Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny weren't so friendly after this year's Battle of the Paddle. Emphasis on battle. Photo: Jason Kenworthy, 2013

Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny weren’t so friendly after this year’s Battle of the Paddle. Emphasis on battle. Photo: Jason Kenworthy

If you were at the 2014 Battle of the Paddle Elite Race last Saturday at Salt Creek Beach, or if you read a recap or talked to anybody about it, you inevitably heard about “The Wave,” where now-two-time champ Kai Lenny and 2011 winner Connor Baxter played an aggressive game of bumper boards until they both went down. Lenny was able to regain his composure and go on to win the race. The beach was alive with chatter. Was it fair? Do there need to be rules in place for this sort of thing? Who’s at fault?

Now that we’ve received press releases from every conceivable source on the matter, read page upon page of forum posts and heard all sorts of industry insiders opine on the hot topic, here’s our take:

An episode of this magnitude has been brewing for some time. Baxter and Lenny have been at the forefront of racing for a couple of years now and there’s a lot of insider talk about how these two go at it in competition. It finally came to a head at the biggest event of the year.

Video by Joe Carberry
Click here for more angles.

So when these two top contenders found themselves on the same wave (with Danny Ching behind them) in the lead pack on the second lap of the final, there was a lot on the line. After reviewing the video time and again there are some clear facts: First, Lenny is riding high in the pocket, taking prime real estate on the wave and driving Baxter off, which would have cost him precious seconds. Second, Baxter does two cutbacks, one where his board cuts under Lenny’s nose and they both keep riding (check the link above), and another where he stomps his nose on top of Lenny’s (see video). Third, on that second, much more aggressive cutback, Lenny goes off balance and in the process of falling, jumps forward and grabs Baxter’s rail handle, taking Baxter down with him. Lenny went on to win the race. Baxter was reportedly hit in the head by Lenny’s board, was a little disoriented and wasn’t able to get back to the lead pack.

Now, a lot of the discussion we’ve been reading and hearing takes sides onto who was right and who was wrong. We’re not going there. As far as SUP magazine is concerned, both played dirty and both of them paid the price by going down. It’s hard to blame either in that position. Many of us would have reacted the same way.

And think about it: athletes bend and break the rules in sports all the time. Think of penalties in a football game, interference calls in pro surfing, slide tackles in soccer. As my high school football coach used to say, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” That’s why there are referees.

Baxter and Lenny are arguably two of the top athletes in our sport right now, but people want them to be golden boys: nice, friendly guys. Just two paddlers that grew up on Maui together. And, at the heart of it, they are really great dudes.

But that’s not the way it works. The stakes have gotten way too high. We can’t expect there to be no grappling and bending of the rules in the midst of the most important, and intense, paddling competition on the planet. These guys want to win for themselves, for their sponsors and for the their fans.

It’s so easy to argue that this kind of episode is great for the sport. Here we all are, six days later, still talking about “The Wave.” Great rivalries are great for sports. Where would pro surfing be without Slater and Irons, basketball without Magic and Bird, boxing without Ali and Frazier, tennis without Agassi and Sampras? It’s a reality of competitive sports: friendship is on the back-burner when you’re on the bleeding edge. And from here on out in SUP, that’s the way it’ll be. We’re in a new era. Rivalries bring more viewers, more players, more money and more recognition. Standup has entered the big leagues.

When we asked Lenny about it right after the race, he said, “That's why the call it the Battle of the Paddle. Me and Connor have been rubbing boards a lot this season. We were on that wave just going at it and he put his board on top of mine and I fell on his board and it stopped him and everything went crazy. I guess that's racing."

Exactly. Pretty solid PR statement from a guy who’d just crossed the finish line after battling back from third to take the title (another sign of a top athlete). We reached out to Lenny for further comment and haven’t heard back.

This “spicy exchange,” as we called it on our Facebook page the day after the race, is probably going to bring change from race organizers with new rules and regulations as Baxter noted: “What I (did) was too much for sure but I had a good reason to because Kai was pushing me north of the beach run,” he wrote to us in an email. “There needs to be rules and what we did made everyone realize we need rules.”

But no protests were filed in the fifteen-minute allowance period. Lenny stood atop the podium for the second year in a row.

“You can't change results now, you can't take money away,” Ching said. “I think (Rainbow is) gonna get it right (going forward). We've always had the gray area ‘Rubbing is racing,’ but we went over the line and now we need rules. It’s the time where officials have to draw a line.”

Event director Barrett Tester reiterated that sentiment.

“After reviewing the video the next day, it’s obviously clear that both athletes conduct themselves in poor fashion,” Tester said. “We see that no doubt, but we're not changing our rules (they allow for claims to be made for only 15 minutes after the race). They know we're going to look a lot closer next year.”

Yes, this incident will probably bring new rules to the forefront. But the physicality of the Battle of the Paddle is what makes it so great. We’re never going to judge two young athletes for something we would do in the same situation. And regardless, top competitors will always find a way to gain an advantage in the heat of competition which almost always means bending the rules. Winning, that’s what elite sports are all about. And mark our words: this rivalry between Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny will only make the sport better, and more closely followed by the masses, for years to come. —Will Taylor

Read Connor’s and Kai’s reactions here.

Check out the full Elite Race recap here.