Pro Activity | Connor Baxter Triumphs A Roller Coaster Race Season

connor baxter ppg

Connor Baxter comes from well behind in the Elite Distance Race at the 2015 Pacific Paddle Games presented by Salt Life to overtake runner-up Danny Ching, overcome debilitating injury and overachieve after his devastating loss at M2O earlier this season. Photo: Mike Misselwitz

Pro Activity | Connor Baxter

How Connor Baxter Bounced Back From M2O Heartbreak to Win #PPG2015

Going into the 2015 Molokai 2 Oahu race, Connor Baxter had good reason to be confident. He's been crossing The Channel of Bones—the punishing 32-mile open-ocean crossing between Molokai and Oahu—since he was 14, he's won the famed event three times and holds the course record. He knew his preparation hadn't been perfect, having trained less than usual leading up to M2O due to his incredibly demanding travel schedule, along with the small matter of fixing up a new house on Maui. But with a convincing win in the Olukai Ho'o under his belt, Baxter generally felt strong going into M2O.

Then, everything went wrong.

Baxter powered through 18 grueling miles at M2O in severe shoulder and back pain before his support crew made him pull out of the race. No doubt, he'll be back with a vengeance for his favorite race of the season next year. Photo: Erik Aeder

Baxter powered through 18 grueling miles at M2O in severe shoulder and back pain before his support crew made him pull out of the race. No doubt, he’ll be back with a vengeance for his favorite race of the season next year. Photo: Erik Aeder

Early in the race, the shoulder issue Baxter struggled with early in the season flared up, delivering a painful stab with every powerful stroke. Then his stomach revolted, first cramping and then refusing to accept the hydration formula he was using to refuel. Before long, he was throwing up while he watched a group of racers, led by Travis Grant and Kai Lenny, pull away in the unusually hot, flat conditions. Though he somehow pushed on for 18 miles, Baxter eventually submitted to the decision of his father and support crew: he had to withdraw.

Though the paddling community rallied to show its support, Baxter was mentally and physically crushed. "I'd been looking forward to Molokai all year, and being forced to stop was the worst experience of my career," the 21-year-old said. "I didn't want to give up, but my crew saw that I was really hurting myself out there."

 

 

 

Connor Baxter earns the win the hard way with a come-behind victory over Danny Ching to take the Pro Distance win at #PPG2015 presented by Salt Life.

Acting on the wise advice of his parents and girlfriend, Baxter took a few days to recuperate physically. Getting his mind right wasn't going to be so easy. He knew that there were several major events coming up fast, including the Payette River Games, Columbia River Gorge and The Pacific Paddle Games, but he couldn't seem to get his head around what had just transpired during M2O.

"It really knocked my confidence and I started questioning myself," Baxter said. "Eventually I realized that I'm still young and there will be plenty of other chances to prove myself. What happened in Molokai didn't show who I really am."

As the season progressed, Baxter's shoulder, and ego, began to heal and he was able to secure a win at the Standup World Series event—the Hayama Pro—in Japan.

Still, at the start of the Pacific Paddle Games, the formbook had several racers ranked ahead of Baxter, including Molokai champion Travis Grant, Payette victor Mo Freitas, Columbia Gorge winner Kelly Margetts and a man who has proven himself at Doheny State Beach time and time again, Danny Ching.

"Though there was some new stuff at PPG – like the buoys and coming in and out of the surf on 14-foot boards—I felt really relaxed," Baxter said.

And this sense of calm was evident when it mattered most. Baxter came from behind to overtake Danny Ching on the beach sprint, taking the distance race by two seconds. But in the Men's Elite Technical Race final on Sunday, it was Mo Freitas who dominated, establishing an early lead and carrying it to victory followed by runner-up Casper Steinfath and third-place finisher Kody Kerbox. Baxter was neck-and-neck with several other racers until one last wave came his way. With the overall title on the line, he caught it and pulled away from the pack. Even before the judges totaled up the combined scores, it was evident that Baxter's fourth-place finish was enough: He'd overcome the crushing result at Molokai to win the biggest two-day event of the year. Baxter followed up the #PPG2015 title up with second place overall in the Standup World Series after going head-to-head with friend and rival Kai Lenny in the final stop at Turtle Bay.

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Baxter narrowly missed another World Champion racing title on the Standup World Series after a neck-and-neck finish behind Kai Lenny at the World Series Finals in Turtle Bay. Looking strong as ever for 2016, chances are Lenny won’t have it so easy next year. Photo: Waterman League

Now that the 2015 race season is over, Baxter is back on Maui and enjoying the respite from the rigors of non-stop travel and competition. He says he hasn't even set foot on a SUP since returning home, and is instead splitting his time between house refurbishments and shortboarding. While he knows that prep for the 2016 calendar will begin soon, Baxter is also preparing to take on other challenges this winter.

"I'm going to try and get more comfortable in SUP surfing big waves, and just get back to having fun in the water," he said. "When it's time for Molokai, I'll make sure I'm ready."

More info on the 2015 SUP Awards third-place Male Paddler of the Year.

Revisit the 2015 Molokai 2 Oahu with our exclusive gallery and race recap.

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