TREASURE ISLAND — Bailey Rosen has always been the smallest in her class. But that doesn't stop the 17-year-old standup paddleboarding phenomenon from taking on opponents of any size.
"I am almost 5 feet tall," the senior at St. Petersburg High said. "But my size has never been a disadvantage. Sometimes it really works in my favor."
On Sunday, Rosen will be in Miami Beach competing against the world's top standup athletes in the Orange Bowl Paddle Championship. It's the largest event of its kind on the East Coast. She finished third last year in the women's elite race and hopes to move up in the standings this time around.
"It is a very competitive field," she said. "There will be people from all over the country and Europe. Everybody wants to paddle on Miami Beach."
Rosen only started standup paddling 2 1/2 years ago. Her mom, Joanna Braddock, is a well-known fixture in the local surf community. Jo-Jo, as she is known on the beach, manages Suncoast Surf Shop, one of the oldest purveyors of wave-riding vehicles in Florida, and as a result, the young Rosen was never at a loss for a board.
"I dropped her off for a standup lesson one day and when I went back to pick her up, the coach pulled me aside and said I've got to talk to you," Braddock said. "I thought: 'Oh, no! My kids never get in trouble.' "
But the news wasn't bad. He wanted Braddock to know her daughter had natural talent.
"She's got great balance," Braddock said. "That makes a huge difference when it comes to racing."
Rosen credits her natural affinity for paddleboarding to her martial arts training. She's a black belt and is surprisingly strong for her size.
"People always say to me, 'You look so big on the board; you are so much smaller in person,' " Rosen said.
She already has several sponsors, and in the past 12 months, she has traveled to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Mexico, North Carolina and all over Florida for training and races.
In September, she competed in California's Battle of the Paddle, the unofficial SUP World Championships, and qualified for the final, racing with the top 25 women worldwide.
A couple of months later, she launched a program for kids, the Florida Junior SUP Team. "I try my best to encourage kids to lead healthy lives and take responsibility for the ocean they enjoy," she said.
Rosen never considered herself particularly athletic. Then she discovered paddleboarding and something just clicked.
She trains every day, doing her best to balance her studies for the International Baccalaureate program and community projects with the Rojan Service Club. In the fall, Rosen hopes to attend the University of San Diego, where she'll have access to the playground of the Pacific Ocean.
"Hopefully, I can inspire other people to get out and enjoy the water," she said. "I think paddling can really change your life."
Follow Rosen's adventures at baileyrosen.com or via Facebook or Instagram, @bailey_rosen.