Danny? Travis? Connor? Kai? Zane? Annabel? Jenny? Shak? Candice? Sonni? Let’s Play “Showdown Roulette” (Or: How Am I Supposed To Predict This?!)

Ultimate SUP Showdown predictions

I didn’t really wanna write this post. It’s Saturday night. I’m in Waikiki. I could be out having fun… Instead, I’ve been sitting here in my hotel room for hours, pouring over the start list for tomorrow’s Ultimate SUP Showdown, running scenario after scenario through my head and trying to figure out how on earth I’m going to make any meaningful predictions in an event that includes so many talented paddlers and that features such variable, unpredictable racing conditions.

The two-day Showdown starts tomorrow morning. It’s the event we’ve all been waiting for. Following weeks and weeks of major news about major things, finally it’s down to the serious stuff: The action on the water.

After today’s pre-event session, where a majority of the world’s best paddlers were on the beach to collect their epic schwag and film promo pieces for CBS Sports Network, tomorrow (Sunday) sees a full day of qualifying rounds for the surfing and racing.

In case you’re not familiar: The Ultimate SUP Showdown is half racing and half surfing, with the best performers from each side of the draw meeting in the “Showdown” finale (which is basically another race, but one held almost entirely in the surf break).

First up we’ve got the SUP surf contest, which has a fairly run-of-the-mill format to it. Then after that we’ve got the second half of the qualifying process, the “Y” race.

Why is it called the Y?

Because as if the Showdown wasn’t unique and left-field enough already, even the preliminary qualifying race involves something different. For the first time ever (as far as I can remember), we’re going to see the “split buoy” concept, where paddlers can choose which buoy they turn around and therefore which course they take.

It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure but in a SUP race.

Basically: Paddlers start on the beach then paddle straight out and through a gate (the two green buoys in the image below). From there it gets interesting: Competitors can choose to go to either the left or right outside buoy, before turning around and heading back the way they came.

As you can see on the left it’s a Y shaped course, with paddlers choosing which route they take from the green to the orange buoys. This will be a short, sharp out and back in race. Probably three or four minutes in length.

(Then as you can see on the right, the main event, the Showdown finale, will be a crazy slalom course in and out through (and across) the breaking waves. Probably 10-15 minutes long.)

Ultimate SUP Showdown course

In the qualifying “Y” race, paddlers can choose to go round either the left (L) or right (R) outside buoy. In the main even, the Showdown finale, paddlers will do a slalom course in the surf break, going from buoys 1-5 then back the way they came.

Similar to Jacko’s Super Lap, this Split Buoy* idea is a novel concept that should totally change up the race, breaking draft trains and keeping everybody guessing until right near the end. And remember this is just the preliminary qualifying race, this isn’t even the Showdown main event…

(* Jacko actually told me about this split-buoy idea earlier in the year, in addition to his Super Lap concept. What a trend-setter.)

So that’s the qualifying: A surf contest and a race. Then the top 12 guys and top 4 women from each side will meet in the main event: The 32-paddler Showdown finale.

Although the whole Ultimate SUP Showdown event is half surfing / half racing, the Showdown finale itself is basically a race. Granted it’s almost entirely in the waves, but it’s still a race. So before I make these predictions I first have to make some apologies to all the talented surf-specialists assembled here in Waikiki. They’ll probably kill it in the surf contest, but unless they’ve got a lot of racing experience under their belt they’re going to be shown up by the race-specialists in the finale.

But enough disclaimers. Let’s get down to it:

Who’s gonna win?!

The short answer: I’ve got no idea. Probably one of the Big Four (Danny, Connor, Kai, Travis in the men’s / Annabel, Jenny, Candice, Shakira in the women’s).

The long answer…

The Showdown has done a very impressive job of organising one of the most talented lineups ever. After the Battle of the Paddle (and maybe the Gorge Paddle Challenge as well), the Showdown will be the most competitive race of the year. That makes my job very fun but also very difficult: I get to watch these paddlers battle it out up close and personal, however trying to predict the result is like navigating a minefield.

This is not only a difficult race to pick due to the depth of talent on display, it’s also damn hard to pick because the racing conditions will be so chaotic and unpredictable. As the map above highlights, the Showdown finale is a slalom course. What that map doesn’t show is that buoys 2, 3 and 4 are basically right in the main surf break at Waikiki. And the forecast is calling for 4-5 ft surf.

