Connor Baxter is 15 years old when he gingerly holds his first $4,000 check. His arms are about as thick as a carbon-fiber paddle shaft, his legs not much more so. He weighs just north of 100 pounds with a patch of sun-bleached blond hair and a baby blue cap perched on top. A small, humble smile escapes his lips. Next to him is a lineup of standup paddling's early elite downwind paddlers: Dave Kalama, SUP godfather; Livio Menelau, Maui-based downwind savant; Mark Raaphorst, revolutionary downwind shaper; and early SUP pioneer Ekolu Kalama. None of them are smiling.
And they have reason not to be. Baxter, literally half the size of some of them, just beat them all on a 26-mile paddle in the first-ever standup Maui 2 Molokai race, often won that very same race, Maui 2 Molokai, against a stacked field of the world's top downwind paddlers, for the eighth time in a row.
That's not to mention his three Molokai 2 Oahu titles, his two Pacific Paddles Games championships, his Battle of the Paddle victory, his two Standup World Series championships and countless other victories. He's literally been the face of SUP racing as the activity has matured into a truly professional sport. He's been winning for the better part of a decade. And he's only 23.
But there are curious cracks and inconsistencies in his understated world-domination brand of mellow. I've followed Baxter's career closely for the last five years that I've worked at this magazine. I've watched him ride the peaks of those victories, but also suffer some tough defeats as the competition only gets faster. He has always acted humble and spoken honestly with me, sharing feelings without hesitation and opening up about the fact that life in the front is not always perfect. As he's shared the struggles of being racing's lead man, I've begun to wonder: What motivates him to stay there?
In 2013, I sat down with Baxter at a quirky stone Mexican restaurant in San Clemente, California. He was with his mother, Karen. It was a few days before the Battle of the Paddle. Baxter was finishing a big season and this was the final big race of the year. He looked tired. He told me that too.
"I'm exhausted, man," he said as he slouched back in a wood-carved booth. "All I've been doing is racing, racing, racing. I can't wait to get home and just surf."
I was surprised to hear that. Prior to the biggest race of the year, you would expect a former event champion to be glaringly focused and ready to take the head off any competitor--or at least tell that to the media. All of the best paddlers in the world had descended on Orange County to take on the surf-race course at Doheny State Beach and here was Baxter, a favorite, looking detached and physically tired only a few days prior.
Over the weekend, it didn't look like he was there to win. Sure, he was in the mix in the small waves and light winds. He even almost pulled off a come-from-behind victory. But the weekend belonged to Kai Lenny, two years Baxter's senior and his greatest racing rival, who also grew up on Maui. Lenny's victory was unflinching. He earned it the hard way: outpacing his opponents in the flats with muscle, sweat and guts. At the finish line, panting and covered in sweat and salt, Baxter just shrugged and gave Lenny a hug. All that was left was to go home, surf and get ready for another year of racing.It was a clear, windy day on the north shore of Maui. Trucks and vans and SUVs lurched over the rocks in Maliko Gulch to drop paddlers off for the gulch's namesake world-famous downwind run. The crew I was with unstrapped their boards and started prepping for miles of glides. I looked up from leashing my board to see someone sprinting around the protected waters of the gulch. I recognized the stroke immediately: It was Baxter himself, down from his place in the green hills of Haiku to do his home run. His long torso and limbs looked made for leverage. He was in his signature choke-stroke mode, familiar to any fan of SUP racing: back arching, paddle hammering, board flying.
He did one circle of the bay, two, then three, then four. Most people are content to just paddle Maliko, but if you want to be the best in the world, you have to do things differently. After many hot laps, Baxter sped out of the gulch and was gone into the wind like a balloon drifting from a birthday party.
Discipline like that did not come naturally, however. Baxter's early training partner Bart de Zwart remembers dragging him to training sessions in Kahului Harbor.
"We raced between buoys every day for an hour," de Zwart says. "We were one of the few that trained every day at that point."
That early regimen gave Baxter the edge he needed to come out and take the world by surprise, beginning by winning both Molokai 2 Oahu and the Battle of the Paddle in 2011. Victory is a potent drug, especially at first.
"When I was young, I was like, 'I'm gonna beat all these adults--can't wait, can't wait, can't wait,'" Baxter laughs. "I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
But in a matter of a few years, he became the man with the target on his back.
"Connor took (training) seriously and when you start winning and you stay on top of the training, if (the competition) gets better, you do too," de Zwart says. "That's how he's been able to stay on top."
That kind of dedication is not without sacrifice. Zane Schweitzer, Baxter's best friend and Ultimate Waterman repeat winner, saw his friend choose dedication to his craft over pure fun.
"Even when we were younger, Connor focused on the racing side, even when he didn't want to," Schweitzer says. "He was more passionate in the surf but he had more success in racing. Even then he put fun aside and worked."
