Mike Tavares, Izzi Gomez, and Chuck Patterson help rise the tide of SUP at GoPro Mountain Games

You’re never going to see a 60-foot wave on Gore Creek in Vail. Even a 6-footer would constitute flood stage, for that matter.

But there’s plenty enough whitewater flowing through the centerpiece feature of the annual GoPro Mountain Games this week to demonstrate the challenges — and mastery — of stand-up paddling (SUP) on a raging river. As a crew of Colorado river runners rose to the top of the inaugural GoPro SUP Skills Invitational on Gore Creek on Saturday afternoon, some of the world’s top SUP surfers struggled to master the sport of freshwater surfing in the alpine environment.

“Wave riding, no matter what size — 60-70 feet — is like second nature. And then coming here, you have to have an open mind and pay attention to the eddies and currents and rock outcroppings, and it’s humbling,” said Hawaii-based SUP surfing pro Chuck Patterson. “The river is a huge challenge, but I love it. That’s one of the great things about coming to the GoPro Mountain Games. It allows athletes that aren’t necessarily in this lifestyle or this environment to go and paddle and to try new things.”

It wasn’t very long ago that river SUP was considered a “new thing” by just about everyone on the planet. But for many of those who have grown up around the whitewater of high-country rivers and creeks, the temptation to hop on board and tackle the challenge of riding the mountainside tide proved too strong to resist. The progression of the sport is on full display at the Mountain Games this weekend, with a series of events met with universal approval among fans and participants alike.

“Especially in the whitewater, from last year to this year, all across the board everybody is just getting exponentially better,” said Mike Tavares, a Badfish River SUP team rider who cleaned the SUP Skills course to claim the top spot on the podium. “I think it’s now really recognized as an official part of SUP, whereas before some people on the outside might have thought, yeah, it’s maybe a little kooky. But now everybody in the river is just nailing stuff. Making it look good, really good skills, really good control, not swimming, just crushing.”

Tavares and his Badfish teammate Spencer Lacy of Boulder, CO, who finished second in the skills challenge and first in Saturday’s Coors Light Down River SUP Sprint, have made it their personal mission to show the world just what can be achieved with whitewater SUP. And so far, the world is impressed.

“It’s definitely a lot harder than surfing for me,” said Izzi Gomez, a two-time SUP surfing World Champion competing in her second GoPro Mountain Games this week. “But the guys and women that spend all their time on the river, they are just so amazing. So it’s definitely hard to compete with them, but I have a lot of fun.”

Tavares is the first to recognize that saltwater skills are not always easily transferred to whitewater — and vice versa. The dynamics of river currents are completely different from what you find in the ocean, demanding adaptability to develop the artistry he brings to the freshwater surf scene.

But that doesn’t make it any less entertaining, even for the uninitiated.