Water. Bruce Denson grew up on it (in the form of a family lake house in Ocala National Forest). He currently has a bunch of it in his Snell Isle backyard (in the form of a brightly tiled swimming pool and shimmers-in-the-sun Smacks Bayou). And he’s found a way to weave it into the lives of the troubled individuals he encounters in his role as a criminal defense and DUI attorney (in the form of… well, we’re about to get to that).
Bruce is so all about H20, in fact, that he even created a red-hot stand-up paddleboarding event, the Florida Cup, that’s winning raves along the Gulf Coast and far beyond.
But, before we talk hip sports outings, let’s march right back to the helping-troubled-individuals part of this married father-of-three’s story. It’s a goodie.
A few years ago, after a down economy led to a bit of “what’s it all about” soul-searching, Bruce had an Oprah-style aha moment: Why not connect the dots between his love of paddleboarding and his strong desire to help the drug- and alcohol-addicted defendants he meets in court?
His big idea: To teach anyone who was interested – and up for a challenge – how to swap a negative addiction with a positive addiction. Thus Paddle Addict, a non-profit program aiding people in recovery, was born. Since its inception in 2011, Bruce has gotten north of 100 paddleboarding newbies out on the water, tapping into a few very important life skills along the way.
You might be surprised to learn what paddleboarding and successful living have in common. To hear Bruce tell it, there are three core “musts” connecting the two: 1. You have to create balance. 2. You have to move forward; it’s easier to stay balanced that way. 3. When you fall, you have to get right back up.
That’s the stuff of group therapy, says Bruce. But it’s the stuff of a happy, productive life, too.
Bruce’s laidback vibe belies his penchant for thinking long and hard about what motivates people, as well as the benefits of exercise and bonding with nature for our mental and spiritual health. He can rattle off the basics of the Self Determination Theory of human motivation, such as the need to feel competent, autonomous and connected to others – all of which he’s convinced paddleboarding provides. And he can also get science-y, telling you about the endorphin- and serotonin-spiking “release of charged ions” which occurs when a paddle breaks the surface of the water.
Initially, Bruce relied on friends who owned paddleboard rental outfits to take his Paddle Addict recruits out. Now, since becoming a WPA (World Paddle Association) certified instructor, he takes them himself, equipped with a fleet of six boards he keeps staked in his garage.
He partners with a local recovery facility or outpatient provider, picks a spot – NorthShore or Upham beach, say, or Lassing Park – and he and a small group head out. “We’ll spend a few hours learning the basics, paddling, and just enjoying the day.”
Although it certainly isn’t top-of-mind for most people in recovery – “Hey, maybe I should learn paddleboarding!” – the core premise of Paddle Addict is easy to grasp. “The idea is you need to replace the bad habits with some good ones,” Bruce says.
Lynn Denson, a native of St. Pete who met her future husband while both were undergrads at the University of Florida, is used to seeing Bruce go the extra mile. And she’s been supportive every step of the Paddle Addict way.
“I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about it at first, because I couldn’t see the big picture,” she recalls. “At that point, we didn’t have a fleet of paddleboards, nor any established relationships with addiction rehab facilities. I did, however, trust Bruce’s vision. And that was enough to keep me on board.”
Literally on board. Although she considers herself a recreational paddleboarder, Lynn definitely likes to go with the flow. “I try to get out on the water as often as possible with friends and neighbors, and sometimes just by myself to enjoy a little quiet time,” she says. “But I really don’t ever see myself becoming a competitive racer.”
Now married for 17 years, the couple first bonded over a joint love of tennis. “Early on, we went out and played,” Bruce recalls. “I knew immediately I was in trouble because she had such beautiful strokes.”
He and Lynn learned paddleboarding in tandem. “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a sport for me,” says Bruce, who grew up waterskiing, kneeboarding, and water skurfing, and swam competitively year-round. “Lynn and I and some friends rented boards at NorthShore Beach from Brody Welte, who was one of the first retailers at the time,” he says. “After a quick lesson we were up and off.”
