Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter arrive in New Zealand to an atmosphere electrified with fear and anticipation. Cyclone Pam is primed to hit the country. It has already laid waste to the Pacific island of Vanuatu and weather forecasters are predicting doom and gloom for New Zealand, too. While coastal property owners fret and eye the skies with worry, Kiwi surfers are frothing at the prospect of some of the biggest swells seen for decades.
Luckily, the cyclone veers east before landfall, causing minimal damage, but it does deliver on the waves. Conditions are perfect for The Ultimate Waterman, the competition that has brought Lenny and Baxter, the world’s two best stand-up paddleboarders, from their Hawaiian home to the Coromandel Peninsula.
“We’re both fierce competitors and neither of us wanted to give way. It got a bit heated because we wanted to beat each other so bad”, says Kai Lenny about this years’ Ultimate Waterman.
The unique concept, created by Surfing New Zealand CEO Greg Townsend, pits eight elite athletes against each other in six different surf disciplines: shortboard, longboard and big-wave surfing, waka ama, stand-up paddleboard endurance and stand-up paddleboard surfing. With crisis averted, all eyes are on swells big enough to equal the talent of the invited competitor pack. Lenny and Baxter are among them, ready for battle – with the elements, the best riders from the rest of the world and, of course, each other.
As athletes at the pinnacle of their sport, the pair are among the favourites to take the Ultimate Waterman title. Baxter, 20, with his blond hair and lean 6ft frame, is your All-American boy, while Lenny, 22, has a more compact, muscular build. In terms of ability on the water, it’s hard to tell the pair apart. Their sport, commonly known as SUP, has exploded in popularity in recent years. It’s starting to find its feet on a competitive level, too, with Lenny and Baxter dominating. Lenny took out the first World Series in 2012 and backed up the victory in 2013. Baxter won his first world title last year and is the current world number one.
Had The Ultimate Waterman been held 10 years ago, it’s likely neither would be here to compete in stand-up paddleboarding. The sport isn’t new. It has a legitimate pedigree thanks to footage of Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku surfing with a paddle in the late 1930s. But it still hasn’t been completely embraced by the wider surfing community. It’s more a case of its relentless growth proving impossible to ignore. “SUP offers as many options on water as a bicycle does on land,” says Lenny. “But with a bike, you need a different model to go road racing, downhill mountain biking or BMXing. Whereas with stand-up, you can do it all with one board. It’s epic for all conditions, whether you have 50ft waves or dead-flat lake water. That’s why it’s blowing up.”
“We screwed ourselves. When we got to shore I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but guys watching it thought we were mortal enemies”, says Connor about their neck-and-neck showdown at last years’ “Battle Of The Paddle” competition in Southern California.
Lenny and Baxter discovered the versatile sport while growing up together on the island of Maui. Unlike most athletes who meet on the pro circuit, the pair have known each other their whole lives. Both were on the water as soon as they could walk and, when they weren’t at school, they often hung out at the same beaches trying to catch the same waves at Sugar Cove, Kanaha and Hookipa. These days, due to the travel demands of the SUP World Series, the pair spend more time with each now than they do with their own families. And more often than not they’re battling it out at the head of the field.
Last October, the two friends found themselves at the centre of a controversy that captivated the SUP community. Those in the know refer to it as ‘The Wave’. The two biggest stars on Planet SUP were neck-and-neck heading into the beach on the last wave at the Battle Of The Paddle, SUP’s premier event, at Salt Creek Beach, in Southern California.
Lenny was slightly behind Baxter, but moved under him on the wave forcing him wide. Baxter responded by cutting back across Lenny’s line. The nose of Baxter’s board dumped hard on top of Lenny’s, who lost his balance and fell off. As he fell, he grabbed for Baxter’s board, taking his friend with him. Lenny was quickest to get back on his board and went on to win the race, but the beach was thick with chatter of spiteful tactics and mutual dislike. Some pointed the finger at Baxter, others blamed Lenny. “Friendship is on the back-burner when you’re on the bleeding edge,” Will Taylor wrote for SUP Magazine. “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. Stand-up has entered the big leagues.” It’s true, sport thrives on rivalries. Think of what Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier brought to the boxing ring, and what Kelly Slater and Andy Irons did for surfing. Contrasting styles, yes, but competitive spirits and natural talents that sparked off each other for the greater good of their sport. In Lenny and Baxter, many feel that SUP has found its own rivalry for the ages.
Back in New Zealand, before the start
of The Ultimate Waterman, it’s clear Lenny and Baxter aren’t feeling any pressure to fit into the ‘rival’ mould being thrust upon them. As they prepare
for contest, talk turns to what happened at Salt Creek Beach last October. “Because SUP is still a relatively young, animosity-free sport, people try
to manufacture drama around certain incidents,” says Lenny. “You’re like,
‘I don’t remember it being that gnarly.’
You just have to be careful what you
read because it’s someone else’s opinion. People come up to me and are like, ‘You really hate Connor, don’t you?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t hate him at all.’ Without
him racing, it wouldn’t be as much fun.” “We screwed ourselves,” Baxter adds. “When we got to shore I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but guys watching
it thought we were mortal enemies.”
While the sport-loving public may be keen to add an extra layer of intrigue to a race with hyped visions of rivalry, the locker room reality rarely delivers. Slater and Irons may not have started out as best buds, but they had a huge mutual respect. Despite Ali’s pre-fight barbs, Frazier reportedly lent his old combatant money more than once when times got tough. “I always bring out the best in the men I fight,” Ali once said, “but Joe Frazier brings out the best in me.” And in SUP, a lack of drama on land doesn’t diminish the action on the water. “The incident last October was really competitive racing,” says Lenny. “That’s all it was. You can’t expect to punch someone in the face and not have them throw a punch back at you. You get pushed and you’re going to push back. We’re both fierce competitors and neither of us wanted to give way. It got a little bit heated between us because we wanted to beat each other so bad. We basically neutralised each other.” On the first day of The Ultimate Waterman, Lenny and Baxter size up the cyclone-stirred conditions together. Throughout the morning, as the surfers wait for the best waves, Lenny and Baxter are joined at the hip, discussing swell and joking among themselves. They’re first to zip up their wetsuits and take to the water with their boards. Mortal enemies? Hardly. The future of SUP? Without a doubt. But childhood friends or not, once they’re out on the water it’s every man for himself.
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