The Best Paddlers in the World This Year: The Top 15 of 2015

 
The Pacific Paddle Games was one of the highlights of the 2015 season (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP Racer)

The Pacific Paddle Games was one of the highlights of the 2015 season (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP Racer)

SUP Racer celebrated its 4th birthday last week. This humble little blog came to life just over four years ago with our first ever feature post: The Top 11 of 2011.

That “Top 11” list (with Danny Ching at #1) sparked plenty of debate and helped kick start SUP Racer’s journey, and it was followed by the Top 12 of 2012 (Danny Ching again), Top 13 of 2013 (Connor Baxter, Annabel Anderson) and Top 14 of 2014 (once again Connor Baxter and Annabel Anderson).

Back in 2011, the stand up paddling world had nothing in the way of world rankings or world tours or any sort of serious structure for its professional athletes. There’s still a severe lack of organisation today, but at least we have a much clearer picture of who the top athletes are.

I actually considered dropping these end of year “Best Of” lists after I created the SUP Racer World Rankings, however I decided to keep running with them for one simple reason: The World Rankings aren’t perfect.

As much as I believe the Top 100 and Top 50 leaderboards are the most accurate window into the world of professional stand up paddling, I’m the first to admit my world rankings system has a few flaws (which I’ll be attempting to fix with a few tweaks to the system in 2016).

Some races don’t get the score they deserve on the Race Index, which in turn disadvantages the winners. Some athletes simply don’t have the world ranking they deserve.

So unlike the Top 14 of 2014, which was pegged to the World Rankings, I’ve decided to rank the Top 15 of 2015 from scratch just like the old days. The end of season World Rankings Top 100 Men and Top 50 Women still has a major influence on this final list, but a few positions have been changed around and one or two outsiders have been included.

Without further ado, here are the best paddlers in the world this year, aka the Top 15 of 2015…


Men’s Top 15 of 2015

 

#15: Trevor Tunnington

Brand: Starboard
Nation: New Zealand
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 28
2015 end of season World Ranking: 14 (+14)

The young New Zealander (who actually lives and trains in Australia), had a quiet international season while he finished his final year of high school. But if his brief spurt of world-beating form back in May is anything to go by, we can expect big things from Trev next year.

The Starboard team rider was on fire at Europe’s biggest race, the Lost Mills, taking out the “Fastest Paddler On Earth” time trial from the likes of Connor Baxter and Casper Steinfath, before snatching a spot on the podium of the main distance race alongside Connor and Titou.

Trev also won the Harry’s Paddle distance race back in March against a who’s who of Australia’s finest. Amazingly, he sneaks into the Top 15 on the world rankings despite only having four results; The rankings are based on an athlete’s best five results, meaning Trevor is carrying a donut in his tally. There are no other athletes inside the top 30 with less than five results.

Biggest Results
Lost Mills “Fastest Paddler” time trial: 1st
Lost Mills distance race: 3rd
Harry’s Paddle distance race: 1st

Lost Mills

Trevor Tunnington had a big weekend at the big Lost Mills race this year (photo credit: Prade)


#14: Leonard Nika

Brand: Starboard
Nation: Italy
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 21
2015 end of season World Ranking: 15 (+6)

Italy’s #1 paddler, who has long lived in the shadow of his more famous Starboard teammates, had a breakout summer in Europe this year. On the Euro Tour, Leo was regularly keeping pace with the likes of Connor Baxter and Titouan Puyo, while he also managed a few wins of his own throughout the season.

With Italy now leading the charge of Europe’s New Wave and giving the French some national competition, expect Leo to make even more headlines in 2016.

Biggest Results
Top 3 or top 5 finishes at almost every stop in Europe (and he competed almost every weekend all summer long), including Lost Mills, Barcelona and Bilbao.


#13: Michael Booth

Brand: Starboard
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 55
2015 end of season World Ranking: 31 (+24)

Michael Booth is the odd one out on this list: He’s the only athlete in the Top 15 of 2015 that didn’t finish inside the top 15 on the end of season World Rankings. In fact, Boothy didn’t even finish inside the top 30, yet I believe he still deserves a spot on the end of year “Best Of” list based on a string of recent performances.

Anyone watching the Pacific Paddle Games distance race will remember Boothy setting the pace alongside Travis Grant and Danny Ching. It was an amazing performance and showed the rest of the world what he’s capable of. He got unlucky on the final sprint through the surf to finish 7th in that race, but still turned more than a few heads.

A few days later he flew back to Australia and took out the uber-elite Aussie Titles (which unfortunately didn’t count for the world rankings), which will see Boothy compete for the Green & Gold at the 2016 Worlds.

A top five result in the King of the Cut followed, which sets the surf ski champion up for a promising career in the world of stand up next year. Oh and he was also right up there at the second most competitive race of the year, Carolina. Definitely a name to watch in 2016…

Biggest Results
Australian Titles distance race: 1st
Pacific Paddle Games distance race: 7th
Carolina Cup: 8th
King of the Cut: 5th

Michael Booth

Michael Booth on his way to the Australian distance race title (photo: Surfing Australia)


#12: Bicho Jimenez

Brand: Rogue
Nation: Mexico
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 20
2015 end of season World Ranking: 12 (+8)

There’s one race from Bicho’s 2015 season that will be immortalised in the pages of SUP racing history: The ISA Worlds long distance race.

In front of a very vocal home crowd, Bicho broke the uber elite field at the start of the final lap and almost secured the most memorable of victories for the host country. An extraordinary performance from King Ching relegated Bicho to the silver medal but he still received a hero’s welcome at the finish line.

