April 9, 2023
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

Who is the new “dark horse”? Let’s make some predictions for the season ahead

Partly because I enjoy making predictions, and partly because I just love the term “dark horse,” each season I try to forecast who will be the new name to watch. This ritual dates back almost a decade to when I called Titouan Puyo as a contender before we could even pronounce his name.

As a complete unknown, Titou dethroned the legendary Eric Terrien to win the French Nationals in late 2013 and announce his arrival on the SUP racing scene. A few months later we invited him to Australia where he won the uber competitive 12 Towers ocean race. Shortly after that, Titou became the 2014 ISA champion and the rest is history.

We humbly reported at the time:

“…the undisputed king of French and European SUP racing, Eric Terrien, was today defeated by the unheralded Titouan Puyo in the national titles … Titouan was a complete dark horse and surprised many observers with his impressive victory”

Titou’s sudden ascendance is what inspired me to make the “dark horse” prediction a recurring theme (we all had a bit of a man crush on Titou back then). My results have been a little hit and miss since 2013 – Titou set the bar pretty high – but I find it’s always a fun experiment.

(If you’re curious, Wikipedia suggests the expression dates right back to 1831 and comes from the world of horse racing. In Australia we also use the term “smokey”.)

While many paddlers have made sudden leaps forward in a single season, to be a dark horse you have to come out of nowhere. This golden rule often strikes out the many talented juniors who’ve been steadily rising through the ranks. Even if you have a breakout year at age 18, we’ve probably been watching you race for half a decade already.

So while there are many fresh faces I’m excited to watch in Season 2023, the young guns don’t really fit the dark horse mould.

Last week in Ceuta we saw the next generation sweep the podium with the Flying Dutchman Donato Freens, Aaron Sanchez from Spain and Denmark’s Polar Bear. Throw in half a dozen other kids from Europe plus the young Japanese warriors and we’ll soon have a whole new generation rubbing shoulders with the big guns. You could also throw in some of the top young women such as Cecilia Pampinella of Italy or just about any of the “kids from Spain” but again their appearance hasn’t been so sudden — we’ve been anticipating the arrival of these paddlers since pre-covid times.

To be a true dark horse you have to be so unknown that I have to research where you even come from.

And while the dark horse prediction is traditionally made in January (SUP Racer had a bit of a late start to the season), I’d say we’ve definitely found a paddler who fits the definition perfectly…

Alba Frey

Alba is such a dark horse that she wasn’t even taking SUP racing seriously 12 months ago. Now, suddenly, she’s on the Starboard Dream Team and a Euro Tour podium.

Growing up as a sailor, trained as a nautical engineer and performing for years in windsurfing, Alba clearly has both salt water and competition in her veins.

Alba lives in the Canary Islands, a rocky outcrop off the west coast of Africa that’s claimed by both Spain and a good percentage of Europe’s top ocean athletes. Unlike mainland Europe, the Canaries has good waves, good wind and decent water temps all year round. In other words: it’s an ocean playground.

In signing with Starboard and chasing the Euro Tour, Alba seems to be on the same path as her fellow Canary Islander and 2019 dark horse Espe. And just like Espe, Alba missed the whole junior SUP racing career and instead jumped onto the scene in her prime. Fit, strong and ready to compete against the best.

You don’t get signed to Starboard unless you have either big results or serious potential. It’s too early for the former so the Starboard crew clearly think Alba has plenty of the latter. That belief was cemented in Ceuta last weekend: You don’t finish third in the Euro Tour behind arguably the two strongest women in the water unless you’re seriously talented yourself.

So while I doubt Alba (or anyone, ever) will emulate Titou’s epic opening season, and I don’t think she can match Espe’s strength or Duna’s agility just yet, I do expect we’ll see the Spaniard take down some pretty big names en route to several more podiums this season. And given that 2023 is her first full year of racing, I think we’ll be hearing the name Alba Frey for many years to come.

As a parallel to the dark horse storyline, let’s consider just how strong Team Spain is looking these days. Long gone is the era when Australia, France and Team USA were the ruling triumvirate. With a new name like Alba joining the likes of Espe, Duna and so many other Spanish talents, the team probably already has the strongest women’s lineup while their men aren’t too far behind.

Could Team Spain dethrone the French? Will the U.S. find its former glory? And what on earth happened to the Aussies? It’ll certainly be interesting to see which countries top the medal table at the ICF Worlds in November (and the ISA Worlds, too, if we ever find out when they’re happening).

Until then, go follow @albafrey to see whether the “dark horse” label is a blessing or a curse in Season 2023…