THE “TOP 1-2” OF ’21 (…who were the best paddlers in the world this year?)

 

Carrying on that fine tradition of rating the world’s best paddlers at the end of each season as if a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears could be reduced to mere syntax – beginning with the ‘Top 11 of 2011’ that marked the birth of SUP Racer – I present you with my list of the world’s best paddlers for season 2021.

This list is far more succinct than past years. It would have been chronologically correct to share the “top 21 of 2021” but I chose the “top 1-2” of ’21 because I’m feeling palindromic (and wanted to give my typing fingers – and your reading eyes – a break).

Selecting a top 21 would have been a nightmare anyway. Given the stunted nature of our international season we just haven’t had enough elite races to see the full depth of the field; only the top few spots have been clear. Fortunately we had some standout standup performers that made my job easy–this list basically chose itself. The only question that bothered me for more than half a minute was which of the top two guys would ultimately be number one, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

On the women’s side, it hasn’t been this easy to select a “paddler of the year” since Annabel Anderson was beating all of the ladies (and most of the men) half a decade ago. Fiona Wylde was the definition of dominant in season 2021, winning virtually everything she attempted including two gold medals in Hungary along with the Euro Tour overall title and yet another victory on her home waters of Hood River, Oregon.

She won in the flat, she won in waves, she won in downwind bumps. Fiona was so dominant this year she expanded beyond stand up paddling and into the world of IQ windsurf foiling en route to a potential spot on Team USA for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. To mark her as a “superstar” would not be premature.

I could consult the Oxford Book of Superlatives and still run out of words to describe Fiona Wylde’s season. Whenever I question whether SUP racing is a real sport or just a glorified hobby, Fiona reminds me that stand up paddling does indeed deserve its spot on the international stage.

And how about those sunnies…

Fiona en route to her second gold at the ICF Worlds in Hungary (photo: @planetcanoe)

Fiona was a proverbial (and literal) mile ahead at the top of this list – the easiest choice I had to make – but beyond the world number one it wasn’t so easy. In the women’s sport in particular we missed a few familiar faces and said hello to some unfamiliar ones in season ’21. Transitory.

It would have been virtually impossible to select an entire “top 21” of 2021 in the women’s field because so few traveled to more than one or two international races (if any). The sympathetic ear would suggest covid is still playing havoc with travel schedules and athlete availability, but the cynic (or realist) will tell you we still have a lot of work to do in bringing women’s paddling on par with men’s. The fact that so few women have the option of competing internationally is something that still needs to be addressed. We could get into a chicken-and-egg debate about what needs to happen first for women to reach parity, but one thing that can’t be argued is we’re clearly not there yet.

Fortunately one woman did put her hand up for second-best of the year. Quite symbolically, she was also the only woman to defeat Fiona all season.

Esperanza Barreras (or just “Espe”) from the Canary Islands is an athlete who’s risen so quickly she’s still considered an “unknown” by those who follow the sport only on the fringes. It was only two years ago that I had to scratch my head in San Sebastian asking who this ultra dark horse in second place was. Espe was in better form than most of the world’s best that day, and on one Saturday afternoon in Switzerland this summer she was in better form than all.

Espe defeated Fiona at the Euro Tour ICE Race, which I believe is Fiona’s only loss of the season. Though perhaps “defeat” is the wrong word; Espe destroyed the field including the American superstar to salute on the lake in a time of 1 hour 49 minutes. Fiona was almost three minutes back. Fifth place was a quarter of an hour behind.

Espe loves the marathons. She loves a grueling slog. She’s hard to beat over a distance and in many ways mirrors the powerhouse of Germany, Sonni Honscheid, who at her peak in 2018 was virtually unstoppable in a grind.

But Fiona got one back a few months later by claiming gold at the ICF marathon race on that lake in Hungary (a race I had tipped Espe to win). Still, Espe was only 30 seconds behind and four minutes ahead of the bronze medalist, Elena Prokhorova of Russia who, after winning sprint gold the following day, would have been a likely choice for third-best woman of the year alongside the likes of an April Zilg. But we’re only selecting the “Top 1-2” this year (thank god) and therefore the choice is pretty easy in my opinion. Fiona number one, Espe two.

