A decade with Connor Baxter

No one has dominated the SUP sport like Connor Baxter. He was a teenager at the very beginning of the sport, back when SUP was practically all downwind racing and surfing. Connor was born into the Maui windsurfing scene just like Zane Schweitzer and Kai Lenny. The three of them practically grew up together hand in hand. Just like Annabel Anderson, Connor was declared SUP athlete of the decade by SUPracer. How has Connor experienced the last ten years? What memories have remained and what lessons has he learned? I asked Connor if he would like to write something for the Stand Up Magazin and since we all have to stay more or less at home, he spontaneously said “yes” and wrote down how he experienced the last decade of SUP.

Connors memories

Maui2Molokai 2013 (Photo: Karen Baxter)

The past ten years have been a whirlwind! If someone had told me at the age of fourteen that in ten years I would win multiple world titles, travel the world, meet so many amazing people, marry the love of my life and become a father – I would have laughed! I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime in such a short period of time…all because I fell in love with the ocean when I was young.

Growing up on Maui was one of the biggest reasons I ended up competing at the level I’m at today. Maui’s ocean conditions are constantly changing and because of this an incredible group of athletes live here. I was fortunate enough to have guys like Laird Hamliton, Dave Kalama, Robby Naish, and others as role models to look up to. I’m also extremely fortunate to have very talented friends and competitors like Zane Schweizter and Kai Lenny. We were always pushing each other and trying to one up each other everyday, which has made us into the athletes we are today. Zane is honestly the most humble, positive, and craziest kid I know! Our parents competed at the same events back in the day for windsurfing, and when we met, we instantly became best friends! We even share the same birthday, making us practically brothers! When we were just eleven and twelve years old, Zane and I were traveling the world for windsurfing, mainly to Japan, Europe and all across the USA. We had so many good times winning events, surfing river waves in the middle of cities, paddling alongside icebergs in Patagonia, and surfing man-made waves in the desert in Abu Dhabi. Along with the good times of course came some not so great times. Once we actually got stuck in Puerto Rico’s airport because of a storm. We were unaccompanied minors and Zane and I tried to break out of the room where we were being held. A few days later the storm finally passed and Zane and I were able to fly to Bonaire to compete in the windsurfing event. To this day Zane and I continue to travel, compete, and train together. It’s been a life long friendship that I am extremely grateful for.

When I first started paddling, I was mainly just going downwind chasing guys like Dave Kalama, Mark Raaphorst, Ekolu Kalama, and Livio Menelau. I was that kid chasing the older guys every day and learning from the best.

Watching and chasing them got me where I am today. My real addiction to paddling started when I was fourteen and got a taste of a victory at the Maui-to-Molokai event back in 2009. Winning this race showed me what I was truly capable of and gave me a new hunger to start taking on this new water sport. From there it was all a blur…event after event, trip after trip, and of course lots of losses and victories along the way.

left to right: Dave Kalama – Livio Menelau – Mark Raaphorst – Ekolu Kalama – Connor Baxter (Photo: Karen Baxter)

After that iconic shot of me on the podium with Ekulo and Dave beside me, things really started to take off! Events started to pop up around the world, and that’s when life on the road and competing almost every weekend began. The first big event I traveled for outside of Hawaii, was the infamous BOP in Southern California in 2009. This was a huge turning point for our sport and started a new style of racing which is actually my favorite – surf racing! That second annual BOP at Dana Point was the most exciting and entertaining event I’ve ever been to. The surf was pumping and we had a six mile course in and out of the surf with a beach run to finish off each lap. The beaches were packed with spectators and competitors, and every major SUP brand had a tent. That year I got absolutely smoked and ended up finishing 19th, but that only added fuel to my fire. Later that year in July, I crossed the Kiwi Channel for the first time and set a new record as the youngest stand up paddler to cross the channel. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but with the support of my family I was able to do it in six hours and fifty-six minutes and finished in 89th place. That year was a year of learning and defeat. It was also the year of the birth of a future champion. After being in the atmosphere of competing on such big stages with hundreds of paddlers from around the world, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

