Published on April 6th, 2013 | by Supworldmagazine
Interview with Connor Baxter
With an impressive list of first place finishes at prestigious events around the world, Connor Baxter is on the way to joining the ranks of powerful watermen and women coming from his home in Maui. Raised by ocean sports athletes, Connor is no stranger to water, and he started competing in surfing and windsurfing when he was eight years old. We caught up with this 17-year old phenom to get his take on racing, training and his mission to be the fastest SUP paddler on the planet.
SWM: How long have you been competing at the elite level of SUP?
CB: I have been competing on an elite level for a little over two years, all around the world.
SWM: Was it a goal of yours to be a top level SUP paddler, or was it a natural progression from simply being passionate about the sport?
CB: Well, being from Maui I was raised surfing, tow-in-surfing and windsurfing. I started competing in both windsurfing and surfing at 8 years old. I wanted to become the best in windsurfing, but once I started stand up paddling, my focus became to be the best in SUP. I love it and it is always on my mind.
SWM: Do you consider yourself a professional paddler, or just a lucky guy getting help from sponsors to travel around?
CB: I would say a little of both. I feel lucky to be me. Because of my great parents and sister, who are the best family and support, growing up and living in Maui, and being in the right place at the right time (I know that sounds a little cliché but it’s true). I was sponsored by Starboard for windsurfing and when they started making SUP boards I just jumped right on that train. I definitely work hard, train hard, have the ocean background from when I was so young, and have been competing since a young age – it has all come together for me. And, yes – I consider myself a professional paddler. I feel I have proven myself to be one of the top paddlers on the racing side, and in many disciplines of the sport: Long Distance, Open Ocean Crossings, Flat Water, and Surf Slalom. I feel I am well rounded – not just able to win in one particular style of racing.
SWM: You seem to be proficient with most of the water/surf toys one can find in Hawaii – surf, kite, windsurf, and now SUP. How did you end up on a SUP board the first time?
CB: Well the first time I got on a SUP board was because of my dad. He said, “It is going to be the biggest sport – see if you like it.” So I jumped on one and didn’t like it at all!! But, that was a longboard – not a SUP board. When I finally got on a SUP – I loved it.
SWM: Of all these sports, what is your favorite way to spend time on the water?
CB: That is a hard choice, because when there is wind and waves I want to go windsurfing. When there is no wind I will go surf or SUP surf. When there is good wind for a down winder, I go stand up. So, whatever the conditions are good for that is what I will be doing.
SWM: Much of your skill as a paddler seems to reside in your depth of experience on the board and on the ocean. Would you agree that this knowledge of the elements is as or more important for a racer than pure physical strength?
CB: Growing up on the ocean and competing since a young age in water sports has definitely made me able to read and ride swells, and be comfortable in most any ocean condition. Also, training in flat and choppy water has made a big difference in my endurance and ability in those conditions. I am tall and skinny (6’0’’ 150 lbs) – not a lot of muscle and not an ounce of fat on my body. But I can stay with some of the best and strongest paddlers out there. I came to learn that it doesn’t just take strength; it takes knowledge of the ocean.
SWM: Is SUP racing your biggest passion or is it where you see the most opportunity – for travel, earning prize money, gaining sponsors, etc.
CB: I really love SUP racing as well as SUP surfing. But, I didn’t get into the sport for the money or sponsorship – I got into the sport before there was prize money or sponsorships. I think competing is in my blood. My dad has competed in surfing, big boat racing, and Hobie Cat racing, and my mom was a professional windsurfer. Stand up is so much fun and you can do it anywhere at any time. And, I am sure I will do it for the rest of my life. Just like surfing and windsurfing.
SWM: You are known to have a special stroke – can you describe this “Connor’s special”?
CB: Yes, I do have a different stroke than everyone else and at first people told me that the way I paddle wasn’t good and now they are asking how to do it. Basically I choke down on my paddle, which allows me to paddle a lot faster and sprint when I need to. I will not paddle like this for the whole race, but only when I need to, like at the start, getting to buoys first and at the finish.
SWM: What is your strong side? Do you switch during races and, if so, how often?
CB: Well, my right side is stronger, but I try to switch as much as possible so one side doesn’t get too tired. So, I would say I try to paddle 50/50 on both sides.
SWM: Do you adapt your strokes and frequency according to the field, conditions, and timing in the race?
CB: Yes, I definitely have different strokes for different conditions. For instance, when going upwind I will choke down on my paddle and get low. Other times, I use my ‘‘Connor quick stroke’’. But mostly, my head is down and I am paddling my hardest.
SWM: Do you prefer a stable board with which you can charge as hard as possible, or a sleeker one with which you run the risk of fighting for balance in some conditions?
