Annabel Anderson Ultimate SUP Showdown

It had the makings of a SUP promoter’s dream. Combine surfing with racing, pit the world’s best of both, set it on the stage of Queens at Waikiki Beach in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue in August and have it added to the Dukes Ocean Fest roster.

With hype and promise comes expectation and speculation. Both came by the bucket load. A lot of high flying promises have been made in the short life of competitive stand up paddling and it would take someone with balls to stake the claims that were to be made for the 2nd version of the Ultimate SUP Showdown.

There had been many whispers, many phone calls and a lot of conference calls on mute in the months leading up to August 16-18.

In a style befitting American professional sports leagues an elite list of the ‘who’s who’ of SUP surfing and racing were announced as the ‘Draft’. In the days following the ‘Alternates’ (a.k.a those who didn’t make the first cut) were given their chance to accept the remaining invitation spots

A total of 64 athletes, 16 women and 48 men showed up to compete for a prize purse of USD$25,000 and the signed deal of a 60 minute prime time show on CBS Sports to screen this September.

Bringing SUP to the Masses

The vision, to bring the best of the best to showcase the highest levels of the sport to a television audience. To bring more attention, legitimacy and credibility to the sport and to show that where others have attempted, there is still room for passion, energy, belief and most important delivery to all stake holders.

We all took a punt this past weekend: the promoter, the television network, the production company and a host of athletes alike. An untried format, a risk with high stakes. From the athlete side little was known. We were told to simply turn up with our 12’6 and our surf board, be prepared to surf, race and expect the unexpected.

Surfing + Racing

How would it run, how would it be scored and how would one make it through to the Ultimate SUP Showdown Final? In a twist for the sport surfers had to race and racers had to surf to earn a place in the Showdown, the final event that would crown the two winners of the two day contest. The further you advanced in both, the better chance you had of making the prized spots on the dual starting line at 4pm Monday afternoon.

If you got knocked out of the surf contest, you still had a life in the multi round racing format but where you placed dictated if you started on the front or the back start line of the final.  You can imagine the confusion on the beach, but as people became more familiar over the contest it became very clear that the simplest thing was to advance as far as possible in both.

Day 1 saw the Rounds 1-3 and the Repercharges of the surf contest as four surfers made the most of having Queens break to themselves for their 20 minute heats. It also saw the Round 1 of Racing and by the end of the day the picture was becoming clear how Day 2 may or may not play out, with a double chance for each athlete across both disciplines.

Made for TV

With cameras catching every angle from above the water, in the water, in the air and POV this made-for-tv production was about creating the best possible sporting entertainment to showcase SUP. With it came sprint courses designed for close, tight, short any-one-could win racing in and out of the fickle Waikiki beach waves.

The goal? To make it to the final ‘showdown’. A course that would zig zag across Queens reef. Short enough to fit the 15 minute production time slot and long enough to test the speed, skill and endurance of athletes at the end of two days of competition.  The spice factor? Your result of either the surfing, the racing or both would be the deciding factor of whether you made the ‘front line’ or the ‘back line’ for the Showdown with an obvious advantage to those towing the line closest to the water.

Some of the biggest names in racing were on the back line and some of the biggest names in surfing on the front. Two rows of 8 men on the left with two rows of four women to the right. Would the fast men charge over the women on the front, would it be clean and fair?

As the drone hovered, the horn blew and the Showdown was on. Nine buoy turns and a 2-3’ swell with a long period. A miniature version of a Battle of the Paddle Final thundered off the line, skimmed across the water and carnage unleashed.

With the field tight through the first and second turns, the lull kept the wave factor at bay for the first few corners as leads changed, paddles clanged and inevitably people ended up in the water. With the half way mark rounded a distant set approached as the field hit the critical second to last turning buoy strategically set as a left hand turn on a right hand wave. We’d surfed the same wave in the surf contest and it would be those that positioned and timed the incoming waves that would either make or break their race.

Starting in the front or back line had a huge effect with the likes of Danny Ching, Travis Grant and Kelly Margetts all having to climb through the field and chase from the unusual position of coming from behind, in the women the anticipated Showdown favourites of Shakira Westdorp, Jenny Kalmbach and Candice Appleby would have the advantage of harnessing their quickness off the line to make a gain straight out of the gates over myself who fell into the same category as Danny, Travis and Kelly.

What it made for was a race of all racers, multiple lead changes, the unknown ‘wave factor’ and beach stopping entertainment as Waikiki came to a stand still as Connor Baxter, Kai Lenny, Danny Ching, myself, Candice Appleby and Jenny Kalmbach filled the top three spots on both sides.

The Result: A New Direction?

Yes there were winners, it was a competition. But in the greater scheme of things many other winners evolved. The women showcased just how good you have to be to be at the top and just how close they are athletically and technically to the top men. A new format emerged that with some tweaks could have potential. A new promoter and event director proved that they can deliver a quality event product for both competitors, spectators and a television audience alike. Athletes showed their investment in the future development of the sport by taking a punt and turning up without really knowing how things would go, an expensive investment for the global field that showed up in support. The makings of the start of a potential televised sporting entertainment product emerged ushered by one of sports tv’s god fathers.

At the end of the two days, a lot of people took and from what we saw, witnessed and experienced a positive and bright future may emerge. Not likely immediately, but it’s a step on the path to a great future in it’s own made-for-tv-quirky way.


Learn more about Annabel Anderson and see all of the awesome videos she shot over the weekend (they’re hilarious!) on her Facebook Page.