Travis Baptiste: Toughing It Out to an M2O Victory
Last summer, Travis Baptiste stunned the water sports world when he won the stock category at the 2013 Molokai2Oahu World Championships (M2O). It wasn't his success that was surprising–as Baptiste has long been considered one of Hawaii's top young SUP talents–but his age: he had just turned 16. This time around at M2O, Baptiste's fellow competitors knew all about his capabilities, but the knowledge did nothing to help them, as the 17-year-old once again claimed the title of Stock Class Champion. But, as we found out from Baptiste afterwards, his title defense was no sure thing and in fact, the Maui native almost didn't put into the 'Channel of Bones' at all.
In the run up to this year's M2O, Baptiste's training was going well. In addition to putting in hours each week on his SUP and surf boards, he'd been spending a lot of time cross training in outriggers at Kihei Canoe Club. But then, two weeks before the biggest open ocean race of the year, things started unraveling when he got a sore throat.
"At first I thought I was just coming down with something, but it got so bad that I couldn't talk, eat or drink," Baptise said. "This sounds gross, but I had to keep spitting out saliva because I couldn't swallow."
Baptiste's doctor was so concerned that he sent him to the emergency room, where physicians found an olive-size abscess in the back of his throat. Though lancing the abscess provided some relief after the initial stinging from the procedure subsided, Baptiste lost seven pounds from being unable to eat.
For a lean paddler who's still growing, the weight loss would be quite a setback at any time. But, just before a 32-mile island crossing, it was a disaster.
"My training went downhill and I could hardly get out on the water," Baptiste said. "And when I did paddle, I couldn't go very far, had no speed, and had to sleep a long time afterwards."
Having put in so much prep time, Baptiste decided that he couldn't just abandon his M2O title defense. So, when fellow M2O champ Connor Baxter asked if he wanted a ride to the race start on his family's boat, Baptiste figured he'd go for it and see what happened. His throat had other ideas.
On the way to Molokai, Baptiste felt a searing pain again. Soon enough, it was so bad that again, he had difficulty swallowing. This was 48 hours before race time. A second trip to the emergency room failed to provide meaningful relief, and it took a knife pressed to the back of Baptiste's throat the next day to drain the abscess. At this point, most people wouldn't have even considered stepping on their board for a leisurely paddle, let alone competing in arguably the world's toughest downwinder against a field chock-full of talent. But then, Baptiste isn't most people.
"I had no idea if I could make it to the end of the race, but I just hoped my training would carry me through if I could get a good start," he said.
In the end, despite the weight loss, dehydration, and lack of sleep, that year of hard paddling was indeed enough, and then some. The 17-year-old didn't just win the 14' stock class for the second straight year, but also took fifth place overall, ahead of many more experienced racers who were competing on longer unlimited boards.
So, we asked Baptiste why he's drawn to the shorter boards like one of his mentors, Jeremy Riggs. "Racing an unlimited board is great, but it's a more challenging ride on a stock board." "I like getting toward the back of my 14-footer and hopping between the wind waves you get on a downwinder like Molokai. It's fun proving that a stock board can go fast, too."
Another factor contributing to the speed and sustained power that Baptiste showcased in winning back-to-back Molokai stock titles is the mileage he logged in different craft during the past year, particularly a six-man outrigger canoe. When we spoke with Baptiste, he was sitting under a tree cooling off with his mom, Judie, after completing a grueling 26-mile canoe race in which his team finished third.
"Paddling a heavier craft like a six-man outrigger has definitely made my SUP stroke more powerful and increased my endurance," Baptiste said. "That's what carried me through at Molokai this year even though I was sick."
In addition to his 4 a.m. solo workouts in the dark at Kihei Canoe Club and after school paddles, Baptiste is starting to expand his SUP reach beyond his local waters. A couple of weeks ago he accompanied his mentor and part-time coach, Danny Ching, to the 2014 Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge, where he finished ninth in the Double Down long distance event.
Baptiste and Ching have grown close over the years after first meeting at the 2010 Battle of the Paddle Hawaii, where Ching won the 5- and 10-mile events (the first of his clean sweeps in that year's two BOP competitions) and Baptiste won the boys 13 to 14 category. When race organizers presented Baptiste with a new board for his win, several friends wanted to buy it from him. Instead, Baptiste generously presented the board to a younger child.
"When Travis gave his board away, the boy had a huge smile, but Travis's was even bigger," Judie said. "Someone titled a picture of it 'The Gift of Giving' and that's just right. Danny was really impressed, and having gotten to know him the past few years, I have seen that he's just as generous."
When a bashful Baptiste took the phone back from his mom, he didn't want to talk about his own generosity, but rather what he's learning from Ching: "Watching Danny has given me an education on what it takes to reach the top and what it means to be a true waterman," he said. "It's not just what he does on the water—he's constantly paying his blessings forward by giving back. I've seen him sign a kid's hat and then give the pen back and ask the kid to sign his own hat. That makes people feel special."
While Baptiste wants to follow Ching's lead in SUP and lists a top 10 finish at BOP as one of his goals, he's not allowing his focus on the sport to exclude everything else from his life. Like most of the senior class at Baldwin High School, Baptiste likes to goof around with friends, eat a burger or two while he's "still young and can get away with enjoying food," and attend the school's football games on Friday nights (though unlike the rest of his crew, he's usually in bed by 9:00 pm so he's ready for those pre-dawn training sessions).
When he graduates, Baptiste will continue racing and plans to work at a Maui hotel leading canoe tours while studying business or hospitality and tourism at a college on the island. He's just a "normal kid," he claims. Yeah, a normal kid, who happens to have a couple of world championship SUP trophies on the mantel.
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