Time Out with Titouan Puyo
Ask anyone in the SUP world to name a French paddler in the past few years and they'd automatically tell you, "Eric Terrien." And with good reason as "ET" has won races worldwide and established himself as one of the top European pros. But if you re-ask the question now, there might be a pause before that automatic response because there's a new French standout you should know: Titouan Puyo.
18 months ago, nobody on the SUP scene knew who Puyo was. Then, the resident of tiny New Caledonia, an island and French protectorate 750 miles off Australia's east coast came out of nowhere to win the distance event at the inaugural French National Titles. This earned him a place (alongside Terrien, of course) at the ISA World SUP and Paddleboarding Championships in Nicaragua in May 2014. With the likes of Slater Trout and Chuck Glynn from the US, as well as a host of firmly established international stars competing, it's fair to say that Puyo wasn't among the pre-event favorites. But again, the 23-year-old shocked everyone as he charged into the lead, held off a strong challenge from ET and won the distance event. Puyo had just served notice that not only was there another Frenchman on the SUP scene, but one with world championship winning pedigree.
Growing on up an island, it's almost impossible to not be immersed in water sports culture from an early age. And so it was with Puyo, who started competing in outrigger paddling back in 2003, when he was 12. It wasn't until two years ago that he discovered standup paddling. Yeah, you read that right–from zero experience to world champ in just two years.
"I first started standup paddling to cruise in the Caledonian lagoon and discover the ocean from above," Puyo said. "Afterwards I really loved the way you can catch bumps standing up and feel like you’re surfing."
And once he caught the standup bug, there was no going back. Puyo began entering local races in North Caledonia, where the sport is, as on many islands, blowing up. As he continued honing his open ocean skills in and beyond the lagoon, the then-21-year-old also started SUP surfing at breaks such as Dumbea and Tenia.
"The coast and the wind allow us to have amazing downwind conditions and thanks to the barrier reef we have pretty good waves," he said.
While many SUP newbies have little prior experience in other disciplines, Puyo's background in surfski and outrigger enabled him to develop an intentional approach to improving, as well as providing paddling mechanics that transferred from seated craft to his SUP board.
"My outrigger background really helped me have good posture for SUP and I also knew how to train and implement a training plan," Puyo said. "I’m lucky that we have perfect downwinders on NC [islanders' abbreviation for New Caledonia] and I learned really early how to read the ocean and catch bumps around–something which really helped me on in standup."
It wasn't long before Puyo became confident enough in his skills to go beyond racing against his friends in local events and take on some of the biggest names in the sport. His first major competition was at the inaugural French Distance Titles ("Championnats de France Stand Up Paddle") in the picturesque venue of Carnet, in the south of France. In addition to featuring Terrien, arguably France's premier paddler, the field boasted such talent as Arthur Arutkin and Gaétan Sené, who have both proven themselves at World Series events across the globe. And yet, despite lining up against racers with far more experience, Puyo was undaunted and served notice that he belonged as powerful stroke after powerful stroke propelled him into the leading pack in the distance race.
Arutkin and Terrien kept charging hard until the end, but Puyo reeled in and passed them to win the 18-kilometer (just over 11 miles) event. The next day, Puyo followed the win by placing third in the shorter course race. Out of nowhere, France had found another top talent, who'd not only won his first major title but also booked a place on the French National Team for the ISA World Standup Paddle and Paddleboard Championship in Nicaragua.
"I'd never really competed against such a good field of paddlers and it was a great learning experience," Puyo said. "I learned that even when you’re behind you still have a chance to win."
Puyo's unexpected victory didn't just earn the respect of his fellow athletes, but also gained him international exposure. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the young man from the little-known Pacific island and Starboard signed him to its roster. And so began a new chapter in Puyo's life, in which he would not only enjoy the thrill of taking on top SUP talent worldwide, but also have to learn how to eat well and recover between long flights and bus rides. As is his easygoing way, Puyo seemed to take these new challenges in stride (or should that be stroke?).
"Suddenly I was an international rider and was traveling to Europe, Australia and America," he says. "I was excited to travel and fight it out against the best paddlers."
One of Puyo's first tests on the international circuit was in February 2014 at Australia's premier standup event, the 12 Towers Open SUP Race. Competing for the first time on the Gold Coast, "Ti2", as he was soon dubbed, beat out Starboard teammate Beau O'Brien and rising Aussie star Jake Jensen in the 14-kilometer downwinder between Kirra Point and Burleigh Heads. Then, he finished sixth in the Battle of the Paddle-style technical race the next day.
Soon it was onto the World Championships in May, where Puyo would face an even sterner test from an all-star field at Lake Nicaragua. Yet despite the long odds, Puyo again proved that his talent and technique could overcome his fellow athletes' experience in the downwind race. The distance was the same as at the French Nationals–18 kilometers–and after almost two hours of racing, the top of the leaderboard mirrored that event, too, with Puyo crossing the finish line a minute ahead of 2013 silver medalist Lincoln Dews of Australia. Terrien came in third, and Puyo is grateful for having his friend and countrymen there.
"Eric and I really helped each other during the race and it was really good to know that I could count on someone who has so much experience in the sport," he said.
Now that he's established himself as one of the must-watch names in SUP, Puyo is determined to work on his all-around skills to make sure he keeps progressing. He's focusing on defending his distance title at the French National Titles later this year, and then to dedicate himself to winter training that will prepare him for more racing success in 2015.
"I’m gonna surf more next season, and I’ll spend two weeks in Australia in February to improve my SUP surfing skills," he said. "Afterwards, I’ll live in the southwest of France where there are really good surf spots, so hopefully that will also help me."
Puyo's ability in downwinders is now unquestionable, but he sees room for improvement in shorter sprints that usually follow on the second day of weekend events. Winning a distance race but finishing outside the top five in such circumstances can often prevent a paddler from standing on the podium at the end of day two. And so Puyo is taking steps to become a speedster.
"I've started training more specifically for the sprints with lots of interval training," he says, and then, with a laugh, "But I still don’t really like it!"
With the typical well-rounded waterman's outlook, Puyo told us that he's continuing to train and compete in longboard and outrigger events now that he's back on New Caledonia for a few months, adding, "I also surf, swim, run, and sleep a lot." With such a successful first couple of years in SUP, he should sleep soundly. It's his rivals who should be up at night worrying about Puyo chasing them down. –Phil White
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