Video Interview: Connor Baxter Responds To The Battle Of The Paddle/Kai Lenny ‘Handlegate’ Incident

Here’s a very interesting post-Battle interview with Connor Baxter, which includes a lengthy discussion about *that* incident with his arch-rival Kai Lenny. The young Maui superstar lays it out very open and honest, taking us through exactly what happened and giving us his blunt assessment.

After all the armchair analysis the past few days it’s good to hear from one of the guys involved.

You should watch the whole clip but basically: Connor admits he was wrong, accepts responsibility for his actions, even apologises for setting a bad standard for the young spectators on the beach. However Connor also doesn’t hold back in accusing Kai of being a dirty racer, even using the word cheating to describe what happened.

There are several interesting quotes in the interview, with the young gun’s comments including: “What I did was 100% wrong.” and “I don’t like seeing that in racing.”

Though let’s back up for a second… In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t like Facebook) here’s the back story:

During the Men’s Elite Race Final at the Battle of the Paddle on Saturday, Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter had a rather heated exchange on a wave as they were racing towards the shore at the end of lap #2. At this point they were in equal first alongside Danny Ching and Jayden Jensen.

What happened next will be remembered for a long time and will probably be the catalyst for some new rules next year (see an interesting debate on the SUPAA Facebook page).

Kai initiated the beef by trying to fade Connor wide, hoping to either push him off the back of the wave or give him a bad line into the beach run. Connor responded by cutting back at Kai very aggressively, which only encouraged Kai to try and fade him even harder. Connor did a second sharp cut-back, which knocked Kai off his board, however as he was going down Kai went out of his way to reach out and grab Connor’s handle, dragging his rival down with him.

(…hence the name Handlegate. It’s just like Watergate, only it happened on actual water.)

You can see the whole thing go down at the 4 minute, 50 second mark of the video up top, while this image below was taken right near the end of the exchange:

Kai Lenny Connor Baxter Battle of the Paddle incident

If this was a fight here’s how it would have happened: Kai pushes Connor, Connor pushes back, Kai pushes again, Connor punches back and knocks Kai down, then Kai lashes out with a king hit as he’s falling.

It wasn’t particularly pretty and showed just how intense these guys’ rivalry really is.

This rivalry actually stretches back over a decade – these guys were competing against each other in under 10s windsurfing contests – though it really heated up when Kai started focusing on SUP racing a few years back. This year alone I’ve seen several incidents in what has become a tit-for-tat, payback-style duel.

At the recent SUP Showdown and Huntington Beach Pro races we saw these two going at it on the waves or around the buoys. For those of us who follow this sport very closely, what happened at the BOP on the weekend was inevitable. In public Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter have a respectful friendship, however in private I’ve seen just how insanely determined each of these guys is to defeat the other.

Anyway it all boiled over at the biggest race of the year on Saturday. And while it was very entertaining for the crowd, it’s not the kind of thing I’d like to see in this sport.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with tight competition and close contact. Rubbing is racing as they say. I mean, how boring would it be if we all just raced in rowing lanes and never had any roughing up around the buoys? Exactly.

Plus rivalries are a great part of any sport and they’re something we should embrace and encourage.

Ali vs Frazier, Bird vs Johnson, Federer vs Nadal… Baxter vs Lenny.

I love rivalries. They’re something for the fans to anticipate and get excited about. And we shouldn’t necessarily jump up and down whenever a slight controversy happens either – sometimes I feel there’s too much political correctness and blind “aloha!” in this sport, so it’s actually refreshing to see a legitimate rivalry between two of the biggest names.

But not like this.

There are rivalries and then there are dirty tactics. There’s a fine line, but this went too far.

This was the biggest race of the year. The Battle of the Paddle is SUP racing’s annual showcase and, as Connor openly admits in the video above, it wasn’t just aggressive racing, it was dirty racing. And that definitely oversteps the mark.

To his credit, Connor has been very open, up front and apologetic this week. The guy is as raw and honest as they come so hats off to him for commenting, whereas Kai has had far too much media training/grooming to be drawn into this kind of debate. Apart from a brief mention in the post-race interview, I haven’t heard anything at all from Kai (though in fairness it’s perhaps easier for Connor to comment seeing he finished 5th, whereas Kai finished 1st, i.e. Connor has less to lose).

I was hanging out with Connor for much of the day on Sunday and he was pissed about what had happened. Not so much because he finished 5th in the biggest race of the year (that certainly didn’t help) but mainly because the early video angles and Facebook chatter had painted him as the villain.

The early angles definitely did make it look bad for the current World #1, however when it turned out that Kai had grabbed Connor’s handle (Handlegate!) in order to drag his rival down with him, the general consensus was: Both guys were clearly in the wrong.

From all the elite paddlers and industry veterans I talked to, the general consensus also said that, if you really wanted to break it down to rules about sportsmanship, then Battle of the Paddle officials probably could have/should have disqualified both of them.

(On a side note: If I was Candice/Lina/Jake/Danny/Annabel/Travis I’d probably be feeling a little miffed that my epic performances were almost overtaken by the brouhaha surrounding Connor/Kai…)

So what can we learn?

Rivalries are good and rubbing is racing, however dirty racing is just plain wrong. Oh and Jake Jensen probably should have won the BOP this year…

In summarising, I’ll leave you with this. It’s a photo that was famously taken at the 2013 ISA Worlds in Peru, showing Jamie Mitchell and Casper Steinfath high-fiving each other in a heart-warming show of competitive respect, unity and sportsmanship.

The parallels between this photo and the one above are eerily similar: Casper and Jamie were surfing a wave to the shore, side by side, fighting for the win in one of the biggest races of the year.

Just like Connor and Kai.

And just like Connor and Kai, Casper and Jamie could have easily tried to bump each other and gain an advantage. But they chose not to. Instead they simply chose to say: “Hey buddy great race, may the best man win…”

This is what sportsmanship looks like:

Jamie Mitchell Casper Steinfath high five ISA Stand Up Paddle World Championship Peru