Despite his WPA instructor cred, Bruce claims to still be in discovery mode. “I’m always learning something new about the stroke, or reading the water,” he says. “The elements change, and that keeps it challenging.”
And at the urging of Dad, all the Denson children (Minor, Mitchell and Mae) have dabbled in paddleboarding. But it’s the youngest who’s the breakout star. “Mae has the most natural stroke and is a gutsy paddler,” he says. To help her hone her skills, it’s not unusual for them to hop out on Smacks for a little impromptu Sunday afternoon paddle.
(That is, when Bruce isn’t engaging in other water-related pastimes out there, including swimming all the way to sand bar, or catching a giant Tarpon with the fancy fishing pole Lynn got him for his last birthday. “We tossed it right back,” she says of the big ol’ fish.)
Active. Team Denson is very active. Minor’s on the varsity volleyball team. Mitchell plays basketball. There’s golf here and there, and lots of tennis for the entire family.
“We try to have the kids participate in one team sport and one individual sport through the seasons,” Bruce explains.
That sense of Denson team effort is evident at every Paddle Addict event, from a just-for-fun poker paddle run to the larger Race Around Palm Island and Florida Cup.
After kicking off in 2013 at Treasure Island Beach with 150 racers, Florida Cup exploded a year later, attracting 265 participants, some from as far afield as Mexico, the Virgin Islands, and Venezuela.
The 2015 Cup, which will be held May 16-18, is well underway, and will feature races targeted to a range of skill levels: 10-mile Elite, 3-mile Recreational, and 1-mile Fun Paddle. There’s even a ¼-mile Kids race. “We’re currently lining up sponsors,” says Bruce, “and we’re looking to go over 300 participants.”
As with most things Paddle Addict, Florida Cup is a family affair. All Denson hands are on deck, each with a specific role.
“When you run a not-for-profit, you rely so much on the gifts, talents, and time commitment of volunteers,” adds Lynn. “Paddle Addict began with a volunteer crew of the Denson family of five, and the kids are still very involved in all parts of putting on a paddleboard race. We wanted our family to feel the satisfaction that comes from giving and helping others.”
For fun, Bruce has christened each member of his family with a fancy title befitting the crucial work they do for Paddle Addict races. “Lynn is the Queen of Registration,” he says, “which is the equivalent of drinking out of a firehose.”
As for the kids, Minor is Timing Princess for smaller races that don’t require the use of an outside timing company. Mitchell is Buoy Wrangler, charged with inflating buoys and retrieving them post-race. And Mae, who runs a bustling front-yard lemonade stand on occasion, is Raffle Ticket Master, drumming up sales and excitement around the prizes gifted at every race.
One glance at the Paddle Addict Facebook page tells you that every bit of that Denson hard work pays off, particularly for the high-profile Florida Cup. “I see your entire family commit so much so we can have a great weekend,” posted one grateful race participant.
Without question, Paddle Addict events are a win-win for everyone involved.
“I always have at least one person at every race come up to me and share their personal addiction story,” says Lynn. “They tell me about their recovery, and then they personally thank us for putting on an event to highlight awareness of addictions. It’s always so moving to hear about another person’s struggle and eventual victory over the grip of alcohol and drugs. To see these people so physically fit and driven to become a better person is a huge reward. I love seeing them having fun and being sober while doing it.”
The Paddle Addict mission even caught the attention of a local judge, who granted it status as a court-approved Challenge Program, which allows defendants to shave time off probation by hopping up on a board under Bruce’s supervision.
Despite the success – by any measure – of Paddle Addict, Bruce won’t cop to even statewide aspirations for the program. “I do see growth, but I’m not sure the shape it’s going to take,” he says. “It’s too powerful of a program to not flourish.”
While he sets those wheels in motion, Bruce will continue to be a warm, smiley ambassador for all the Zen-calm communing with the water can confer. He certainly walks the walk. Or, more to the point, paddles the paddle. “I’m just a middle-of-the-pack racer,” he says. “But I love to get out there and enjoy the glide.”