Along with a big result at Carolina and a solid effort on the Euro Tour, this result propelled Bicho to the edge of the world’s top 10, with the humble champ from Sayulita finishing the year ranked #12.

Biggest Results
ISA Worlds distance race: 2nd
ISA Worlds course race: 6th
Carolina Cup: 7th
Port Adriano: 5th
Punta Sayulita Classic distance race: 1st


#11: Matt Nottage

Brand: Starboard
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 62
2015 end of season World Ranking: 13 (+49)

Matt Nottage enjoyed a breakout year in 2015. For starters, he jumped further up the Top 100 Leaderboard than anyone else on this list, starting the season 62nd and finishing in 13th for a +/- of +49.

That meteoric rise came on the back of some massive ocean racing results, with a pair of runner-up finishes to Connor Baxter in Hawaii and a pair of his own victories in West Oz earlier this month (where he defeated Molokai champ Travis Grant twice in two weeks).

When the bumps are running, there are very few paddlers that can keep pace with this guy.

Biggest Results
King of the Cut: 1st
The Doctor: 1st
Maui 2 Molokai: 2nd
Maui Paddle Champs: 2nd

Matt Nottage

Matt Nottage cruising to victory in the King of the Cut (photo: screen grab from Reflex Films)


#10: Georges Cronsteadt

Brand: SIC
Nation: Tahiti
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 7
2015 end of season World Ranking: 9 (-2)

Despite the richest pool of talent in the world of paddling just waiting to be tapped, there is still only one king in Tahiti: Georges Cronsteadt.

The raging bull is pushing 40 years but still keeps pace with rivals half his age. Although he slipped a couple of spots on the world rankings, Georges showed the world glimpses of his incredible strength this season, including an unbelievable performance at Carolina.

In the second most competitive race of the year, Georges lost touch with Travis, Connor and Danny on the opening downwind leg, which made it look like the race was over. But over the next hour, Georges powered through the flat water of the Wrightsville Beach inlet, dragging a train of a dozen guys along with him as he slowly but surely closed the gap on the breakaway trio.

In the end, Georges couldn’t catch runaway winner Travis Grant, but he did reel in Connor Baxter and probably would have caught Danny if the race was half a mile longer.

No matter what results Georges gets in 2016 and beyond, he can be proud of the fact that he’s paved the way for a new generation of Tahitian world beaters.

Biggest Results
Carolina Cup: 3rd
Gorge Paddle Challenge course race: 5th


#9: Arthur Arutkin

Brand: Fanatic
Nation: France
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 29
2015 end of season World Ranking: 10 (+19)

Those of us who follow the sport obsessively have long known Arthur Arutkin to be a prodigious talent. The young Frenchman seemed destined for greatness, however he never fulfilled his true potential over the past few seasons.

That all began to change around 12 months ago when he swept the 2014 French Championships. Arthur carried his good form into 2015, racking up a string of podium results on the Euro Tour and finishing the year inside the world’s Top 10 after a solid result at Doheny and a very strong performance in Paris.

I’d be surprised if Arthur doesn’t go even higher in 2016.

Biggest Results
French Championships course race: 2nd
French Championships distance race: 2nd
Paris Crossing: 3rd
Barcelona World Series: 3rd
Lost Mills distance race: 4th
Pacific Paddle Games distance race: 6th

Arthur Arutkin

Arthur Arutkin and his Fanatic team mate Jake Jensen, whom he bumped out of the top 10 world rankings this year (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP racer)


#8: Kelly Margetts

Brand: Lahui Kai
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 19
2015 end of season World Ranking: 8 (+11)

Kelly Margetts has long been one of the most under rated paddlers on the planet. Though despite his laid-back, down-to-earth Aussie’ness, he’s a ferocious competitor. Kelly has been on virtually every single Battle of the Paddle top 10 podium over the years, with few paddlers in the world able to match him in the waves despite his age (“World’s Fittest 43 Year Old” I like to call him — though he doesn’t enjoy that nickname so much).

However Kelly’s biggest result this year came in the most unlikely of settings: A long, hot flat water race 100 miles away from the ocean.

The 2015 Gorge Paddle Challenge was a complete anomaly. The famous Hood River downwind conditions totally failed to materialise, which made for one of the most grueling long distance races we’ve ever seen: An 8 mile slog without a breath of wind, upstream against the river current and with a wild fire smoky haze filling paddlers’ lungs.

Oh and one of the most competitive fields of the year setting an unforgiving pace. It was an absolute drainer. In a sign of just how brutal the conditions were: Georges Cronsteadt limped home in 13th and Kai Lenny was 25th.

But nothing seemed to phase Kelly Margetts. He helped set the pace along with Danny and Travis at the front, before timing his run to perfection: Out-sprinting the likes of Travis, Titou, Connor and Danny as they rounded the final buoy turn and paddled the final 150 odd metres to the finish line.

In a sign of just how popular Kelly’s victory was with his fellow paddlers, I actually heard a couple of the guys towards the back of the lead draft train shout “Go Kelly!” as the group approached that final buoy turn.

If I’m half as fit as Kelly when I reach 43, I’ll be a happy man.

