The future of SUP? Here are some paddlers, predictions and potential narratives to follow in Season 2023 and beyond
With the first big race of the year run and won, it’s time to look forward to what Season 2023 has in store. Each year we look into the crystal ball searching for the dominant themes, headlines and stories that will shape stand up paddling for the next 12 months.
I’m equal parts excited and intrigued about the new year as youth rise, women flex and new adventures unfold. Throw in the the never-ending paddletics and it’s going to be a big season.
This list is less “predictions” and more “narratives” that I think have a good chance of becoming recurring themes throughout the year. So without further ado, here’s what I see when I peer into the glass…
Season 2023 Narratives
6. The Future
1. THE YOUTH
Let’s start with the most obvious narrative: The youth will continue to rise through the ranks this season.
Shrimpy’s world-beating performance in Puerto Rico a few months back was no fluke. The 16-year-old blitzed the world’s best to claim two ISA golds and establish himself as the one to watch in 2023. Like a young Connor Baxter – who first won Molokai and the BOP in his sixteenth year – Shrimpy will now start one of the favourites. It’s not like he came out of nowhere – the Japanese wunderkind was on the 12 Towers podium as a 13-year-old – but that Puerto Rico power was hard to ignore. A statement.
Spain’s 19-year-old hero Duna Gordillo capped a big year with a massive win in the ISA marathon, narrowly edging out her powerhouse compatriot Espe Barreras as the duo demolished the rest of the field.
With three gold between them, Shrimpy and Duna may have just kickstarted the next bull run of young talent in our sport.
But hypothesising “The Youth” card is all too easy, so let’s make a slightly bolder prediction: The top juniors won’t just be chasing the superstars 10 years their senior, they’ll also have to fend off the super groms already nipping at their heels.
One only had to watch the likes of Vaic Garioud winning the junior ISA gold medal to realise that Noic – at 21 himself still considered of “junior” age in certain sports – will face some serious competition from his own family.
While I don’t believe the superstars will relinquish their crown just, the prospect of the 13-16 year olds battling the 17-21 year olds battling the 25+ crew is tantalising. Generations are shifting so fast that it’s hard to predict who the dark horse youth are anymore.
2. THE WOMEN
For once, I’m more excited about watching women’s racing than men’s. The depth, the youth, the comebacks, women’s racing might be about to have its biggest moment yet.
While it’s always been just as competitive at the podium end, women’s racing generally lacked the depth that often made men’s races exciting. With all due respect to Annabel Anderson – easily the most dominant athlete to ever stand up on a paddleboard – watching 10 guys battle at the front of the field was more exciting than seeing Annabel win by 10 minutes.
But things are changing fast. The rise of Duna was a highlight of 2022, while the injury return of Fiona Wylde provides an eagerly anticipated match-up. Throw in the comebacks of original BOP Queen Jenny Kalmbach and former all-star Seychelle along with vintage form shown by Candice Appleby at the Worlds, and we might see different generations on each three steps of the big podiums this season.
3. THE OLYMPICS
The saga rolls on. It was tempting to skip this narrative as paddletics are all so tiresome, but it’s hard to ignore an impending eruption on the Olympic front.
To summarise: A few years ago, the ISA (surfing) “won” a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decision against the ICF (canoeing) over who would holds the hypothetical “rights” to hypothetically host a SUP race in a hypothetical, future Olympic Games.
Since that decision, all logic flew out the window as the ISA went silent, dropped the ball and opened the door for the ICF who now look far more like a legitimate SUP federation.
The canoe boys are organising better World Championships with better participation and better communication. They’re finding host nations years in advance while the ISA still announces on a few months’ notice. The ICF is building its own international race series while the ISA still tries to get by with owning 10% of the perennially-disappointing APP World Tour.
In short, the ICF is doing a hell of a lot more than the ISA.
But unfortunately for our seated paddling friends, the ISA still has that CAS decision hanging in the trophy room, and I can’t see them relinquishing Olympic “control” of stand up paddling without a monumental arm-wrestle.
To further fan the flames, the ISA is pushing for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games to include SUP racing in either an official or exhibitive capacity.
That decision is likely this year.
Will the ISA finally get its shit together with the whiff of Olympic inclusion? And would the ICF keep lavishing SUP with attention if they ultimately “lose” in their subtle but blindingly-obvious ultimate goal of wrestling Olympic control away from the ISA?
Never a dull moment.
4. THE SPECIALISTS
Olympic legend Usain Bolt never competed in the Olympic marathon. He wasn’t even competitive in the 400 metres. Yet in his chosen events, 100m and 200m, he was near-unbeatable.
It might be a stretch to compare the relatively young sport of SUP racing with the mature world of athletics but I see clear parallels. In the same way that individual “racing” sports – whether it be running, swimming, cycling or cross country skiing – are the realm of specialist athletes, I think SUP racing is heading the same way.
Long gone are the days when Connor Baxter could win everything from the 200 metre sprints at the Lost Mills to a 50km Molokai crossing. Even the GOAT now focuses on (and still dominates, it should be added) short course events while leaving the longer, grueling races to the Titous and Boothys of the world.
Candice won the ISA surf race last year in a throwback to her BOP glory days. That was an extraordinary achievement, yet I’m sure the Californian would be the first to admit she couldn’t match Duna, Espe and Fiona in a 10 miler.
I believe this trend will become even clearer in 2023.
We’ll see more and more athletes focusing on one or two races, whether that be sprints, distance or ultras. This isn’t a particularly bold prediction: For years we’ve had specialists in the world of downwind racing, but as the sport gets more competitive athletes will have to choose their own niche if they want to be on the podium.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see big-name athletes travel to the ICF Worlds in November and compete in just one race.
We’ll still have “generational” athletes that can win anything–Shrimpy was a good example of that in Puerto Rico, though I think even he will have to pick his races wisely in order to keep winning.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this specialist approach could be in the ultras where I believe we’ll not only see athletes focused purely on this discipline but we’ll see new athletes altogether. Or rather, we’ll see paddlers that aren’t the usual suspects. Look at Sweden’s Last Paddler workhorse Goran Gustavsson, for example. He wouldn’t be nearly competitive against the superstars in an elite race, yet in a multi-day race where mental strength is the main criteria, guys like Goran suddenly become contenders. And I think that’s great for the sport.
5. THE ADVENTURES
My favourite story of 2022 wasn’t a race at all, it was Casper Steinfath’s paddle around Denmark.
The Viking took almost two months and grew enough facial hair to bring a teenage boy to tears, and when he finally reached the finish line he brought me and many others to tears. It was an emotional odyssey, the type that pure racing can rarely emulate. And as some of our favourite characters from the past decade tire of regular racing, I believe we’ll get to enjoy a few more stories such as Casper’s.
As a sub-header to this narrative, I’m also enthralled by the potential for the adventure-race crossover. Part odyssey, part ultra, I feel there’s room for an entirely new type of event within our sport. Think “Alone” but on a river…
6. THE FUTURE
To quote Sartre, “There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.”
Much of the SUP community, myself more than most, has a habit of getting stuck in the past. But while it’s important to respect history, I think it’s even more important to appreciate the moment.
No matter what did happen in the past or shall in the future, the sport of stand up paddleboarding will continue to evolve. None of us can predict where it will lead or the ebbs & flows that will follow, but those of us who love the sport will hopefully find pride in watching it grow.
The seeds of our sport were scattered years ago, and many of us spent a good decade tending the saplings. But perhaps it’s time to just stand back and watch these trees grow.