The best part of the Gerry Lopez Rainbow Sandals Battle of the Paddle isn't the surfing, the sprinting, the strategy, or even the carnage--those things are pretty good too, though. The best part is the ultra-compelling storylines that pop up every year that make this sport so great when the biggest player's gather in Dana Point, California for what has become the de facto World Championships.
Take this one for example: Redondo Beach, California's Danny Ching won his third Battle of the Paddle and was almost an underdog (if that doesn't sound ludicrous) coming in based on the ridiculous year Connor Baxter was enjoying including wins all over the world--the biggest of which being Molokai to Oahu this summer. Ching used incredible in-race maneuvering to stay with Baxter and Kai Lenny, and experienced some incredibly good luck.
"It feels so good," Ching said. "Kai caught a wave I didn't at the start so I had to really work to get back in it."
And women's champion Annabel Anderson, a native of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, a quaint little mountain town over the hill from Queenstown on the South Island–where the 30-year-old former ski racer honed her athletic ability. She got into sailing and friends in the wind scene introduced her to standup. She didn't start racing until living in England a couple of years ago.
"I really just feel so blessed right now," she said after her gigantic win. "But this whole thing, it isn't just me, it's a huge team of people behind me that helped make it happen."
Kai Lenny--a gifted surfer and two-time world champion whose racing has improved by light years this season with wins in Hood River and on the Standup World Series among others--looked as though he might pull away early, building a strong lead on the first lap. But Ching and Connor Baxter slowly chased him down until finally, on the treacherous south buoy, one that changed the fate of a handful racers Saturday, Ching experienced that aforementioned stroke of luck. Lenny fell after rounding the corner and heading back out to the outer buoy and Baxter was taken out by a wave that pummeled his board over the top of him and broke his paddle. Heading into the final turn, Ching had a relatively clear path to victory.
"You know, it came down to that final lap," Lenny told SUP magazine at the finish line. "Yeah, second feels good because Danny is such a good paddler but you always want to end up in first."
Anderson, who has been on the Waterman League's Standup World Series tour this year admitted to being worried coming into the event because she hadn't tested herself against the caliber of athlete the Battle attracts. But she looked in form the entire race, slowly building the lead on Candice Appleby who made a valiant effort to chase down Anderson before bad luck struck her as well, essentially ending her bid for a fifth title at the north buoy near the harbor break wall.
"You can't really train for luck," Appleby said. "We all got constricted in the Boneyard buoy and a little wave came in and kind of took out one of the male racers and his board came right on top of me."
Brandi Baksic, who's race day toughness seems to always put her right there at the end of every event, finished third while Jenny Kalmbach ended fourth and Gillian Gibree rounded out the top five. This has been a stellar year for Gibree who won two races at the Waikiki Paddle Festival in May as well.
On the men's side, Gold Coast lifeguard Kelly Margetts came out of nowhere to grab an impressive fourth-place finish while Slater Trout kept with it after digging himself an early hole to scratch his way into the top five. Sixteen-year-old Mo Freitas finished a solid sixth among a stacked field. —Joe Carberry
1. Danny Ching
2. Kai Lenny
3. Connor Baxter
4. Kelly Margetts
5. Slater Trout
6. Mo Freitas
7. Jamie Mitchell
1. Annabel Anderson
2. Candice Appleby
3. Brand Baksic
4. Jenny Kalmbach
5. Gillian Gibree