Special Olympics Athlete Aims to Make History Crossing Ocean from the Bahamas to Florida

Crehan’s passion for sports began with surfing, starting the sport when she was five

Under the blistering Florida summer sun, 16-year-old Layla Crehan has been paddling for many hours. But the Special Olympics Florida athlete is exactly where she wants to be: out on the water on her stand up paddleboard. Her stand up paddleboard journey started just a few years ago, without Crehan realizing how quickly she would take to it or just how far it would take her.

Crehan’s passion for sports began with surfing, starting the sport when she was five. In 2018, she competed in a Special Olympics invitational, placing first and receiving a trophy. Since then, she has been to two State Games and won two golds. But surfing wasn’t enough for her.

Crehan found stand up paddleboarding through Special Olympics and an instant connection with her coach, professional athlete Victoria Burgess. “She is my hero and my mentor,” Crehan says with pride echoing from her voice.

Burgess, at age 19, also started surfing before competing in stand up paddleboard (SUP). But since starting SUP in late 2013, she has accomplished many feats. She has competed in the Molokai to Oahu World Championship SUP race, a 32-mile channel crossing in Hawaii. In 2018, Burgess set a world record, becoming the first female to stand up paddleboard 115 miles from Cuba to Key West. She and Roray Kam host one of the east coast’s biggest SUP races, The RK Sunshine SUP Series. She holds sponsorships from some of the biggest names in the sport, including Roxy and Oakley. But the title that perhaps makes her most proud is head coach for the Broward County Special Olympics SUP team.

“I met Layla when we started the SUP (stand up paddleboard) team in Broward County, Florida,” Burgess says. “She was one of the athletes originally on the first team, so we basically met and I started coaching her right then.”

The two would go on to form a special bond. Burgess’s own success in stand up paddleboard carried over to Crehan and each time Burgess would complete an event, Crehan aimed to find her own success.

Crehan and Burgess raced with each other for the first time on June 13. During the Florida Ocean Regatta in Port Canaveral, Florida, the pair placed first. A six-mile race, it was Crehan’s first OC2 (outrigger canoe) race and Burgess had not done OC in years, and they were just looking to enjoy a fun event together.

“Layla trains very hard. She is a great all-around athlete,” Burgess says. “She is extremely driven and focused on her goals. She works hard in all the sports she is involved in, and they all carry over as cross-training for stand up paddleboarding.”

Crehan competes in a variety of sports, but after trying stand up paddleboard, she knew she’d found the one for her. She just needed a board.

After finding the board she wanted, Crehan made a video telling her story, put it on Facebook, and sold her artwork through her Facebook art page, Dancing Red Panda. Her artwork includes handmade chokers, wine glass charms and canvas paintings. “So many people bought my art I was able to buy that used board in 24 hours,” she says. She has definitely put the board to good use since.

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