Biggest Results
Gorge Paddle Challenge distance race: 1st
Gorge Paddle Challenge course race: 7th
Harry’s Paddle surf race: 1st
Race The Lake Of The Sky 5 miler: 2nd
Race The Lake Of The Sky 14 miler: 2nd

Kelly Margetts

Kelly Margetts surging ahead of Danny Ching, Connor Baxter and Travis Grant up in the Gorge (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP racer)


#7: Casper Steinfath

Brand: Naish
Nation: Denmark
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 8
2015 end of season World Ranking: 6 (+2)

Casper Steinfath is a busy young man. When he’s not competing in racing (and surfing) events around the world, he’s working as the honourary Vice President of the International Surfing Association, helping his nation host the World Champs or releasing his life story as a movie.

Despite the hectic schedule, the Danish Viking has shown once again that you don’t have to grow up in a SUP mecca to be one of the best SUP athletes on the planet. Hailing from “Cold Hawaii” on the wild west coast of Denmark, Casper continues to rise through the ranks every year, finishing season 2015 on the bubble of the world’s top 5 and almost overtaking his superstar Naish team mate, Kai Lenny.

Casper is always solid performer at the World Series events, especially in the sprints, however his biggest result by far came at Doheny. At the single most competitive race of the year, the Pacific Paddle Games, Casper showed amazing poise and consistency to finish top 3 in both the distance and course races. That put him oh-so-ridiculously-close to claiming the overall title, only to be narrowly edged out by Connor Baxter’s freakish comeback performance.

Casper isn’t just one of the best ambassadors our sport has, he’s also one of the best athletes.

Biggest Results
Pacific Paddle Games distance race: 3rd
Pacific Paddle Games surf race: 2nd
Pacific Paddle Games overall: 2nd
ISA Worlds course race: 4th
World Series Japan: 3rd
World Series Huntington: 3rd
World Series overall season: 3rd

Casper Steinfath

Casper Steinfath (far right) battling Connor Baxter and Kody Kerbox at Doheny (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP Racer)


#6: Kai Lenny

Brand: Naish
Nation: Hawaii
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 2
2015 end of season World Ranking: 4 (-2)

Kai had a bit of a rollercoaster season this year. There was the World Series overall “world title” where he narrowly edged out long-time rival Connor Baxter, but there wasn’t much else.

Apart from a brave performance at Molokai, where he finished runner-up to Travis Grant in a year where many contenders failed to even finish, Kai had a string of bad results at the other major races.

At his sponsor’s headline event, the Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, Kai faded in the dying stages of the course race to finish 6th, before having an absolute barry crocker in the distance race to limp home in 25th.

Despite going in as one of the favourites at the most competitive race of the year, the Pacific Paddle Games, Kai failed to crack the top 10 in the distance race and was even pushed outside the top 10 of his favoured course race after an interference call gave him a one minute penalty. Kai was also the only top 10 world ranked athlete not to race at the second biggest event of the year, the Carolina Cup.

This complete lack of results at the majors stands in stark contrast to his incredible results on the World Series, where the superstar seemed virtually unbeatable at times. Although he actually split the 8 individual World Series races 4/4 with Connor Baxter (Connor won 3/4 distance races and 1/4 sprint races; Kai won 1/4 distance races and 3/4 sprint races — yep, no athlete other than Kai or Connor won an individual World Series race this year), Kai quite easily won the World Series “world title” after claiming three of the four overall event victories.

At the Huntington Beach Pro, which was 5th most competitive race of the year, Kai seemed to be in a league of his own in both the distance and sprint events. At Turtle Bay a couple of weeks later, Casper commented that “Kai seemed to have a different gear to the rest of us in the sprints.”

On his day, Kai seems unbeatable.

So how can these paradoxical results be explained? It would be easy to say that Kai is the best in the world at surf sprints and out of his depth in flat water distance events, but that would be an over-simplification. Or perhaps the cynic would comment that he only does well on the World Series because Travis, Danny, Titou and more than half the world’s other top paddlers don’t follow that tour. But again that misses the real point.

To really understand why Kai is unbeatble in some races and not even in the top 20 in others is to understand what truly motivates this guy.

We all know Kai is a superstar. He’s almost larger than the sport of SUP racing itself: He gets more media attention (and earns more money) than everyone else in the top 10 combined.

While literally everyone else was battling it out in grueling conditions at Carolina, Kai was doing a celebrity-style photo shoot for his new sponsor, Tag Heuer, on the streets of Paris. Kai now features in Tag’s advertising campaigns alongside some of the biggest sporting stars on the planet. He also has Red Bull, GoPro and Hurley stickers on his boards.

Throw in the big wave surfing career, where one single wave gives him 100x more attention than a race win, and you can see why a long, grueling SUP racing season isn’t exactly Kai’s main focus.

He does whatever it takes to win the World Series, because collecting “world titles” are what drives both his personal and sponsorship ambitions, but outside that he doesn’t really seem to care about racing.

Kai almost certainly wouldn’t show up at the Gorge if Naish wasn’t the title sponsor, and I doubt we’ll ever see him at Carolina. He’s never done the Lost Mills or any of the other big distance races. He didn’t even return to Payette this year after crashing out of the event in 2014, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he held a similar attitude towards the 2016 Pacific Paddle Games.

As much as Kai Lenny loves to compete and win everything in the water, there’s only one stand up paddle race that he actually seems passionate about: Molokai.

Molokai is the ultimate test in the world of paddleboarding, and Kai is desperate to win the holy grail and complete his paddling resumé. Kai is so determined to win Molokai that he spent $20,000 buying the rights to Travis Grant’s winning board. And the gamble almost paid off.

In fact, Kai is so single-mindedly determined to conquer the Ka’iwi Channel that I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually quits SUP racing when he does finally win Molokai.

