The countdown is almost complete: 24 hours until the Battle of the Paddle Elite Race lights up Dana Point, California and we get to see who has bragging rights for the next 12 months.
Yes, it’s just a race and there are more important things than winning. But it’s still a race, which means somebody’s gotta win… Who will that be? Keep reading to get some semi-bold predictions and find out who made the cut into the Fantastic Four, the Ten Contenders and the Fighting Fifteen.
These predictions are for Saturday’s main event: The Elite Race. The Distance Race on Sunday will be super competitive this year as well, but don’t even get me started on that one…
While picking the men’s podium this year is quite literally a lottery, one thing is guaranteed: This will be the most competitive race in Stand Up Paddling history. While a few top names are out, there’s more depth to this field than we’ve ever seen.
It used to be that simply getting on the podium (Top 10) at the Battle of the Paddle was worthy of bragging rights. Then, as the Elite Race became more and more competitive, just making the Top 20 was a mission..
But this year I’m calling that ANYONE in the Top 30 deserves a huge high five at the end of the race. That’s how hard it’s going to be. And don’t forget: There are Elite Race Qualifiers in the morning… there will probably be a few well known names that don’t even make the cut for the Final.
So who’s it going to be?
Well, as impossible as it is to pick an exact finishing order, I kinda see the field split into three groups.
You’ve got the top four guys that are a level above the rest of the pack and should, in my opinion, all come home within the first five places. Let’s call them The Fantastic Four. Then you’ve got the next 10 guys who could all legitimately lay claim to that fifth & final top 5 spot and, if things go their way, could even steal the victory. The Ten Contenders. After that there’s another 15 or so paddlers who have a realistic chance at pushing their way onto the podium… The Fighting Fifteen.
All up I’d say there are close to 30 guys who could podium this year. What were we saying about the depth of talent this year? Oh yeah, it’s massive.
Seriously, trying to make these predictions is a lottery, but I’m a gambling man so I’ll put my reputation on the line and try to make some sense of the top guys. I actually feel bad about separating these three groups as I’m friends with most of these paddlers. I know how hard they train and how talented they are, but it wouldn’t be SUPracer.com if we didn’t make some semi-bold predictions so here we go…
GROUP #1: The Fantastic Four
Connor Baxter, Danny Ching, Kai Lenny, Georges Cronsteadt
These four guys are a level above right now.
I’m very confident the winner will come from this small group and I’d be surprised if any of them finish outside the top 5. Danny Ching is a favourite every time he starts a race, while Connor and Kai clearly have the speed and are as hungry as ever to win.
Georges is the wildcard – he could easily finish first or fifteenth. The Tahitian outrigger legend has some impressive results in the past (4th at BOP 2011) and looks to be in insane form this year. He’s probably the strongest guy in the race as well… The dude is, seriously ripped. Looks like a raging bull when he paddles.
But who will it be? Any of these four could easily do it but only one of them will. They’re so evenly matched that I think it will come down to conditions. The waves are predicted to be small, which would give a slight edge to Danny. It’s not that Danny can’t surf, it’s just that he’s unbeatable on flat water. Literally.
However it looks like there could be some moderate onshore winds picking up around the same time the Elite Race Final hits the water, which could mix things up. If there are *any* bumps on the course, Connor Baxter will find them and exploit them to his advantage.
How about Kai? As we’ve seen all year he’s a level above the rest, however the fact he’s lost to Connor more times than not in the World Series makes me think he won’t win. But it’s a borderline call. This guy has a very smart head on his shoulders and is destined for greatness in the sporting world, and a Battle of the Paddle Elite Race title will be one very important step on that journey.
By an absolute whisker ahead of Connor Baxter, with a slight gap to Kai Lenny who will then be trailed by Georges Cronsteadt.
But seriously. It’s a lottery.
(NOTE: I also had Travis Grant in this elite group, until he went and popped his knee out…).
GROUP #2: The Ten Contenders
In no particular order: Jake Jensen, Kody Kerbox, Kelly Margetts, Casper Steinfath, Slater Trout, Beau O’Brian, Zane Schweitzer, Mo Freitas, Lincoln Dews and Eric Terrien.
These ten guys have the speed and skill to steal that fifth & final spot inside the top 5 and, if things go their way, could even win the thing.
Jake Jensen has been in fine form lately, taking out the Huntington distance race ahead of Kai, Connor and an all-star cast of young guns. Likewise Kody Kerbox has the speed & skill and just needs to put a whole race together to have a genuine shot (Kody was first to the Golden Buoy last year, before a couple of little mistakes put him back in the pack).
Kelly Margetts finished 4th last year, as a 40-year-old, and looks as fit and hungry as ever. Don’t let his laid-back Aussie attitude fool you, Kelly is a competitive machine. In a similar vein, the friendly Danish Viking Casper Steinfath knows how to turn on his game face and looks ready to step it up another level this year (as if he hasn’t stepped up enough levels already…).
