashley, from Osprey, crossed the finish line in 51:43. He was 16 seconds ahead of the second place finisher, Michael Hoffman, Jr., of Winter Garden, with a time of 51:59.

“It was never really a neck and neck race,” Ashley said of the outcome. “I led the whole way back after the midway turnaround, but there were times he got close.  I had to turn the engine on a couple times.”

Posting the top time in the 12-mile long course was Doug Lindsey, of Naples, with a time of 1:41:01 Men’s Open Kayak.  He finished five minutes ahead of the second overall finisher, Brad Ward, of Sarasota, who turned in a time of 1:46:17.

Edwards, who doubles as the Canoe/Kayak sport director and competitor, won a gold medal in the long course Grand Veteran Canoe C-1 Division with a time of 1:54:00.

His distinction in the Grand Veteran Division, not only reflects his age (70-74 age group), but his history in the Sunshine State Games.  Edwards won a gold medal in the 1981 Sunshine State Games, in Gainesville, and he has served as the sport director since 1989.

The week prior to the Sunshine State Games competition in Manatee County, Edwards was paddling on a six-man Outrigger Canoe in the Pacific Ocean with paddlers all over the age of 60.  The team of 10 swapped out paddling duties for nearly 80 miles over three days.

“We left out of Redondo Beach and made our way to the backside of Catalina Island,” Edwards said. “We had a 75-foot support yacht tailing us, and we paddled 37 miles the first day, 25 the second day and 16 on the third day before the surf became too rough.”

Edwards is a former United States Canoe Association champion who has been competing since the early 1970s.  He placed second in the World Championships in the early 1980s. He is widely regarded as one of the top paddlers in the state of Florida.

While paddlers results were based solely on their finish times, the 62 baton twirlers, performing virtually, had five points of skill to meet to determine their final score and placement.

According to Baton Twirling Sport Director Mary Molder, the five things in twirler’s routines judges are watching are routine content, difficulty of the routine, technique, execution and showmanship.

Twirlers were judged on a 100-point scale and four athletes reached a score of 90 or more. Morgan Kathleen Smith, from Wickliffe, Ohio, won an Advanced 13-14 Age Group Two-Baton gold medal with a score of 94.2 and an Advanced 13-14 Age Group Solo gold medal with a 91.5 score.

Also topping 90 were Marisa Rufo, of Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, with a 95.0 to win the Advanced 15-17 Age Group Solo gold medal and silver medalist Georgia Nunn, from Athens, Georgia, compiled a score of 90.

Molder explained the Advanced Level athletes total the highest scores because of their experience and ability to complete more difficult maneuvers.

“The novice twirlers’ scores are in the 50s and 60s, beginners in the 60s and 70s, Intermediates in the 70s and 80s and advanced from there,” Molder said.

Now in its 41st year, the Sunshine State Games continues to give Florida’s amateur athletes a variety of opportunities to compete in Olympic sports and other popular sports.