Yes, there will be carnage.

Ultimate SUP Showdown waikiki

Producer Rick Schwartz briefing the athletes on the TV stuff. This whole event production is pretty full on…

But as much as surfing is a big part of this whole event, the Showdown will definitely favour the racing specialists. So looking over the list, here are the guys I’d consider serious racers:

Danny Ching, Connor Baxter, Zane Schweitzer, Jake Jensen, Travis Grant, Kai Lenny, Slater Trout, Kelly Margetts, Chuck Glynn, Fernando Stalla, Brennan rose, Javier Jimenez, Jayden Jensen, Ryan Helm, Kaeo Abbey, Kody Kerbox, Riggs Napoleon, Josh Riccio, Noa Hopper, Andrew Logreco, Noa Ginella, Livio Menelau, Kaihe Chong, Rylan Hart.

Stacked.

I think anyone of those guys could sneak onto the podium, but there are a few standouts.

The “Big Four” from my Top 13 of 2013 are all there: Connor, Travis, Danny and Kai. If you were a betting man or woman, you’d say the safe money was with one of these guys. And it’s hard to disagree. These four are absolute champions that combine raw talent with freakish consistency. Rarely do they fall off the podium and rarely does anyone else get past them.

But I reckon someone will get past a few of them in the Showdown finale.

Danny is always hard to beat. Very hard. He showed in Germany that, all things being equal, he’s the fastest paddler in the world. No question. I saw him today and he’s looking more Hercluean than ever. Ripped. But waves are the great leveler and I think it’s going to be very tight between Danny, Connor, Travis and Kai.

Connor has been in exceptional form all year, as has Travis. However I’m having trouble going past Kai here: He’s been slightly behind Connor in the big races, but only just. However when you throw in his absolute dominance in the waves, he’s got a lethal combination that could easily pull off the Showdown title. Kai is one of the most driven people I’ve ever met and I’m sure he’s absolutely relishing the prospect of racing Danny, Connor and Travis (something that hasn’t happened in almost two years: BOP 2012). Kai is also the only true superstar in our sport, so it would be rather fitting if he won the first big race to feature in a major primetime TV production.

But really you could throw a blanket over these four.

My head says Danny or Connor. My heart says Travis. My gut says Kai.

Danny Ching Ultimate SUP Showdown

Danny Ching starts as automatic favourite in just about every race he enters. Just look at that perfect posture… no wonder his technique is flawless. Not a muscle out of place.

But there’s also some random instinct in me that’s saying “how ’bout an upset?”…

There are so many talented paddlers nipping at the heels of the Big Four that I feel it’s almost inevitable that someone else will be on the Top 3 podium: Zane, Jake, Slater, Kelly, Chuck, Fernando, Javier, Ryan… the list goes on. There are at least a dozen paddlers that will seriously challenge the Big Four.

And the one who I think will challenge better than the rest is Zane Schweitzer.

Zane has been on an absolute tear the past twelve months, ever since his “surprise” performance at last year’s BOP, where he finally put a sock in the mouths of doubters who perhaps thought he was just a surfer. Zane was almost unbeatable in Europe this year and has the crazy sprinting speed, surf skills and middle-distance-endurance required to win the Showdown.

Also in contention for the win will be Jake Jensen. The Aussie whipper snapper has had up-and-down results in 2014, however just like Zane, Jake has the necessary sprint+surf skills that the Showdown calls for. The same can be said of guys like Javier Jimenez and Fernando Stalla, the Mexican duo who I think will perform very strongly (Javier in particular is a real dark horse). I don’t think these two can win it, but they could easily podium.

Speaking of the podium: We’ve got Slater Trout here. He knows a thing or two about racing. Kelly Margetts loves racing in the surf and podiums at the BOP every year despite pushing towards mid 40s. We’ve got Jayden Jensen, Jake’s lesser-known but exceptionally talented older brother (and another surf racing guy). Kody Kerbox. Riggs Napoleon. The Californian rising star Noa Hopper. Danny Ching’s secret weapon on the 404 team: the young Rylan Hart. One of the hardest working paddlers in the world in Chuck Glynn. The ever calm but always dangerous Ryan Helm. The biggest character in the world of SUP: Andrew Logreco. His fellow Oahu North Shore boy, Noa Ginella. Livio. Josh Riccio. Brennan. And probably a few other contenders I’m forgetting at this late hour.