Slater Trout is a wildcard: the big guy has shed 12 pounds to get in optimal Battle shape and doesn’t hide the fact he’s been focusing all year on this race and not many others. Slater is a perennial podium finished and snagged 2nd place back in 2009 as a 14-year-old, so he definitely has the experience. A lack of racing this year may hurt his chances, but I think he’ll prove any doubters wrong and make it yet another solid podium. Another wildcard is Aussie Beau O’Brian. For the past 18 months I’ve felt Beau has had the power and the speed to win a huge race, but twelve months ago in Dana Point he wasn’t able to put it together and finished a disappointing 15th. Redemption time?
Zane Schweitzer is going to surprise everyone – see “The Bolter” below.Speaking of bolters, Mo Freitas filled that role last year when he struck out of the blue and took an amazing 6th place. Lincoln Dews did similar by sneaking into the top 10 – with another 12 months under his young belt, keep a very close eye on Lincoln this weekend.
Then you’ve got Eric Terrien, the Frenchman who has carried the pride of paddling in Europe on his shoulders the past four years. He now has Casper for company in that regard but Eric is still one of the fastest paddlers in the world. His ridiculously impressive performance at the Lost Mills in June (beating Connor, Travis and co by three minutes) showed exactly that. Eric’s recent form hasn’t been stellar but one thing’s for sure, the guy will be well prepared and ready to race tomorrow.
GROUP #3: The Fighting Fifteen
In no particular order: Chase Kosterlitz, Paul Jackson, Fernando Stalla, Ryan Helm, Toby Cracknell, Arthur Daniel, Arthur Arutkin, Travis Baptiste, Anthony Vela, Noa Ginella, Jay Wild, Pete Dorries, Chuck Glynn, Riggs Napoleon and Brennan Rose (and massive apologies to the dozen other guys I could have/should have put in this list, or who I just plain forgot about…)
Every guy in this third group is an international-level elite paddler that could win just about any other race in the world. But this isn’t any other race, it’s the Battle. So while these fifteen guys are super quick, they’re missing that extra 1-2% to challenge for the top few spots in the Elite Race.
I’m not saying these guys will finish behind everyone in Groups #1 and #2, I just don’t think they have what it takes to go Top 5. I predict at least two of them will sneak onto the Top 10 podium, but most of them will have to settle for the “second” or “third podium” (places 11th – 20th and 21st – 30th). Look at those names. They’d be top three at any other race but that’s just simply just how competitive the race is this year…
The Dark Horse
So if you add it all up, there are 29 guys in those three groups. And I expect most of them to fill the top 29 spots. But no matter what happens one thing is guaranteed: There are always dark horses. Someone we’ve never heard of (or, with apologies, forgot to mention…) that just blitzes most of the field and shocks everyone with their high placing.
Who’s that going to be this year?
Well in 24 hours we’ll find out (and I expect there will be a few of them this year) though I’m going out on a limb and calling the #1 Dark Horse as Toby Cracknell from Australia.
Toby Who? Exactly.
Not too many guys know Toby, especially in the racing scene. The 19-year-old is better known for his surfing prowess than his racing power, but I saw Toby in action a couple of weeks ago and was kinda shocked by just how quick he is, both on the flat and in the ocean. As with all the other young guns, Toby has a super fast sprint pace but seems to also have enough endurance to see a race through.
Despite being a dark horse, I included Toby as one of the Fighting Fifteen above because I’m convinced, from just one race alone, that this kid has serious SUP racing talent. Don’t be shocked to see Toby crack the podium.
Not to be mistaken with Dark Horses, the Bolters are guys who the hardcore racers know can do amazing things but probably don’t get enough credit form the armchair fans.
This year I’m bestowing the title of chief Bolter on Maui’s Zane Schweitzer.
Zane is going to surprise a lot of people tomorrow. Despite some massive results this year, Zane still doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a genuine race contender. His problem is that he’s too good and too well known as a SUP surfer, so most pundits write him off when it comes to the races. But I’ve followed Zane’s form closely this year and would be surprised if he finishes outside the top 10.
As if picking the guys’ race wasn’t enough of a lottery, the women’s Elite Race is going to be downright impossible.
With both Candice Appleby and Brandi Baksic out (these two ALWAYS finish top three), the girl’s podium (Top 5) suddenly becomes wide open.
You’ve got the regular names like Jenny Kalmbach, Morgan Hoesterey and Gillian Gibree. The new wave including girls such as Canada’s Lena Augaitis. The rookies like young gun Fiona Wylde. The powerful Aussie contingent that includes Karla Gilbert, Angie Jackson, Sondra Purser and Terrene Black (all elite, international-level paddlers). And then another five or six girls that will step up and make names for themselves at this event.
Regardless of who wins and who podiums, the great thing is the women have their own separate Elite Race Final this year. So when you combine that with the deepest female field we’ve ever seen then you can expect some very exciting racing on the girl’s side.
But enough talk. Who’s it going to be…?