Staying on top means even more work and less fun these days. Baxter is an avid windsurfer, surfer, big-wave surfer, kiteboarder and foilboarder. But those activities have to come second to racing, especially today.
In the seven years since Baxter started competing, SUP racing has gone from a novelty to a sport. The elite end of the sport is getting much sharper with an international cadre of hungry world-touring racers such as Michael Booth, Casper Steinfath and Titouan Puyo drafting off his wake--and sometimes knocking him off the top spot. These athletes are now on serious training programs and diets and are hiring coaches to hone their edges. Baxter himself is working with former Olympic canoe paddler Larry Cain of Paddle Monster to keep himself on track.
Christopher Parker, the authority behind SUPracer.com, sees that diligence.
"Over the past few years he's really matured," Parker says. "He trains meticulously, he takes it very seriously. It's gone from something fun he's done as a kid to a job."
And although he's challenged more than ever, he keeps finding a way to win.
"Right now, I consider him more of an authoritative world number one than ever," Parker says. "He's arguably as dominant as he's ever been."
You cannot tell the story of Connor without Kai. The two have had the greatest rivalry the young sport of standup has ever seen. It's almost too good to be true. They grew up in the same place, were both juniors competing against the adults in windsurfing, had many of the same mentors (including Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton), and picked up SUP early. They went on to be the two most competitive young guns in the sport, ushering in a new generation of racing against a still-relevant posse of racers such as Travis Grant and Danny Ching. They went tit for tat, bumping rails and stealing the top of the podium from each other like it was a playground seesaw. They've both won Battle of the Paddles. They've both held the record for fastest Molokai 2 Oahu crossing (a record Grant holds now but Baxter definitely wants back). They've both won racing World Series championships.
And they couldn't be more different.
They are, as Kalama puts it, standup paddling's Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. "Kai is Magic, Hollywood glitz and glamor. Connor is Bird, a normal, quiet dude, but put a board under his feet and he was almost born to do it."
Their most infamous duel was in the 2014 Battle of the Paddle, held in a heavy south swell at the dumpy beachbreak known as Salt Creek, only a few miles from the traditional home of the race at Doheny State Beach. During the final, Baxter and Lenny were neck-and-neck and, with a lap to go, riding the same wave in. Lenny was on the inside and drawing a high line to push Baxter out of the wave. Baxter was having none of it. He stomped a cutback--putting his board down right on top of the nose of Lenny's. Kai went down but not before diving forward and grabbing a handle on Baxter's board and taking him down with him. The incident happened only yards from hundreds of spectators on the beach and was immortalized on video: The two best racers in the sport doing whatever it took to win. No one made a formal complaint and Lenny went on to secure his second BOP title.
As far as Baxter's concerned, all of their clashes have only made him better.
"What he did for me is beyond explanation," Baxter says. "As a competitor he pushed me to levels I never thought I could go to."
When Lenny gets a win, it makes Baxter want it that much more and vice versa. Lenny sees Baxter's dominance as a result of his dedication, natural physique and mental fortitude.
"He knows how to hurt," Lenny says. "Especially in an endurance race; you have to put that pain away and Connor can definitely do that."
These days, they don't find themselves on the same start line as often. Lenny is not only the poster child for SUP but for ocean sports at large. He gets invited to the XXL Big Wave Awards, had a Web series "Positively Kai," and does things like race the Oracle USA sailboat that competes in the America's Cup. He's sponsored by the likes of Red Bull and Tag Heuer. He has 179,000 Instagram followers.
Baxter is different. He has 27 thousand followers on Instagram. He has big sponsors but still makes a large chunk of his income from race winnings. The biggest difference, though, is when you hear him out. As I found out, Baxter is laid back and up front. When he's off the water, he's a regular guy.
"Some people are big names in whatever their thing is and they have 'It,' that star quality," Kalama says. "If we're being honest, Connor doesn't have that. He identifies with people and when he has a conversation with you, it's real."
Despite their differences on and off the water, when they line up board-to-board, it all goes back to the beginning.
"I've known him for as long as I can remember," Lenny says. "We've been competing against each other our entire lives; it becomes second nature. It's like nothing changed except the sport."Baxter's home on Maui is peaceful. Last year, I swung by his modest Haiku oasis to have a chat before a red-eye flight. His now-fiancé, Anae, and all-around SUP standout Mo Freitas were in the kitchen working on the dinner dishes as Baxter gave me the quick tour. Fins were laid out on the table and flip-flops were piled near the door. It seemed a normal place, not the home of a world champion.
We sat on the lanai and talked, enjoying a languid breeze from a recent squall. He didn't mind discussing himself, but he also didn't brag. He was aware that he was one of the best in the world, but also saw himself as a normal guy.