CB: I try to find the happy medium. Something narrow enough so I don’t have too much drag and wide enough to have good balance to paddle hard and not fall. Starboard’s race boards are several different widths, which make their boards ideal for many different paddlers.
SWM: Do you have specific tactics that you employ at certain points in a race? What is your trick (if you have one)?
CB: Yes I do!! But – those are my secrets…
SWM: What are consistently the most crucial moments of a race?
CB: The most crucial moment of a race is the start. Getting out to the front first then holding that position is key.
SWM: What is your favorite part about racing?
CB: My favorite part about racing is it is fair. The first one over the line wins – no judging as in surf style contests.
SWM: Racing involves training, which seems like it might be a lot more boring than simply going surfing. What is your motivation to train and race?
CB: I do train a lot and it can be boring. But, I have a good training partner, Bart de Zwart, and that keeps me motivated. There are also a lot of hours in a day, so I might train in the morning and then either do a down winder or surf or windsurf. Just depends on the conditions.
SWM: What is your training routine? Do you do lift weights? Do you do any non-water sports to cross-train?
CB: I wake up early most mornings and train on my race 12’6” in the harbor with Bart. Then later in the day I do a down winder. When Chuck Patterson comes to our house he puts me through his “boot camp training program.” Kody Kerbox and I do some beach workouts together. And, here and there I will go to the gym, but mostly I try to just paddle, or get into the water doing some sport.
SWM: Do you have a coach?
CB: No, I do not.
SWM: Do you also have a special diet?
CB: No, I do not have a special diet. My mom definitely makes good home cooked meals. With traveling so much I try to eat as well as I can, but I don’t do a great job.
SWM: Your paddling has you traveling frequently to places all over the globe. How has that affected your schooling?
CB: Well, I made a decision after 10th grade to do online schooling, which allows me to travel and still do work. It’s challenging to say the least. I am either trying to get ahead of my school and homework – or trying to catch up.
SWM: Are there many top-level competitors who are as young as you are?
CB: I would say there are about 10 top-level competitors who are teenagers right now – but there are more and more getting into the sport daily. When I started competing there were only a few of us teenagers and most everyone was in their 30s or 40s. Now, however, the sport is mainstream and attracting people of all ages, male and female, from many different sports.
SWM: Kai Lenny is another young Hawaiian taking the competitive SUP world by storm. Are you guys friends? Do you ever train together?
CB: Yes – Kai Lenny and I grew up together on Maui and have been playing and training in the water together forever.
SWM: Living in Hawaii, have you ever paddled/ surfed with the legends like Robbie Naish, Laird Hamilton, and others? If so, have they had some influence on you?
CB: Well I grew up seeing Robby Naish, Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton in the ocean, and here and there got in the water with them. They told me that I had some potential to do well and become the best. One of the best things about growing up here in Maui is that these legends are all about sharing their knowledge and being great role models for the younger generation.
SWM: In a SUP event, there are several competitions. Describe the different race formats and tell us which one is your favorite.
CB: There are several different types of race formats. The most well known is the Battle of the Paddle, which is going around buoys, in and out of the surf with short beach sprints. The Quiksilver Event in Waikiki in May was very similar but added a new concept of continuous elimination rounds called ‘’survivor.” There are loads of flatwater races that go in and out of the surf, and most incorporate going around buoys. We also have long distance races, which can be downwind runs, flat water, ocean crossings, around islands, and in lakes – basically anywhere. I actually really like the variety of all the race formats, and have done well in most of the ones I have competed in. But – the most fun is a good downwind run, catching glide after glide.
SWM: Are surfing contests and races normally held at the same events?
CB: No – this is not normally done. But the surf tour that has been around for the last couple years just held the first surf and race event in France in May. It was the same weekend as the Quiksilver Event in Waikiki, which is the event most of the Elite racers participated in.
SWM: You recently attended a race in Namotu. How was it? And tell us about the exchange with the locals that took place there in between events.
CB: Namotu is a beautiful island with great surf and great people – a totally enjoyable time.
During the contest, we got to have a bunch of young Fijians come down to the beach and jump on our SUP boards and we taught them how to SUP. It was a blast.
SWM: Do you see yourself competing in SUP for many years?
CB: Yes, I will compete in SUP for as long as I can.
SWM: What are your future goals and dreams related to stand up paddling?
CB: I want to become the fastest SUP paddler on this planet. I also want to get as many kids into the sport as possible, possibly by teaching them in kids’ clinics. And, I want to have as much fun as possible – exploring new places, traveling and meeting people around the world.
Thanks Connor – best of luck to you!
(interview published in Sup World mag 2012)