And make no mistake: Kai Lenny will eventually win Molokai. There are very few athletes on the planet that have the drive and determination of this young superstar. While he doesn’t have the consistent race results of Connor, Danny, Travis and Titou, Kai truly is an incredible athlete in every respect.

If/when Kai eventually does quit SUP racing (I hope he doesn’t, but I suspect he will), it’ll be a dark day for the sport. As much as I like to poke fun at Kai for his superstar tendencies, I’ll probably be thanking him for keeping me in a job in five years’ time: No other athlete attracts more mainstream attention (and sponsorship dollars) to the world of stand up paddling than Kai Lenny. He’s propping up this sport more than anyone, even if he isn’t always winning.

Biggest Results
Molokai 2 Oahu: 2nd
World Series Japan: 1st
World Series Huntington: 1st
World Series Turtle Bay: 1st
World Series overall season: 1st

Kai Lenny

Kai Lenny giving Felipe Rodriguez a high five during the carnage at Doheny (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP Racer)


#5: Titouan Puyo

Brand: Starboard
Nation: France (via New Caledonia)
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 14
2015 end of season World Ranking: 5 (+9)

I believe it’s only a matter of time before Titouan Puyo becomes the #1 paddler on the planet.

Consider the facts: Titou has only been racing seriously for a little over 24 months, he’s almost a decade younger than Travis Grant and Danny Ching, and he has the most perfect, efficient, silky smooth technique in the world.

If 2014 was a breakout year for Titou, 2015 was a year of consolidation for the New Caledonian. He stamped his authority as a world class athlete with a top four finish at Carolina, picked up another medal at the ISA Worlds and probably should have won the overall Euro Tour title (he finished second to Connor Baxter on the Tour Leaderboard after a controversial points decision in Bilbao that yours truly was repsonsible for).

At the most competitive race of the year, the PPGs, Titou was leading both the distance and course events before making a couple of tiny mistakes that sent him tumbling out of the overall top 10 (he’s still quite bitter over his performance that weekend and doesn’t like talking about the event). Titou finished off the year with a bang though, absolutely dominating the French Championships before claiming back-to-back victories in the single largest race of the year, the Paris Crossing.

Although he’s running out of room to keep climbing up the Top 100 Leaderboard, I’m certain Titou will finish 2016 ranked even higher than world number five, and that in a year or two he’ll be world number one. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also one of the nicest and most humble guys in the sport. Kind of like a French version of Travis Grant.

Biggest Results
Paris Crossing: 1st
Bilbao Paddle Challenge: 1st
Lost Mills distance race: 2nd
Gorge Paddle Challenge course race: 3rd
Gorge Paddle Challenge distance race: 3rd
ISA Worlds course race: 3rd
Carolina Cup: 4th

Titouan Puyo

Titouan Puyo, the smiling assassin, seen here in Bilbao this summer (photo: B Waters)


#4: Mo Freitas

Brand: Focus
Nation: Hawaii
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 6
2015 end of season World Ranking: 7 (-1)

When I look at the top 10 world rankings and try to pick the faults in the system, Mo Freitas’ current ranking of #7 clearly stands out. Despite the extraordinarily high level of talent on the men’s side of the sport these days, Mo’s performances this year should have propelled him right up towards the pointy end of the Top 100 Leaderboard.

There was the silver medal at the ISA Worlds and a few big results on the World Series, but a couple of performances stand out well above the others.

At the Payette River Games, one of the most technically difficult events in the sport, Mo showed why he rivals Kai Lenny as arguably the most complete stand up paddler in the world.

Despite being up against dozens of river specialists that had grown up in whitewater, along with plenty of his ocean racing rivals, Mo absolutely mastered the course at Kelly’s Whitewater Park to make it a clean sweep of the weekend. In the SUP Cross final, where the entire course is only a few hundred metres long, Mo crossed the line half a minute ahead of the runner-up. He also nailed the fastest run in the uber-technical time trial, giving him a runaway victory and the $10,000 winner’s cheque.

Unfortunately for Mo, our proprietary “Race Index” algorithm, which largely forms the basis of the SUP Racer World Rankings, totally underscored the Payette River Games. This anomaly in the rankings explains why Mo is #4 on the Top 15 of 2015 but “only” #7 on the world rankings. It’s also motivated me to tweak the rankings formula next year and give certain events, including Payette (which will almost certainly make a return either in 2016 or 2017) and other specialty events such as Molokai, a guaranteed minimum number of points.

Payette wasn’t Mo’s only big result though. At the single most competitive event of the year, the Pacific Paddle Games, Mo once again showed he belongs up there beside the world’s best. After an uncharacteristic fall in the final metres of the distance race, which dashed his hopes of claiming the overall title, Mo put on a masterclass in the course race, finishing well clear of the rest of the world’s best to salute on the biggest stage of the year.

Biggest Results
Payette River Games SUP Cross: 1st
Payette River Games Time Trial: 1st
Payette River Games overall: 1st
Pacific Paddle Games surf race: 1st
Pacific Paddle Games overall: 3rd
ISA Worlds course race: 2nd
World Series Huntington: 2nd

Mo Freitas

Mo Freitas on his way to a crushing victory at Payette (photo: SUP Racer)


#3: Danny Ching

Brand: 404
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 3
2015 end of season World Ranking: 3 (no change)

It’s been a frustrating year for Danny Ching. The guy who has more self-belief than any other paddler on the planet – Danny knows that, all other things being equal, he’s the strongest stand up paddler in the world – had a couple of big wins but also a string of disappointing losses.