"It's how I was raised," he said. "My dad knew I wanted to be a pro athlete and he just drilled it into my ears, everywhere you go, spread aloha, share that, no matter who you are. We're humans: We both eat food and poop food. It's not like we're any different."
He was also raised to be in the water. Karen was a pro windsurfer and Keith raced for Hobie Cat. As Baxter and his older sister Ashley were growing up, the folks ran a windsurf shop near Kanaha. The kids were in the water early and constantly, windsurfing, surfing and eventually, standup paddling.
"I would say we probably pushed them into the water lifestyle," Karen laughs. "When I was pregnant, I was windsurfing until I couldn't windsurf anymore. Connor was in my belly and I would go out on a boogie board."
Zane Schweitzer, whose parents knew Keith and Karen well before the kids came along, is family to the Baxters as well. His first memory of meeting Baxter was in the back of their shop, when both the boys were still single digits. Baxter was playing in the board delivery boxes and Schweitzer was more than happy to join them while their parents talked.
Now, Schweitzer is one of the world's top SUP surfers and personalities in the sport. Despite all their success, he thinks his best friend hasn't changed much.
"Not too much at all," Schweitzer says. "When I look at him I see that young, skinny kid even though he's a foot and a half taller. He's still Connor."Schweitzer does say that they've both struggled to keep the passion for their work alive with hectic travel schedules, nonstop competitions and sponsor pressure. They know they're blessed but being on the road for years on end is taxing.
"We're both in love with it but sometimes it's hard to say where that motivation comes from," Schweitzer says. "I think the thought of the Olympics is really driving him now."
It's hard to imagine the person sitting across from me on that rainy afternoon in Haiku as a potential Olympian. But then again, he's not on the water. Schweitzer puts it all in perspective.
"I think a lot of people know Connor as a great competitor but I don't think a lot of people see how loyal of a friend he is and how good a person he is," Schweitzer says. "He's not only a brother to me, but he's loyal to whatever he wants to do."
As I talked to more and more people about Baxter, I kept hearing the same thing over again: "He's just a normal guy." That fits, but I'm a normal guy too. Becoming, and staying, the world's leading SUP racer? That's not normal. So I called him yet again to find out more.
When Baxter picks up my call he's in Biarritz, the seaside surf town in the south of France. He's prepping for a yet another weekend of racing on the 2017 Euro Tour. I can hear seagulls guffawing and scooters whining as we talk about the struggle to stay racing at the elite level. Is he "psyched" and feeling strong?
"Psyched is not exactly the word I would use," Baxter laughs. "I'm kind of getting over this flatwater bullshit. It's flatwater distance eveeerrrryyyy weekend. That's kind of Europe in general. But it's cool."
But then he tells you that it's not that cool. Baxter is an ocean guy and he likes racing in the surf and wind. That's where he shines and that's where his mind lives. Racing between 20 to 25 races per year, every year starts to put aches in your body and holes in your desire.
Michael Booth, the Australian upstart who came out of nowhere to challenge the top SUP paddlers, had secured the Euro Tour overall title the weekend before and denied Baxter his third straight title. How does Baxter keep his head up when everyone is trying to knock him into the water?
"Standup is the first sport I've been a part of where we're talking, communicating during the race, before the race, after the race," Baxter says. "Of course it gets heavy on the water with guys like Kai and Boothy. We race hard, we say stuff, we put boards between each other's legs and we push each other but crossing that finish line you take a couple deep breaths, shake it off and have a beer with them."
For Baxter that motivation is deeper than just the water.
"Most of my motivation comes from wanting to be part of this sport year to year and set the path," Baxter says. "Danny (Ching), Travis (Grant), Dave (Kalama) started laying the foundation and really brought the sport to another level."
"I want to be the guy that actually finishes what they started," he adds. "I want to be the Kelly Slater of SUP. I want to be looked up to and respected from the top competitors to the kids just getting into the sport."It's a good sentiment and I believe every word of it. But I also wonder if that's enough to keep him at the front of the draft train for years to come. He's just turned 23 and he's as tired as he's ever been.
"The body the mind, everything is slowly--not breaking down--but it's not as motivated and as hyped," he says.
There's a plan for that. Baxter--who's threatened this before--wants to cut his schedule down to 10 or so events through the year to focus on competitions he's excited about. He mentions the APP World Tour, which continues to have its share of problems, and marquee events such as Molokai 2 Oahu and the Pacific Paddle Games.
That isn't the schedule of a young, hungry racer; it's a path that other veteran competitors such as Ching and Grant have employed for years to stay focused and on the podium over time.
Moves like that are smart. They are strategic. They are the type of decision that a homeowner, a fiancé and a career man would make.
Because Connor Baxter is all of those things now. Above all, though, he's just a normal guy. A normal guy whose job is to be the fastest standup paddler in the world.
Related: race training with Connor Baxter