You’d be crazy to bet against Annabel Anderson this weekend. The Kiwi has been in devastating form this year, beating not only all the women but also most of the men. It’s come to the point where guys are actually nervous when Annabel lines up next to them at the start. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) the separate women’s final will save a few blushes in the men’s field and also give Annabel the chance to take over the spotlight, which I thoroughly expect her to do.
Looking fitter and stronger than ever, Jenny is the biggest threat to Annabel attempt at back-to-back wins. Impressive results in Molokai, at the Gorge and even in San Francisco (where she gave Annabel a fright in the sprint races) show that Jenny can handle all conditions. Plus, as BOP history buffs will very well know, Jenny Kalmbach was the first ever women’s Elite Race champion, taking out the inaugural event back in 2008 alongside Chuck Patterson.
The Big Island girl got engaged just last week, which (I’m serious) could give her that extra 1% of motivation she needs to claim it. But still, getting past Annabel will be a huge mission…
Won the Lost Mills Distance Race and finished third at Molokai, to add to a string of impressive results this season. Fast, fit, strong and seemingly very determined. If there are waves Sonni will excel (she rips) but if, as predicted, it goes flat, the German won’t lose as much of her advantage as some of the other wave specialists. Look for Sonni in the top five regardless of conditions.
If it’s flat look for Krisztina. The Hungarian (who calls California home) has been working hard on her surf skills the past year but is definitely more comfortable in the calmer conditions. Krisztina is probably the most supreme athlete in the women’s field – kinda what it takes to win an Olympic Gold Medal (not to mention the World Championship titles she picked up last month). Strong and fit, Krisztina might not have the surf skills to challenge for a top two spot but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her sneak into the top 5.
The Aussie who surprised nobody inside Australia but everybody outside it by claiming the Molokai-2-Oahu crown this year, Terrene is a very fit athlete who I can see challenging for a podium spot. Not sure she has the sprinting pace of Annabel or even Jenny to crack top two, but definitely has enough strength and power to reach the podium. Being an Aussie, Terrene would excel in waves and tricky buoy turns, however even in the flat she has the speed to nail a big result.
The Dark Horse
The Australian paddler, who’s only been racing stand up for the past two years, will be the most accomplished ocean athlete standing on the beach tomorrow, despite the fact almost nobody in the California SUP racing scene has ever heard of her. Karla is the surf life saving Queen of Australia, going through the mid-late nineties almost unbeaten in a sport that is both very professional and competitive back home. I remember watching her on TV every weekend as a kid. She was seriously a superstar in our country.
Karla retired from that whole scene ten years ago and is now a mother of two. However her stellar improvement over the past 18 months makes me think she may just have enough to go top three tomorow. Karla has a few years on her rivals (38 years old) but I don’t think that’s a huge disadvantage; you only have to look at how fellow Gold Coaster Kelly Margetts finished 4th in the men’s race last year at age 40…
One of those lovable paddlers that tries to feign interest in the year’s biggest race but who we all know, deep down, is a hungry competitor. If Morgan gets a fast start and is in the lead pack on the second lap, she could do anything. Recent form suggests she’s well off the pace of Jenny and Annabel, but her trump card will be the conditions. If it’s rough or if there are waves, expect Morgan near the front. However if it’s dead flat and calm, don’t expect her to challenge.
The “Happiest Paddler” award winner from the recent Gorge Paddle Challenge (where she also picked up a minor award for winning the entire event), Fiona is leading the new wave of young women taking hold on this sport and doing it with an infectious smile that’s as big as her 12’6 race board.
While the men’s side has seen the “Maui boys” and other young guns rapidly rise to the top, the women’s field has continued to be totally dominated by the 20- and 30- somethings over the past few seasons. But this year that all changes and I expect Fiona to help lead the charge.
The Dark Horse/Young Gun/Bolter Girls
I’m going to admit right now, I’ve left a LOT of good female paddlers off this list. Not because they don’t deserve recognition, but because there is such a vague line between who’s a podium contender and who’s not. Good luck to anyone that can even come close to predicting the first ten girls over the line.
The only thing I can guarantee is that there will be several new faces inside the women’s Top 10. Apart from the big names coming from California, Hawaii and California, there are super strong women from Europe, Canada, South America and across the United States.
I don’t think we will have ever seen a women’s race with so much depth of talent, so it’s going to be very exciting to watch. And now the women have their own final, that’s exactly what we’ll be able to do.
If I HAD to pick a women’s podium…
1st: Annabel Anderson
2nd: Jenny Kalmbach
3rd: Karla Gilbert
4th: Sonni Honscheid
5th: Terrene Black
So there you go. The 2013 Battle of the Paddle Elite Race predictions. It’s a lottery.
But one thing’s for sure, this is going to be an epic race to follow. To do that make sure you’re on SUPracer.com bright and early Saturday morning where thanks to Starboard we’ll be giving you LIVE Battle updates all weekend, including play-by-play coverage of the final.
Don’t miss it. It’s going to be an epic race.
Tags: Battle of the Paddle