The Carolina Cup, where Danny was the three-time defending champion, pretty much summed up the 404 front man’s season. After losing touch with Connor and Travis on the initial downwind leg, Danny powered through the flats to rejoin the leaders and put himself in a position to win. But as he and Travis turned out of the inlet for the final one mile “sprint” to the line, Danny immediately lost touch and watched Travis paddle away with his title.

Danny made up for his loss a few weeks later in Sayulita, where he flew in to the ISA Worlds for just 24 hours but flew out with a gold medal around his neck after one of the most incredible distance race comebacks I’ve ever seen.

Continuing the up and down results, Ching withdrew from the prestigious Molokai solo race, though he immediately turned around and took line honours (on a 14 footer no less) with his relay team mate Kaihe Chong. Danny’s rollercoaster of a year didn’t stop there: One month later he won one of the most competitive races of the year, the Gorge course race, before finishing outside the top five in the distance race the very next day.

At the Pacific Paddle Games Danny was a sure bet for the distance race win, but a dramatically shortened course and a finish through the surf allowed Connor Baxter to sneak past him at the death. In the course race, where Danny still would have favoured his chances of taking the overall title, he was caught up in the pure carnage of the mini hammer buoy and forced out of contention.

I’m not sure what 2016 holds for Danny Ching. He’ll probably have a lighter race schedule as he focuses on his business and his family, but I’m sure he’ll be back at the first big race of the season, Carolina, to try and reclaim his crown. That should be a good indicator of where he’s truly at in the pecking order of the world’s best paddlers.

Biggest Results
Gorge Paddle Challenge course race: 1st
ISA Worlds distance race: 1st
Carolina Cup: 2nd
Pacific Paddle Games distance race: 2nd
Race The Lake Of The Sky 5 miler: 1st
Race The Lake Of The Sky 14 miler: 1st

Danny Ching

Danny Ching flying the flag for the Stars & Stripes (photo: Reiko Allen)


#2: Connor Baxter

Brand: Starboard
Nation: Hawaii
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 1
2015 end of season World Ranking: 1 (no change)

It may seem a little harsh that Connor Baxter is only in 2nd position on the Top 15 of 2015 when you look at his numbers:

Started the season ranked world number one, ended the season ranked world number one, won the most competitive race of the year, the Pacific Paddle Games (after perhaps the single greatest comeback of all time in that course race final), won a gold medal at the Worlds, won his fourth-straight OluKai crown, won his sixth-straight Maui 2 Molokai and matched Kai Lenny with 4 individual race wins on the World Series.

In short: It was another massive year for the Maui superstar.

So why isn’t he on top of the Top 15 of 2015?

To understand why Connor Baxter is “only” #2 on our end of year best of list is to understand the extraordinary season that our #1 paddler enjoyed. So, without further ado, the best paddler of 2015 is…


#1: Travis Grant

Brand: NSP
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 5
2015 end of season World Ranking: 2 (+3)

I don’t think many people would argue that Travis Grant was anything but the paddler of 2015.

Trav started the season by winning one of the most important (and second most competitive) races on the calendar: The Carolina Cup. He was the overall champion at the Gorge Paddle Challenge (the third most competitive race of the year), went toe-to-toe with the young guns in the waves at Doheny, and was the only one who kept within shouting distance of Connor Baxter at OluKai (where Connor is unbeatable).

But there’s one race that defined Travis Grant’s season more than any other, and helped cement his spot on top of the Top 15 of 2015: Molokai.

Trav’s win in this year’s Molokai 2 Oahu race was one of the ages.

Despite some of the toughest conditions ever seen (a complete lack of wind and searing heat that forced many contenders, including Connor Baxter, to retire), that David & Goliath battle with Kai Lenny, and stiff competition from his compatriots such as Lincoln Dews, Travis Grant seemed to cruise across the Channel of Bones en route to his second Molokai crown in three years. He looked so relaxed at the finish line that he probably could have turned around and paddled straight back to Molokai.

But it wasn’t just that he won arguably the most prestigious race in the sport: It was the way that he won it.

It was the sheer dominance of Trav’s Molokai 2 Oahu victory that clearly stood out: He crossed the line over 15 minutes in front of runner-up Kai Lenny. He also did it in style, posing for the “Photo of the Year” as he surfed his 17 ft NSP race board down the face of a big south swell off the infamous China Walls.

The fact that Travis Grant is “only” ranked #2 on the SUP Racer World Rankings is mainly due to Molokai being ridiculously underscored by our Race Index formula, which fails to recognise an event’s prestige. That’s something we’ll be addressing in 2016, but for now I don’t think there will be any arguments: Travis Grant was the best paddler in the world this year, and he thoroughly deserves his spot on top of the Top 15 of 2015.

Travis Grant

Travis Grant and *that* photo on his way to victory at Molokai… (photo credit: Dana Edmunds)


The Top 15 of 2015

#1: Travis Grant
#2: Connor Baxter
#3: Danny Ching
#4: Mo Freitas
#5: Titouan Puyo
#6: Kai Lenny
#7: Casper Steinfath
#8: Kelly Margetts
#9: Arthur Arutkin
#10: Georges Cronsteadt
#11: Matt Nottage
#12: Bicho Jimenez
#13: Michael Booth
#14: Leonard Nika
#15: Trevor Tunnington

 


 

Women’s Top 15 of 2015

If ranking the end of season Top 15 Men of 2015 was difficult, ranking the Top 15 Women is downright impossible. And for a few reasons.