Yep: Good luck making the Top 3 podium. Hell, even finishing in the top 15 places in the Showdown final will be a massive achievement.

 

And that’s just the men’s race… The women’s field isn’t as big (48 guys to 16 girls) but is equally as difficult to predict. Not least of which because only 4 out of 16 women go through from the surf contest and only 4 out of 16 go through from the race. So for the racing specialists that aren’t surfers, it’s all or nothing in the preliminary qualifying race. Some big names might not even make the final…

So who’s it gonna be?

Well for the first time in a very long time, we’re going to see the “Big Three” – Annabel, Candice and Jenny – go up against each other. Throw in the all round machine that is Sonni Hönscheid (she’s the new Molokai champ and absolutely rips in the surf), Lina Augaitis (almost unbeatable in flat but might struggle if the waves turn on) and a few other girls that’ll be making a push for the podium.

But there’s one name I strongly suggest you look out for: Shakira Westdorp from Australia.

Shak is under rated. Very. Probably because she won the Battle of the Paddle in 2009 but then totally dropped off the racing scene. The Aussie has always preferred surfing, however a stint on the race board in Nicaragua earlier this year, where she was a late call up to fill the women’s SUP racing slot for the almighty Team Australia (Shak was already in the team for the SUP surfing) may have rekindled her racing fire.

In the performance-of-the-event, Shakira won an individual gold and silver in the ISA World Championship racing events to go with her bronze in the surfing. Shak showed she can match it with some of the world’s fastest such as Lina and Jenny. And that win was on the flat, not in her beloved surf like the Showdown is. Plus that amazing performance back in early May was done on the back of just 2-3 weeks race training: Since then she’s been paddling hard with a focus on the Showdown and the BOP, so expect her to be even quicker over the next couple of days.

Yes, you’d be very brave, almost foolish to bet against the all-conquering Annabel, however my gut says there will be an upset on Monday, especially if the waves are firing. Annabel trains harder than anyone and has come a long way as a surfer in the past few years, but it’s a stretch to match it with someone who’s been riding waves their entire life. And Shak has done exactly that. She’s not only exceptionally fast on a race board but is also one of the best female SUP surfers in the world. That’s what could give her a slight edge in the Showdown.

Jenny will be hungry and can’t be discounted. She’s the perennial bridesmaid (sorry Jenny, had to mention it ;-) so don’t be shocked if the Big Island girl finishes runner-up again. Candice will want to reclaim her former glory but hasn’t been seen in a big international race against this kind of talent since last year’s Gorge event, which was almost twelve months ago to the day. What’s her form like right now? We’ll find out in less than 48 hours…

Sonni could be one to watch – probably the strongest woman in the field when it comes to raw muscle power and, as I said, absolutely tears it up in the surf. Meanwhile Lina is a wildcard: If the waves go flat during the Showdown, Lina could be up there.

I believe there are five legitimate contenders for the win (Shak/Annabel/Jenny/Candice/Sonni) but really I think it’s between Shak and Annabel. Annabel is quicker than anyone while Shak is a freakish all-rounder that may just have the winning combo.

No matter what happens though, this is gonna be fun to watch, both on the men’s and women’s side of the draw. So check back on Sunday afternoon for our Day 1 recap and then tune in all day Monday for our live coverage of the main event thanks to the crew at Rogue SUP.

Until then, here’s my reputation-killing predictions for what is surely going to be one of the toughest races of the year (both in terms of how hard it is to win as well as how hard it is to predict).