At the first 11 City Tour ever, Zane and I went to see what it was all about, as well as to test our physical/mental strength. To be honest, all I remember from that event were the hot meals after paddling five hours every day, the free massages, and that crazy Dutch guy (Bart De Zwart). I went into that event thinking I was going to win it and quickly learned I had a lot more work to do. Going home after that event, I started to paddle with Bart more on flatter days at Kahului Harbor, instead of just going on downwinders. Bart had me meet him every morning at the harbor to do laps in the flat water. I remember getting dropped off by my mom, training for an hour or more, and then jumping on the Maui bus to go home and do some online homework. Paddling with Bart De Zwart was one of the biggest turning points in my career and a huge factor in some of my successes early on. Also just to make it clean once and for all…I learned the infamous “choke stroke” from Bart! On some of those crazy windy Maui mornings, I saw Bart choking down on his paddle to lower his wind resistance. Back then the recommended paddle height was a double shaka over your head. I was using longer paddles when I was fourteen then I am today at twenty-five. The choke stroke always felt natural to me and has won me some of my biggest victories.

SUP Showdown 2014 (Photo: Mike Jucker) left to right: Danny Ching, Kai Lenny, Connor Baxter, local beauty

Two years later, I won my first Molokai-to-Oahu. Then shortly after that I won the Battle of the Paddle in the famous battle with Jamie Mitchell and Danny Ching. The competition got harder and more serious, so I kept on adapting, training, traveling, competing. The birth of the racing side of the Stand Up World Series started in 2012 in Fiji. This was a crazy event with a small group of elite athletes and where the rivalry really started heating up between Kai and I. Kai would win an event and then I would win an event. This back and forth went on for the next five years. The Stand Up World Series was the place to be, with some of the bigger prize purses and all of the top paddlers. From my first event, till today I have supported the tour through the ups and downs. These past few years after the switch to APP things have really been going in the right direction and its been incredible to compete in events in huge cities around the world like New York, London, Osaka and Paris – all putting SUP on a bigger stage.

Of course along the way, as with any new sport there has been the Paddletics (paddling politics). Two federations have decided they should own the sport and should be the governing body. At the end of the day both federations have their points and I understand both sides, but the athletes are the ones suffering from this nonsense. At the end of the day, the ISA has been there from the beginning and organizing some of the most amazing events.

They also put SUP on the biggest platform the sport has ever seen, the Pan American Games. The racing styles ISA uses are exciting, up to date and challenging. The ICF on the other hand is newer to sport of SUP. They have only had a few World Championship events that showcased their traditional style of racing; sprints, marathon, and they even added in a technical race. That event was ran very well, and they treated the athletes at the top level.

Left Connor wins the Olukai on Maui several times his finish line crossing becomes legendary. (2016 Photo: Karin Jucker)

With the competition only rising at all events, athletes are beginning to focus more on one discipline. Things have definitely heated up over the past twelve years and the pressure to preform has only gotten more intense for me. Personally, I’ve felt this pressure at every event I compete in, from the two hundred-meter sprints to fifty-four kilometer distance races, just because I’ve won these different types of races in the past. This has definitely caught up to me in the past two years, making the motivation and the drive to win feel overwhelming at times. It wasn’t until I was back on the start line of a surf race or even a downwinder that the drive to win was back. Events where you have to just “grind it out” have never been fun for me, so I lost all motivation. I kept asking myself “why am I doing this?” at the start line. Whereas at events like the Pan American Games, ICF Worlds two-hundred-meter sprint and the APP technical sprints in Paris, I was jumping up and down because I couldn’t wait to race. Shifting focus and choosing the events I truly want to compete in has brought out a new excitement that I haven’t had since the early days of racing. This was my plan for 2020 season, but unfortunately everything has changed with the current state of the world. With the coronavirus and becoming a father, this year has been one the craziest but also most fulfilling times ever. Winning a race is cool but watching your son grow up, laugh and smile is like no other feeling in the world. This time home has really reminded me of what’s important and what I still want to achieve.

Lost Mills 2015: Is Rami Zur getting a beer shower? (Photo: Mike Jucker)

Looking forward to next year, I want to focus on the APP tour and also grow the sport back here at home in Hawaii with a downwind series. On top of that…it would be amazing to see this court case between the ICF and the ISA resolved! Stand Up Paddling is one of the few sports that brings the fresh water and salt water together and I know we have something so different and exciting that it belongs in the Olympics. Most importantly, I want to be the best father I can be for my son Trestle and take him along to all my events just like my dad did with me as a child.