Connor Baxter has won gold for Team USA at the Pan-Am Games in Peru this morning, overpowering home-nation hero Itzel Delgado and the smiling assassin from Brazil, Vinnicius Martins, to claim a historic victory at the first ever Pan-Am SUP event.
With conditions at Punta Rocas reminiscent of the BOP at Salt Creek, Connor out-paddled and out-surfed his rivals around the three-lap, five-kilometre, ten-man race to cross in a time of 24 minutes and 18 seconds — one and a half minutes clear of the runner-up.
Connor simply said he was “Over the moon!!!” with his result, which returns the Hawaiian hero to a spotlight that’s been surprisingly missing this season. The 2014-2017 world number one and “GOAT” contender went all-in with his Pan-Am preparation, skipping his beloved Molokai for the first in ten years to have a crack at gold.
Vinni was solid in second place, and although he missed out on gold he does claim the top spot in South American bragging rights after turning the tables on Itzel Delgado (who defeated Vinni at the South American Beach Games on this very beach eight months ago).
“Happy with my silver medal and amazing to be part of this historic moment for stand up paddle.”
Vinni can also claim “wave of the day” after making the drop on one of the bomb sets. Both the men’s and women’s races had a water start because the shorebreak was deemed too heavy for a beach start.
And while I’m sure Peruvian Prince (Itzel) would have loved to hear his national anthem from atop the podium, the youngster can hold his head high by claiming a medal for the host nation.
Itzel held off Giorgio Gomez (the American holds dual-citizenship and is representing Colombia) for the final medal by the narrowest of margins in a sprint up the beach. The official time sheet said 2.4 seconds but it came very close to being a photo finish for bronze. Mexico’s Fernando Stalla rounded out the top five.
But while it was the Stars & Stripes in the men’s showdown, Team Brazil claimed a hard-fought gold medal in the women’s race.
Lena Ribeiro outlasted the highly-fancied Candice Appleby in conditions that can be described as anything but easy. Waves were double-overhead and the journey from the outside buoy to the inside turn was gnarly to say the least.
An exhausted Lena could only collapse over the line after she ran up the beach to the passionate cheers of her Brazilian teammates. She was soon embraced by husband and coach Americo Pinheiro.
With the women’s race running just before the men’s (and the SUP surfing medals to be decided on Sunday), Lena has the eternal honour of winning the first ever SUP gold medal in Pan-American history.
And while she doesn’t carry the same name recognition as some of the U.S. and Europe-based female athletes, Lena has long been considered a top contender by those who follow the sport closely. Her victory is the result of endless training and dedication — she’s one of the hardest-working (and nicest) athletes you’ll ever meet.
Silver is no small feat, but it’ll be a stinging loss for Candice and Team USA. The former BOP champ was leading early in conditions perfectly suited to her style of racing, and up until the final lap she looked to be en route to a victory before getting mowed down by a set and overtaken in the final moments by the determined Brazilian.
Candice posted her thoughts a few moments ago on Instagram, summing up the final lap mayhem with the classic surf quote of “When the wave breaks here, don’t be there, or you’re gonna get drilled.”
The results means that regional powerhouses USA and Brazil split the gold and silver medals, with Puerto Rico and Peru collecting one bronze each.
Rounding out the pioneering podium was Puerto Rico’s Mariecarmen Rivera who kept Canada’s Lina Augaitis outside the medals by just 2 seconds.
We don’t hear much about the PanAms in the rest of the world but this is a huge deal for many of the countries involved. It’s basically the Olympics of the Americas, and this is the first time SUP racing has been included (alongside SUP surfing and shortboard surfing). It’ll be very interesting to see what sort of mainstream exposure this race can generate.
Although the race itself was quite small (only 10 men and 10 women were allowed to qualify for the Pan-Ams, and with only one woman/one man allowed from each country many big names from the Americas were missing), today’s action in Peru could potentially be a big step forward for the sport and inevitably raises the question about whether or not SUP racing should be in the Olympics one day.
I believe stand up paddling is still a fair way from being ready for the world’s biggest sporting stage. Apart from much-needed growth and development of the sport in general, there’s still the small matter of sorting out which Olympic federation would even be in charge: the Pan-Ams are associated with the ISA, which is currently locked in a legal arm-wrestle with the ICF for Olympic-level recognition.
But either way, this is definitely the most-mainstream stage our sport has ever stood on, so well done to all the athletes that took part in this historic event. And the race certainly didn’t lack for action — no doubt it caught the attention of broadcast executives who are looking for a way to spice up the ageing world of Olympic sport.