Firstly, the top women race each other far less than the top men, which makes it very difficult to compare athlete vs athlete. This is partly because there’s less sponsorship support for women to travel to international events. But it’s mainly because of one very obvious reason: There’s a far shallower depth of talent in women’s SUP racing compared with the men’s side of the sport.

While it may be an unpopular thing to say: I’m disappointed at the lack of growth in women’s stand up paddle racing this year. Despite equal prize money at most of the major events, the size of the men’s elite field still significantly outweighs the women’s. And the gap seems to be growing.

Without wanting to sound too dramatic, I think there’s something of a crisis in women’s SUP racing. While the men’s sport continues to grow each year – there are now incredibly talented athletes that can’t even break into the top 50 on the world rankings – the women’s sport seems to be plateauing. It’s still the same small handful of elite competitors on top, and there’s been little growth in participation. In fact, I daresay there was a decline in participation numbers at many events this year.

It was rare to see more than a dozen women in the pro division at the big races this year. Some races had less than half a dozen. The Waterman League’s flagship event, the World Series Finals at Turtle Bay, saw just four women on the start line of the long distance race.

The biggest women’s elite race of the year was the Carolina Cup Elite Graveyard Race, where 34 women took part. By comparison there was 161 men in the same race.

The Lost Mills was the largest elite women’s race in Europe all summer despite having just 16 starters (there were 91 men in the same race). And even though it had $25,000 up for grabs just for the women, the Payette River Games only saw 20 female athletes competing.

We saw a similar theme at races both big and small around the world all season long: Where were the women?

There must be some reason for this, but I’m scratching my head to figure out what it is.

Yes, there’s less sponsorship available for female athletes, and therefore less travel opportunities. Yes, on average there’s less prize money for women, though the richest events of the year (the $50,000 PRGs and $51,000 PPGs) were both gender equal, as was the Carolina Cup and several other big events. So that doesn’t explain it.

Perhaps “elite” SUP racing just seems too daunting for many women. Perhaps it’s seen as a “man’s world” where you have to be an extreme athlete to compete (which is ironic given the relative slow speeds of stand up paddle boards). Women do indeed make up a much greater percentage of the open race divisions relative to their showing in the elite divisions, so perhaps all that’s missing is a stepping stone to get more women entering the top level races.

Or perhaps it’s the media’s fault? SUP Racer isn’t the only media outlet that’s been attacked for not giving women enough attention in the past, despite the fact we give women a far greater proportion of coverage relative to their participation numbers.

Does the media give less space to women’s SUP racing because there’s less competition compared with the men? Or is there less competition in the women’s races because the media gives them less coverage? There may be a small amount of the latter, but I’d say the reason is overwhelmingly the former.

But the real answer is probably that every stakeholder in the sport is partly to blame: The brands, the events, the media, and even the elite female athletes themselves, who perhaps aren’t doing enough to encourage more women to participate alongside them.

Maybe stand up paddle racing will go the way of pro surfing and mature into a totally male-dominated sport. It certainly appears to be heading that way. That would be a shame, because there is such a small barrier to entry in SUP racing that we really should be seeing more women compete in the top level events. If there’s one ocean sport that should be gender equal, it’s SUP racing.

I don’t want to be a total downer though. There were some extraordinary performances from some extraordinarily talented women this year. There was also a sign of hope for the future, with a group of SoCal teenagers stepping it up and showing how good the next generation of female athletes will be. Plus we saw some new names step it up in Europe, particularly among the Spanish contingent.

I’m confident the future of women’s stand up paddling is bright, but there were definitely some issues raised this year that need to be addressed.


#15: Celine Guesdon

Brand: BIC
Nation: France
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 17
2015 end of season World Ranking: 10 (+7)

Had an up and down year, including a copper medal at the Worlds and a strong showing on the Euro Tour, but also a disastrous finish at the Pacific Paddle Games and a disappointing loss at her home race, the Paris Crossing.

Celine did take out the French Championships once again though, which means she’ll get another shot at flying the flag for Team France in 2016.


#14: April Zilg

Brand: Hobie
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 22
2015 end of season World Ranking: 13 (+9)

Proudly flying the flag for the East Coast of America, April is one of the most likeable paddlers on the women’s scene. Always smiling and enthusiastic, the Wrightsville Beach local enjoyed a string of consistent results, including a top 10 finish at home in the Carolina Cup and solid finishes at the other major races, such as the Gorge Paddle Challenge and the PPGs.


#13: Shelby Taylor

Brand: Riviera
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 39
2015 end of season World Ranking: 12 (+27)

One of the hardest working and most determined paddlers on tour, Shelby is helping lead the charge for the next generation of SUP racing women. The Kentucky-born-turned-Sayulita-local paddler had consistent results all year, from Mexico to California to Europe, including a win in the sprints at Bilbao.

Not only is Shelby a name to watch in the future, she’s also helping train Mexico’s next generation of paddling stars through the Sayulita junior team program.

Lost Mills

Shelby Taylor (and a whole bunch of very talented women) at the Lost Mills race (photo: The Euro Tour)


#12: Manca Notar

Brand: Naish
Nation: Slovenia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 19
2015 end of season World Ranking: 15 (+4)

Manca would probably be a lot higher on this list (and the world rankings in general) if her season hadn’t been so badly interrupted by a combination of injury and studying.

The uber dedicated youngster from the unlikely paddling nation of Slovenia has a bright future ahead of her if she remains committed to her sport, though a promising academic career also beckons if she chooses (Manca has just started studying some kind of hardcore chemistry degree that I can’t even pronounce).