Esperanza Barreras but we’ll just call her “Espe” (photo: @planetcanoe)

The men’s field was even easier to narrow down than the women’s. Two guys stood out like sore thumbs (or “pouces” as they say in France).

Titou and Noic.

Titouan Puyo has long been a world-beater. Ever since bursting onto the scene in 2014 at the ISA Worlds in Nicaragua he’s been a permanent fixture on the podiums. But he’s never been number one in my book. Titou has been formidable, sure; dazzling, yes; mercurial, indeed. But the dictionary be damned, there’s always been a Connor, Travis, Boothy or Lincoln standing in his way in any given season. Titou has probably been the most consistent paddler in the world from 2015-2021 despite never finishing the year as world number one.

That all changed in 2021 (and you could argue it would have changed in 2020 had we a full season). In the end, the only competition Titou had for “paddler of the year” was his compatriot from that tiny South Pacific island called New Caledonia where there’s something, apparently, in the water.

Les Cagous” were on fire in 2021, sweeping the podiums at the French Nationals when Titou and Noic were joined by the third island boy, Clement Colmas. Ironically named after a flightless bird, Les Cagous spread their wings and soared in season 2021.

Splitting Titou and Noic was the only question I stopped and really thought about when writing this “list” and indeed the answer depends largely on how you evaluate.

Look at the top few results and you’d surely give it to Noic: He won two out of three at the Worlds, which was the only “big” event of the year. But it’s when we expand the criteria to “best paddler of the YEAR” that Titouan becomes a clear world number one. For starters, he won 21 races in season ’21. That beautiful synchronicity alone is enough to put him #1 in my book, but just for good measure he picked up both the most-competitive race of the season, the ICF Worlds marathon, along with the largest race of the year, the Paris Crossing.

Titouan Puyo is a paddler of sublime skill. To watch him race is to witness the slowing of time. Like his teammate Travis Grant of old, Titou seems to paddle in slow motion such is the perfection of his technique. It’s a technique honed sitting down in a va’a outrigger canoe — a sport he jumped back into in France this year and duly dominated, just because why not.

The NSP and “Quickblade paddle in hand” team rider was so dominant that at one point he’d won 10 races in the span of just 30 days. It’s almost impossible to even start 10 races in 30 days let alone win them all. He dominated the Alpine Lakes Tour and won the overall title at The Euro Tour, which began with a commanding victory over a guy many had picked as the one to watch this season, Bruno Hasulyo.

The only real “blemish” (if you can call runner-up a blemish) on Titou’s record this year was losing to Danny Ching at the Carolina Cup. Though the circumstances of that defeat – wild conditions, a modified course and a curiously different line taken by the top two around an island – suggest Titou will return to Wrightsville in 2022 hungry to add a third title at this fabled major. I’ll be livestreaming Carolina next year and already get excited at the mere thought of such a battle.

We won’t have to wait long to see if Titou carries his 2021 form into the new season either — he’ll be at the massive GlaGla Race in a few weeks’ time (22 January) which is another one I’ll be livestreaming and where another battle with Bruno is on the cards.

Titou en route to victory at the Alpine Lakes Tour and the beginning of a ridiculous winning streak early in the season

Noic Garioud fulfilled his prodigous talent in 2021. The youngster from New Cal broke free from his compatriot’s shadow to storm the world during the second half of proceedings in Hungary. The results of the ICF Worlds were amplified in a season where few events reached the level of a true elite international race. Three races, two golds and a silver. Not even Fiona matched that. Nor did Titouan.

Perhaps the only reason Noic isn’t number one is because he didn’t compete for a full season like his fellow island boy. His performance in Hungary was the best of the season. But then again, it’s easy to extrapolate a few results over the course of seven or eight months — it’s much harder to replicate that success every week. Titou is still world number one for now.

(To put it another way: Noic is the performer of the year; Titou is the paddler of the year.)

