I love analysing this sport. The athletes, the results, the events, the stats. But as I was staring at spreadsheets ranking the best paddlers of 2019, I found myself getting nostalgic and pondering the question: Who was the paddler of the decade?
I was lucky enough to meet, watch, commentate and write about hundreds of very good paddlers from 2010 – 2019, but there are two that stood out. So I decided to create an award that I’ll probably never have to give out again.
Selecting ‘X of the Decade’ is difficult not only for sheer magnitude but because we only do it once every 10 years. There’s no standard procedure.
I tried to come up with an algorithm or statistic that would “prove” this or that athlete deserved the honour, but even if I did know where to begin it would have been filled with inherent bias. I calculated the “decade world rankings” from the past six years of combined points (which I’ll post another day because it’s mildly interesting on its own), but that seemed too mathematical, too “cold” for an award of this scale.
I was looking for a golden criterion that would produce a clear winner, and what I came up with was a single word.
When asking who the “best” male and female paddler of the decade was, we simply have to ask who the most dominant paddler was. And by that measure, awarding the title of ‘Paddler of the Decade’ seems relatively straightforward. Surely, it could be nobody else.
Annabel Anderson was the most dominant female paddler of the decade.
Connor Baxter was the most dominant male paddler of the decade.
These two defined the decade in terms of performance and athletic ability in the sport of stand up paddleboarding. Their performances on the water, their winning streaks, their reign atop the world rankings. Nobody else comes close.
There were other contenders, of course. Danny Ching and Travis Grant could put forward the strongest case on the men’s side. If we based this purely on the first part of the decade, Danny would win hands down. He was the man from 2010-2012. And Travis has been so good and so consistent (and won Molokai-2-Oahu so many times) that his name is permanently etched in the history books no matter which made-up awards he receives. Danny and Trav are legends.
Titou, Kai and Boothy could all put their hands up as well. If we looked beyond just SUP racing then Kai could seriously put his hand up, and if we looked at just the second half of the decade then Boothy and Titou would both go close.
Similarly in the women’s field, Annabel had plenty of competition from world-class athletes–Candice Appleby chief among them.
The Annabel vs. Candice battles at the Battle of the Paddle are the stuff of legend. But while their rivalry at Dana Point is basically a tie – perhaps slightly in Candice’s favour – Annabel was able to win a far wider variety of international events.
Sonni Honscheid would be another very respectable choice for this award. She was winning races before the decade even started and she’s still winning them today.
But none of these athletes have impacted the decade the way Annabel and Connor have.
When Annabel Anderson was on top, she was simply in a league of her own. And nobody has won as many SUP races in as many different conditions as Connor Baxter.
Quite simply, they dominated.
Perhaps the easiest way to highlight the dominance of Annabel and Connor is to look at the end-of-season world rankings.
2014 women’s world number one: Annabel Anderson
2014 men’s world number one: Connor Baxter
2015 women’s world number one: Annabel Anderson
2015 men’s world number one: Connor Baxter
2016 women’s world number one: Annabel Anderson
2016 men’s world number one: Connor Baxter
2017 women’s world number one: Annabel Anderson
2017 men’s world number one: Connor Baxter
During the peak of the decade these two were clearly the very best. And while injury slowed Annabel’s end to the 10s, and a rise in competition ended Connor’s streak at #1, they’d already done more than enough to claim the title.
Another straightforward way to highlight “dominance” is to consider major race victories, and if we take a look at Annabel’s record there’s one event that stands out.
2013 Carolina Cup champion: Annabel Anderson
2014 Carolina Cup champion: Annabel Anderson
2015 Carolina Cup champion: Annabel Anderson
2016 Carolina Cup champion: Annabel Anderson
2017 Carolina Cup champion: Annabel Anderson
To go “five straight” at what was probably the toughest race in the world is an extraordinary feat (if we combine distance, conditions and level of competition, Carolina was all-time). Annabel’s is one of the longest winning streaks in the sport, and to do it in such a difficult event makes it arguably the most-impressive. (perhaps the only winning streak more impressive would be Connor’s nine-straight victories at M2M.)
Annabel also achieved an extraordinary “Double-Double” at the Battle of the Paddle in 2012 and 2013, a term I had to invent just for her because nobody had ever done it before. Scoring a “Double” at the BOP meant winning both the elite and distance races in the same weekend (at a time when the BOP was the race). Danny Ching was able to do it in certain years but Annabel was the only athlete to ever go back-to-back.
The Kiwi, who raced with a game-face so strong it could send other women to tears, also won a virtually-endless string of national titles, a couple of ISA gold medals, a few trophies at the Gorge, numerous other races in countless other countries, and then just for good measure she won the Pacific Paddle Games in 2017 to book-end her legacy on the biggest stage.
Annabel has been fiercely determined to prove that girls are on the same level as boys, something I suspect began well before she picked up a paddle. Annabel won line honours in a race more than once. Not just against the other women but against all of the men. This most-famously happened in France circa June 2012 when she won an ocean race vs. some of France’s best downwind paddlers, all of whom are probably still nursing bruised egos.
Quite simply, Annabel was (and still is) a warrior.
Annabel also fought hard off the water, helping kickstart the ‘I paddle for equality’ movement and never being afraid to voice her opinion in public or private about issues concerning the direction of the sport.