PREDICTIONS: MEN’S SHOWDOWN 

(24 guys are in the Showdown: 12 qualify through the surf contest / 12 qualify through the preliminary race)

1st: Danny Ching
2nd: Zane Schweitzer
3rd: Kai Lenny
4th: Connor Baxter
5th: Travis Grant
6th: Jake Jensen
7th: Javier Jimenez
8th: Kelly Margetts
9th: Fernando Stalla
10th: Slater Trout
11th: Chuck Glynn
12th: Josh Riccio
13th: Kody Kerbox
14th: Riggs Napoleon
15th: Jayden Jensen
16th: Ryan Helm
17th: Brennan Rose
18th: Noa Ginella
19th: Sean Poynter
20th: James Casey

Yeah… kinda hard to pick. If you make the top 10 then hats off to you…

Actually some of those names above won’t even make the final – 12 qualify from the racing and another 12 from surfing, so there will be quite a few surf specialists in the top 24.

PREDICTIONS: WOMEN’S SHOWDOWN 

(8 women in the Showdown: 4 qualify through the surf contest / 4 qualify through the preliminary race)

1st: Shakira Westdorp
2nd: Annabel Anderson
3rd: Jenny Kalmbach
4th: Candice Appleby
5th: Sonni Hönscheid
6th: Lina Augaitis
7th: Morgan Hoesterey
8th: Bailey Rosen (or maybe Talia…)

The women’s final is cut throat: If you’re a racing specialist, you’ve gotta finish top 4 out of 16 in the preliminary race (unless there are any double qualifiers who finish top 4 in both surfing and racing, then there will be some lucky losers). That’s not easy. There are very talented paddlers that will miss out. In fact even some of the superstar names could realistically miss out on the final given the qualifying process. If they bomb out in the surfing, some women will be banking everything on a top 4 finish in the prelim race. But there are more than 4 big names listed up above… So… This could get interesting!

 

Oh and as a footnote: There’s one last unique aspect to the Showdown worth mentioning:

There are 32 paddlers on the start line for the final (24 guys/8 girls) but the lineup will look a little different than your average race. That’s because the Showdown is employing a grid system, kind of like Formula 1 racing. There will be row 1, with the top 16 qualifiers (12 guys/4 girls) and row 2, with the other 16.

Basically your results from the surf contest and preliminary qualifying race will be combined to give you a seeding for the Showdown. The top 50% will start from row 1, the other 50% from row 2. This first row will have about a 5 second head start in the Showdown finale.

That’s pretty major.

The race will go for 10-15 minutes, so 5 seconds is relatively tiny, however it’s the part about being stuck behind 16 other paddlers that will make row 2 a nightmare. If you’re a fast racer but have a shocker in the surf contest, you might find yourself on row 2, which means you’re going to have to fight your way through 16 people to get to the front. And it’s a tight course. The first buoy could be pure chaos. By the time you work your way back into the top 10, the leaders will be way ahead.

So yeah, you wanna be on that first row.

This two-row system was designed to ensure people try their hardest in both the surfing and the racing. It’s mandatory to compete in both but you only need to qualify through one or the other. So technically if you were a good racer you could just bomb out early in the surfing, on purpose, and save your energy. But the organisers don’t want that. So with this grid system, you need a decent result in the surfing to match your great result in the racing (or vice versa) Otherwise you’re on the back row.

Yes, the Ultimate SUP Showdown is something else entirely…

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SHOWDOWN SCHEDULE

Sunday: Day 1
7.30-11.30 Men’s Surfing (round 1)
11.30-12.50 Women’s Surfing (round 1)
12.50-1.20 Men’s Qualifying “Y” Race (Round 1)
1.20-1.40 Women’s Qualifying “Y” Race (Round 1)
1.40-6.00 Surfing repo rounds plus Men’s round 3

We’ll have regular updates and a full recap at the end of Day 1

Monday: Day 2
8:00am – Men’s Surfing (Quarters)
9:20am – Women’s Surfing (Quarters)
11:00am – Men’s Surfing (Semis)
11:40am – Women’s Surfing (Final)
12:10pm – Men’s Surfing (Final)
1:00pm – Women’s Racing (Final)
1:10pm – Men’s Racing (repo round)
1:40pm – Men’s Racing (Final)
## 4:00pm – The Showdown Grand Finale ##

We’ll have LIVE UPDATES all day Monday, including play-by-play commentary during the racing finals as well as the Showdown grand finale itself.

When to tune in?

4:00pm Monday Hawaii time = 7:00pm California, 10:00pm Florida, 4am Tuesday in Central Europe and 12 noon Tuesday on Australia’s East Coast

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