I’m curious where things go from here for Noic. He’s still young (19 or 20) and if he can keep the hunger could dominate for the next decade. I’m also curious which race team he’s on next year – I hear whispers of a trade – but that’s another post altogether…

Noic wasn’t supposed to be a stand up paddler. Growing up a surfer, he thought SUP was a “stupid” pursuit (as most surfers do). In fact, so stubborn was Young Noic to avoid standing up that on a family outing one day in New Caledonia he started paddling his 5ft surfboard around in flat water. The stubbornness of youth. The rest of his family were stand up paddling (and presumably having fun) but no, not Young Noic, he would stay true to his roots. Speed and “enjoyment” be damned!

This lasted all of about five minutes. Realising the futility of paddling a shortboard on flat water, Noic grabbed the spare SUP and joined his family. He quickly realised that stand up paddling could actually be fun and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, SUP is even more fun when you’re wearing three world championship medals around your neck. How many more will this kid add in 2022?

But going back to that fateful day on the lake in Hungary and it was clearly a very symbolic result. Titouan Puyo and Noic Garioud finished 1-2, just seconds apart and well ahead of the all-star field at the most-competitive race of the year. Titou and Noic. New Caledonia. 1-2. Those are your top paddlers of the year.

Les Cagous! Titou and Noic celebrate after finishing 1-2 at the Worlds–a symbolic result for the rest of the season (photo: @planetcanoe)

I wouldn’t be too shocked if Titou and Noic were 1-2 again next year but surely the competition will be intense. The undisputed pre-pandemic king, Michael Booth, didn’t get many opportunities to flex his muscles this season. At his only truly international event, the ICF Worlds, he performed poorly (by his own lofty standards) in finishing outside the medals. He did defeat Titou in Montenegro a week later but that event was already a footnote. Boothy also destroyed the field at the 12 Towers earlier this year but even if we did extend this list beyond the top two the Aussie powerhouse would have close competition from the likes of Connor Baxter (dual-silver medalist at the Worlds). Fortunately for me, I’ve taken the easy route and those dramatic decisions don’t need to be made this year (this “best of” list will probably garner minimal pageviews purely for its lack of controversial choices).

Titou and Noic made my job easy as did Fiona and Espe.

But what will 2022 bring? With the world opening back up (sort of) and an overcrowded calendar starting to take shape, I suspect we’ll have a bounce back to 2019 levels of elite international competition. I’m particularly excited to follow the traditional European summer, headlined by the Euro Tour in June, along with what will surely be the biggest event of the year, the ICF Worlds in Poland early September that goes back-to-back with the Tour de France of SUP (11 Cities). Even the beloved Alpine Lakes Tour (home of the GlaGla) has expanded to eight events. Don’t count out the ISA Worlds in Puerto Rico in November — the numbers won’t match Poland but at least we’ll have waves. And the APP is still trying to get its Formula 1-style world tour going so perhaps they’ll have a few elite showcase events as well.

This sport is built on the foundation of its grassroots community but all pyramids need a pointy end, and elite racing sure can be fun to watch. So for now, let’s raise a glass of bubbly to the best paddlers in the world …at least in my opinion, though I think you’d be brave to argue otherwise.

Happy New Year, everyone.


 

Agree? Disagree?! Leave a comment on Facebook

…and for the trivia buffs, here’s a look back at the last 10 years of “best of” lists here on SUP Racer. The “Top 11 of 2011” was the first post I ever shared on this website.

A decade of SUP Racer’s year-end “Top Paddlers”

2011: Danny Ching / Candice Appleby*
2012: Danny Ching / Annabel Anderson
2013: Connor Baxter / Annabel Anderson
2014: Connor Baxter / Annabel Anderson
2015: Travis Grant / Annabel Anderson
2016: Connor Baxter / Annabel Anderson
2017: Connor Baxter / Annabel Anderson
2018: Lincoln Dews / Sonni Honscheid
2019: Michael Booth / Olivia Piana
2020: huh?
2021: Titouan Puyo / Fiona Wylde

* retrospectively awarded (we largely ignored, at our own peril, the world of women’s paddling in the early days)