Manca Notar

Manca Notar training at home in Slovenia earlier this year (photo: Marko Notar)


#11: Lexi Alston

Brand: Hobie
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 105
2015 end of season World Ranking: 11 (+94)

That +94 pretty much sums up Lexi Alston. I don’t think anyone outside of San Clemente really knew who Lexi was before this season, but now she’s on the verge of cracking a top 10 world ranking after an incredibly impressive performance at the biggest race of the year.

With a solid south swell turning the Pacific Paddle Games into a destruction derby, Lexi held her nerve to claim a 7th place finish against the top female athletes in the world in the course race. To prove she’s no one trick pony, Lexi also finished 7th in the distance race.

Lexi is shining a bright light in SoCal along with her San Clemente comrades such as Shae Foudy, Erika Benitez, Jade Howson and several more future stars from The Paddle Academy and Performance Paddling teams.

The crazy part? Lexi is only 13 years old. To say she has a promising career ahead of would be an understatement…


#10: Penelope Strickland

Brand: Zenith
Nation: New Zealand
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 29
2015 end of season World Ranking: 9 (+20)

One of the most fiercely competitive athletes on the women’s side of the sport, Penelope Strickland rarely gets the recognition she deserves. She’s a machine in the open ocean, regularly hitting the podium at the big downwind races in Hawaii.

Penelope (or “Pea” as she’s affectionately known) was runner-up to Andrea Moller in Maui 2 Molokai, won the Maui Paddle Champs and, most impressive of all, finished third at Molokai for the second year in a row.

There was also a medal at the ISA Worlds, which helped lift Pea inside the top 10 despite the lack of a major sponsor leaving her unable to compete at some of the big international events.

Penelope Strickland

Penelope Strickland on her way to a second straight Molokai podium (photo: 808photo.me)


#9: Andrea Moller

Brand: SIC
Nation: Brazil
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 15
2015 end of season World Ranking: 14 (+1)

How do you rank an athlete that is quite literally unbeatable on one of the most famous stretches of water in the world of stand up paddling, yet barely registers a blip on the radar outside Hawaii?

Despite a complete lack of results internationally, Andrea set one of the most incredible records in the sport of SUP this year: Winning the OluKai Ho for a record 7th straight year. That’s the longest winning streak on both the women’s and men’s side of the sport, and based on her form on the Maliko run this year, there’s no reason to think Andrea is done just yet.


#8: Terrene Black

Brand: ECS
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 41
2015 end of season World Ranking: 6 (+35)

After an injury hit 2014 saw Terrene begin the season ranked just 41st in the world, the Aussie hit her straps and almost instantly jumped back inside the top 10 where she belongs.

There was a strong 4th place at Carolina, a couple of medals at the Worlds and a string of top results at home in Australia. Always a contender no matter what the conditions.


#7: Shae Foudy

Brand: Riviera
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 8
2015 end of season World Ranking: 8 (no change)

Shae Foudy continues to lead the charge for California’s new wave of future champions. The Riviera star was consistent all year, culminating with an amazing weekend at the Pacific Paddle Games.

Shae stepped it up at the most competitive race of the year, entertaining her home crowd with a 3rd in the distance race and a 6th on the course to finish 4th overall on the biggest stage of the year.

She also picked up the overall win at the under-the-radar Santa Monica Pier Paddle, where she triumphed over both Candice Appleby and Annabel Anderson, plus a pair of impressive finishes up at Lake Tahoe.

The moment Shae Foudy realised she'd won the Santa Monica Pier Paddle. The look on her face says it all... (photo: OnIt Pro)

The moment Shae Foudy realised she’d won the Santa Monica Pier Paddle. The look on her face says it all… (photo: OnIt Pro)


#6: Lina Augaitis

Brand: SIC
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 3
2015 end of season World Ranking: 7 (-4)

Apart from perhaps Andrea Moller, Lina is the hardest woman to rank this year. She was on fire earlier in the season, finishing third at Carolina and picking up medals in Sayulita, before putting in one of the most incredible performances to comfortably win in Bilbao. But then she went on a long break to start a family – Lina’s due to give birth to her first child early in the new year.

New Year’s eve update: Lina actually gave birth today – congratulations!

The fact Lina still holds a world ranking of #7 despite missing half the year shows just how strong the Canadian is.

And the fact she’s already signed up for the 715km (444 mile) Yukon River Quest ultra paddle marathon in June shows that she won’t be using up too much of her maternity leave in 2016…


#5: Angie Jackson

Brand: One
Nation: Australia
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 6
2015 end of season World Ranking: 5 (+1)

Australia’s number one paddler, and one of the hardest training women in the sport, had some big results this year, though she’ll be disappointed there weren’t any major wins in the States.

Angie finished 5th at Carolina and 6th overall at the PPGs, despite setting herself up for a big result after claiming 2nd in the distance race. A lack of wind (and a certain New Zealander) dashed her strong hopes of victory at the Gorge, though Ang finished the year on top by claiming Australia’s most prestigious race – the King of the Cut – for the second year in a row.

Angie Jackson

Angie Jackson on her way to victory in West Oz


#4: Sonni Hönscheid

Brand: SIC
Nation: Germany
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 7
2015 end of season World Ranking: 4 (+3)

As with many of the women on this list, Sonni had a bit of a rollercoaster year. By the end of the season it didn’t look like her heart was in it anymore, with poor results at Doheny and Turtle Bay. However she reached the highest of highs mid-season, taking out back-to-back Molokai 2 Oahu titles.