Many other women deserve recognition for what they’ve done in the past 10 years, but none can claim to have dominated the sport the way Annabel Anderson did. She was the paddler of the decade, no doubt.
A freak skiing injury halted her run about two years ago, though I suspect Annabel may have taken a break anyway as she grew tired of winning the Carolina Cup by five minutes every year. We hope she’ll make a comeback soon, but either way Annabel has earned her permanent spot as one of our sport’s all-time greats.
While Annabel’s dominance was certainly more intense at its peak, Connor’s was probably even more impressive simply because he won a wider variety of races over a longer period of time.
Connor’s run lasted the entire decade, too. He won his first Maui-2-Molokai title in 2010 and won his most recent major race about four weeks ago.
He beat the “unbeatable” Danny Ching and Jamie Mitchell to win the 2011 Battle of the Paddle. He’d won his first Molokai-2-Oahu title two months earlier. As the 2010s were just getting started, Connor was already one of the guys to beat.
And then he went on to beat absolutely everyone at almost every race in the world.
He won the Gorge twice, Molokai three times, OluKai six times, and Maui-2-Molokai every single year for as long as anyone could remember (nine times). He won “glamour races” such as the old World Series and the Ultimate SUP Showdown. He’s won ISA gold, he’s won ICF gold. He won sprints, he won marathons.
Until 2018, no other male paddler had even won the Pacific Paddle Games — Connor won the first three editions.
He won in Hawaii, he won in Australia, he won in Japan, he won in Brazil, he won in New Zealand, he won in Mexico, he won in Spain, he won in Germany, he won in the UK, he won in France… you get the point.
Hell, Connor even won a bizarre race around icebergs in Chile in 2013 that earned him one of the single biggest prize checks in the history of the sport. Apart from his Achilles’ heel, the Carolina Cup, Connor Baxter has won virtually everything worth winning.
When I started The Euro Tour in 2013, I watched Connor dominate a classic event that produced one of the most classic and symbolic images of the decade.
The 2013 SUP Race Cup in St. Maxime (perhaps the oldest event in Europe) drew a stacked field as the internationals descended upon Europe in the summer en masse for the first time. The photo of Connor paddling ahead of the entire field highlighted the fact he was in a league of his own. If you consider this shot was taken within the first minute of the race it becomes even more telling.
Connor would go on to dominate the “European Summer of SUP” each year until 2017 when Michael Booth took over, but by then the damage was already done.
Ever since the world rankings were built in 2013/2014, Connor was almost always number one. He finished season 2014 just one point ahead of Kai Lenny, who by that time had become his bitter rival, but would go on to finish as the clear world number one in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In fact, he only dropped his number one ranking for a total of three weeks in a 216 week period (during the 2015 season, Travis held it for one week and Danny for two).
Despite the fact he was clearly the man to beat, despite the fact he won virtually every race in the world and was, by 2016, untouchable atop the world rankings, Connor always came across – and still does, to an extent – as a scrappy fighter, not a polished superstar. In the small but amplified world of the Maui Boys, Kai was seen as the naturally-gifted “chosen one” while Connor was the underdog who had to arm-wrestle for everything he got.
For that reason, his dominance never seemed to become tiring. A hint of arrogance occasionally crept in during his unbeatable years, but he was generally as level-headed as they come. Watching Connor race today is like watching Roger Federer play tennis — he’s already won everything but you still find yourself cheering for him as if he’s the underdog.
After overpowering the original “kings” – Danny, Travis, Eric Terrien, Jamie Mitchell and Dave Kalama – Connor then had to fight off his fellow young guns. Kai was the most obvious, and their battles (in particular the “handle-gate” incident at Salt Creek) could be a Hollywood script, but he also had to parry attacks from Casper, Mo, Zane, Kody, Slater, Jake and Arthur.
Connor has had to keep fighting and perhaps even reinvent himself now that a new-wave of supreme athletes – first Titouan Puyo and then Michael Booth and the Hasulyo Brothers – have raised the SUP racing bar. But while 2018 saw him drop from 1st to 4th in the world, and the first half of 2019 didn’t start much better after he all but gave up on the European summer (whispers of “Is he done?!” started to linger), Connor has enjoyed a stellar five month run to finish the decade on a high.
That run included an historic gold medal at the Pan-Am Games, yet another title at the Gorge and a gold medal at the ICF Worlds in China in a world record 200 metre time of 46 seconds.
He could change his Instagram bio to an emoji of a goat and it would be more accurate than any words.
Quite simply, Connor Baxter was the paddler of the decade.
Every time I do a “best of” list, debate ensues, but I feel like nobody could seriously argue with this award. While many great paddlers deserve recognition, none were as dominant as Connor Baxter and Annabel Anderson.
If SUP Racer is still around in another 10 years, I wonder who might be the next ‘Paddler of the Decade’ 🤔 Will the likes of Boothy and Olivia continue their 2019 momentum well into the 20s? Will Connor fight back? Will Annabel comeback? Will the other contenders rise up, or will young kids and new names come through and take the top spot just like Connor did to those who came before him.
I have no idea, but just thinking about it is an exciting way to start the new decade.
Here’s to the next 10 years of SUP.