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It’s more than just castles for Guelph sand sculpting world champion

A five-time world champion sand sculptor, Karen Fralich has participated in numerous competitions, globally

From the very moment Karen Fralich touched sand and began to sculpt, she was hooked.

Little did she know, that more than 23 years later, her passion for sand sculpting would lead to a full-time career, and with a few world championships along the way.

“The second I began to play with sand, trying to sculpt it, that was it. I had an epiphany. I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” Fralich says. “I was addicted.”

A five-time world champion sand sculptor, Fralich has participated in numerous competitions, globally.

More recently, Fralich won first place in the Canadian International Championships in Parksville, B.C. in July.

“The theme was Wonders of the World, so I sculpted one of the 'natural' wonders, the Great Barrier Reef,” Fralich says.  

“I included a moray eel and all sorts of different fish and coral, all framed by a woman’s face. It was an absolute delight to carve.”

Since 2021, Fralich has had a reoccurring role as a judge on the Canadian reality television show Race Against the Tide.

“We filmed Season 4 in August and that will air sometime this summer,” Fralich says.

“It happened in New River Beach, New Brunswick. It was spectacularly gorgeous, a hidden gem.”

Previous seasons of Race Against the Tide can be seen on CBC Gem.

For Fralich, it all began in 1994 when a professional sand sculptor hired her as help on a small sand sculpture in a local mall. She was immediately intrigued and spent the next four years learning the fundamentals of sand sculpture.

“It took many years of trying different things. But when I was 25, that’s when the match really got struck,” Fralich says.

“It took about four years to hone my skills and I learned a lot.”

Fralich entered her first international competition in 1998 at Wasaga Beach.

“I won that one, and that made my entry into the World Championships in Harrison Hot Springs B.C. in September 1998,” she says.

“And that’s what really started the ball rolling. After that, it just snowballed, and in 2001, I was doing this as a full-time career.”

In addition to sand sculpting competitions and commissions, Fralich has created a number of pieces for the Canadian National Exhibition.

“It’s like sand sculpture was made for me. I’m very physical and very technical. But I’m also very artistic and creative,” Fralich says.

Sand sculpting has taken Fralich all over the world, including to one of her favourite travel destinations, Japan.

“Japan is an incredible country. I’ve done several competitions there and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a dozen sand sculpturing exhibitions,” she says.

“About 12 years ago, Japan built a state-of-the-art sand museum in Tottori, which is famous for its natural sand dunes. They have a beautiful building dedicated to the art of sand sculpture. It’s enormous, one of a kind, and just mind blowing. It sets the standard around the world.”

But sand sculpting is not just fun in the sun. It's also, Fralich says, very physically demanding.

“You have to love being very physical because you have to shovel tons of sand, literally tons of sand. You have to be able to shovel and compact about 10 – 15 tons of sand in about six hours, by yourself,” Fralich says.

“To this day, I make sure that I am in tip-top physical shape. Otherwise, I would injure myself very quickly.”

Fralich and her husband moved back to Guelph in 2015.

“In the late 90’s, I moved out of Guelph to Toronto. My husband and I moved to Etobicoke and then to Burlington. We moved back to Guelph to be closer to my family. My parents are getting on in years, and I wanted to be closer to them," Fralich said.

“Because I travel so much, It feels wonderful to come home to Guelph and just be home.”

Fralich has another big competition coming up in Florida next month.

“After that, I'm off to South Korea for a big sand sculpting celebration in May. And then the summer months get very busy with the CNE, and lots of competitions in the U.S. and Canada,” Fralich said.

For anyone interested in sand sculpting, Fralich says don’t ‘be afraid to fail’ at first.

“Just try stuff. With every experience you, you will learn something. I’ve made a ton of horrible, cringeworthy mistakes. So what?” she said.

“Everybody’s road is different. I had no idea that this is what I was going to do. I tried this and that. I worked in many different retail industries, and the restaurant industry trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Fralich is grateful for the many opportunities sand continues to bring into her life.

“It has taken me all over the world. I get to travel, meet new people from different cultures, and try new foods. It’s just endlessly fascinating and gratifying,” Fralich said.

“I pinch myself everyday. I still can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.”