That win alone cements Sonni’s spot deep inside the Top 15 of 2015, though there were also strong results in Europe and on Maui to solidify her current world ranking of #4.

.

Sonni Honscheid on her way to back-to-back Molokai victories (photo: 808photo.me)


#3: Fiona Wylde

Brand: Starboard
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 4
2015 end of season World Ranking: 3 (+1)

Fiona Wylde has had a big year both on and off the water.

She bravely fought Annabel Anderson at Carolina, going toe-to-toe with the world number one before eventually being swallowed by the experienced chase group in the second half of the race. She finished runner-up at the Payette River Games despite announcing that she’s a type 1 diabetic just days before the event.

Fiona was runner-up in the Gorge distance race (and third in the course race) in front of her Hood River home crowd, before finishing third overall behind Candice and Annabel at Doheny. There were also a victory on the Euro Tour to help cement her solid year.

She probably should have finished the year with a win, however a bizarre points calculation by the Waterman League robbed Fiona of victory at Turtle Bay. Either way, Fiona finishes the year ranked #3 in the world, which neatly matches her position here on the Top 15 of 2015.

Annabel Anderson and Fiona Wylde

Annabel Anderson and Fiona Wylde at Carolina (photo: Chris McQuiston for SUP Racer)


The final two spots I’m going to combine into one summary…

#2: Candice Appleby

Brand: Infinity
Nation: USA
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 2
2015 end of season World Ranking: 2 (no change)

#1: Annabel Anderson

Brand: Lahui Kai
Nation: New Zealand
2015 beginning of season World Ranking: 1
2015 end of season World Ranking: 1 (no change)

This was probably the toughest call of the year.

There were two women who clearly stood out in 2015: Candice and Annabel. It’s been that way for much of the past few seasons, but this year the rivalry was closer than ever. Though, oddly, it was more of a “Cold War” style rivalry, fought in proxy at separate events rather than head-to-head.

Despite being the top two women in the sport, Candice and Annabel rarely competed against each other this season. They were both at the Payette River Games but neither made the whitewater podium, and they were both at the smaller Santa Monica Pier Paddle, but Shae Foudy took the overall win there (though Annabel did win the distance race).

Instead, Candice and Annabel had two very different race schedules this season.

Annabel was dominant at the Carolina Cup (the second most competitive women’s race of the year according to our Race Index) and Gorge Paddle Challenge (third most competitive), neither of which Candice attended.

Meanwhile Candice dominated the World Series, which Annabel (and many of the other top athletes) don’t compete in.

The only genuine showdown between the top two ladies came at Doheny, when Candice triumphed in the biggest race of the year: The Pacific Paddle Games.

It was a vintage performance from Appleby, with the Infinity team rider winding back the clock and dominating on her home turf the way she did in 2010 and 2011. She set the pace the whole way in the distance race, before mastering the surf to first reel in and then leave Annabel behind in the surf race final.

Throw in a couple of gold medals at the ISA Worlds and it was clearly a massive year for Candice.

Pacific Paddle Games

Candice claiming victory at the biggest race of the year (photo: Andrew Welker for SUP Racer)

So with all the wins, why is Candice “only” #2? It would be easy (and perhaps lazy) for me to just point to the SUP Racer World Rankings, where Annabel enjoys a healthy lead over Candice on top of the leaderboard. But their season was much closer than the world rankings suggest.

(The large difference in points is due to Annabel’s events, such as Carolina and the Gorge, counting for far more on the Race Index than Candice’s events, such as the World Series and the ISA Worlds, which had relatively shallow fields).

So why did I give the nod to Annabel? Apart from her crushing victory at Carolina (and her double win at the Gorge), the main reason I believe Annabel Anderson has been the best paddler in the world this year is because of Molokai.

Molokai 2 Oahu is arguably the hardest race in the world. Just getting to the start line is a mission, let alone crossing the Ka’iwi Channel. This year, competitors were faced with some of the slowest and most grueling conditions the race has ever thrown up.

Molokai is also a race that you don’t just show up for when you feel like it. As Dave Kalama said: “You don’t just say ‘Oh I’m not doing anything this weekend, maybe I’ll do the Molokai.'”

But that’s exactly what Annabel did. With barely two weeks preparation and a board she’d hardly paddled, Annabel entered Molokai at the last minute and almost came away with a miraculous victory. In the end Sonni got her well deserved back-to-back title, but Annabel’s overall runner-up performance on a stock class board will long be remembered.

It was that freakish performance that gives Annabel the nod as the Top Paddler of 2015. But only just.

Either way, it’s been another huge year for both Candice and Annabel, and I sincerely hope we get to see them go head-to-head more often next year.

Annabel Anderson

Annabel Anderson racing across the Ka’iwi Channel on a 14 footer (photo: 808photo.me)


The Top 15 of 2015

#1: Annabel Anderson
#2: Candice Appleby
#3: Fiona Wylde
#4: Sonni Honscheid
#5: Angie Jackson
#6: Lina Augaitis
#7: Shae Foudy
#8: Terrene Black
#9: Andrea Moller
#10: Penelope Strickland
#11: Lexi Alston
#12: Manca Notar
#13: Shelby Taylor
#14: April Zilg
#15: Celine Guesdon


So there you go. Those were the Top 15 paddlers in the world this year, at least in my opinion.

Agree? Disagree? Head back to the original Facebook post and leave a comment or critique.