Dissecting Connor Baxter’s Sprint Win at the 2022 ICF Worlds
In case you missed it, Connor Baxter recently won two gold medals at the 2022 ICF SUP World Championships, in the open sprint and technical events. His win in the sprint race was so dominant it was jaw-dropping. Winning a 180m race in a booming tailwind, which should push the field closer together, by two full seconds (actually 1.99 seconds but what’s 1/100 of a second?) is pretty much a performance for the ages. Let’s delve into it in greater detail and look at the race itself and all the factors that went into producing such a dominant performance.
Let’s start by just re-watching the race from a couple of different angles. It is a site to behold. The first video is straight from the ICF’s feed (video 1). The second is drone footage from Starboard SUP’s Instagram page (video 2).
Video 1 – ICF coverage
Video 2 – Starboard IG drone
Before we get into the race itself, let’s just consider the results for a moment (figure 1). The margin of victory of 1.99 seconds is a whopping 4.5% of his winning time of 44.34 seconds. To put some perspective on it, at this year’s ICF Sprint Canoe World Championships the entire nine boat field in the men’s C1 200m final finished within 0.95 seconds. Margins of victory are typically measured in hundredths of a second, not two full seconds. It’s worth looking beyond paddling to other sports with races which are won in approximately 44 seconds, like for example, the men’s 400m in athletics, to see how Connor’s margin of victory compares. In all of the Olympic finals in the men’s 400m between 1976 and 2020, the largest margin of victory has been 1.06 seconds. The point is, Connor’s race is historic. Races lasting less than 1 minute at the highest level, where the fields are made up of the world’s best athletes in a given event, just aren’t decided by margins as large as that which Connor won by at this year’s worlds in Poland. In that sense, his performance is one for the ages – extremely rare and one which may not be seen again for decades. For that reason, it’s worth looking into it in greater detail.
Let’s remember the strength of the field as we look more closely at the performance. Claudio Nika, the recently crowned European Sprint Champion raced in lane 6. Noic Garioud, the 2021 ICF World Champion raced in lane 5. The nine-board final was the result of five rounds of racing. This was arguably the greatest field of SUP sprint athletes ever assembled. I want to be clear, as we compare Connor with the field at various points in the race, the intention is not to diminish in any way the performance of any of the other athletes but rather to demonstrate how truly spectacular Connor’s race was.
Since the race was won in 44.34 seconds and we don’t know enough about the accuracy of the course markings to break the race down by distance splits, let’s simply break the race into thirds by time and look at it like this:
- Start to 15 seconds. We’ll call this “The Start”
- 15 seconds to 30 seconds. We’ll call this “The Middle”
- 30 seconds to finish. We’ll call this “The Finish”
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing quantitative values for speed or acceleration for any of the athletes in this race. Unlike sprint canoe, which now sees most teams send boats to the starting line with devices on board to collect such data, SUP isn’t quite there yet. Without this data being available, we’ll have to limit our discussion on things like max speed, time to max speed, and deceleration towards the end of the race to assumptions we can make from what we see in video of the race, and that means we’re limited by the quality of the video we have available.
In terms of “collecting data”, the drone video from Starboard’s Instagram page is our best option, but unfortunately the race has already started when the video begins. Furthermore, we can’t see exactly where the finish line is so we’ll have to make some further assumptions when using this video. That said, it is great for showing how the race unfolds as the entire race is shot from the same angle and we can lift some stroke rate data off the videos by both counting strokes in each race segment and using a stroke rate watch to determine rate based off of any four strokes.
Before looking at the race in detail it is worth considering the factors that lead to success in sprint racing:
1. Achieving the fastest max speed
2. Achieving max speed as quickly as possible
3. Maintaining max speed for as long as possible
As the race unfolds we’ll look at what is happening through the lens of these factors. We’ll also need to know paddlers. The results and the lane assignments for the nine men in this final are found in figure 1.
Unfortunately, the video we’re using doesn’t start with the paddlers in the starting blocks but instead a few seconds into the race. The video from the ICF feed does show the start but from water level and then quickly changes to different view. It changes views repeatedly during the race which really precludes us using it in any meaningful way. It also doesn’t include all the athletes in the race in the water level views, so for these reasons it can’t be used to analyze the entire race.
Although the video we’re using begins after the start, we can get information about the start by counting “swirls” in the water from each paddle stroke. We can also break the race into thirds by going to the finish and seeing the video time (approximately 42 seconds in video time, though tough to determine exactly as the finish line is not clearly marked), then rewinding by 15 seconds to 27 seconds and rewinding further to 12 seconds to divide the race into thirds. Since Connor won the race in 44.34 seconds we’ll estimate that what we’re missing from the video is approximately 2.34 seconds of the race. Understand that a more accurate analysis could be undertaken if:
- The video included the start
- The course was better marked, including a string of buoys at the finish line
We can see in the first frame of the video (figure 2) that Connor, in lane 4, is half way through his sixth stroke (you can count four full swirls and a fifth just hidden by the tail of his board). Already his nose is slightly in front of Clement Colmas in lane 2, who is setting up for his seventh stroke. Noic, in lane 5 to the left of Connor and Claudio, in lane 6, are just setting up for their sixth stroke.
After ten strokes or approximately 4.5 seconds into the race, Connor is ever so slightly behind Clement (figure 3).
I’m using a straight edge laid across the screen and parallel to the starting dock to determine this (figure 4).
At fifteen strokes or just over 7 seconds in, Connor has regained a slight lead over Clement and is slightly more than a half board length ahead of Noic and Claudio (figure 5).
At approximately ten seconds into the race Connor is incrementally further ahead of Clement (figure 6).
As Connor’s nose just crosses the first set of yellow buoys, he is completing his 24th stroke (figure 7). This is approximately thirteen seconds into the race. Connor is a little less than a half board length ahead of Clement, who is holding his position well and hanging with Connor. Noic and Claudio have fallen back into a virtual tie for fourth place with each other. Noic is in a precarious position here, too close to Connor and on the verge of getting washed out if he doesn’t hop on the wash. Rai Taguchi, in lane 3 has moved up into third and appears to have started to get some help from Clement’s wash.
The questions at this point, which we can’t answer due to lack of quantitative data are:
a) are Connor, Clement, Rai, Noic and Claudio all accelerating, with Connor just accelerating faster?
b) have Clement, Rai, Noic and Claudio all reached max speed while Connor is still accelerating?
c) are Clement, Rai, Noic and Claudio all decelerating while Connor is still accelerating or maintaining speed?
d) is everyone decelerating with Connor just decelerating more slowly?
If I had to guess, I would suggest it’s probably a) or perhaps b). Thirteen seconds into the race is too soon for athletes of this level to start decelerating. Very likely they are all still accelerating but Connor has just found another gear and is accelerating faster.
At approximately one-third or fifiteen seconds into the race, Connor has stretched his lead out to almost a full board length over Clement in second. Claudio appears to have moved into third, slightly ahead of Rai in fourth who is just slightly ahead of Noic in fifth (figure 8).
This is the moment of truth for Noic. He’s on the absolute verge of getting washed out, literally right on the edge. In figure 8 you can see his nose is teetering on the brink of veering to the right and into Connor’s wash. If that happens he’ll be washed out and, as good as he is, with the speed the others are moving at his race will be over. Any hopes he has of reaching the podium will most likely be gone. On the other hand, if he can get his nose to edge slightly to the left he can slide up Connor’s wash and use it to travel closer to Connor’s speed and faster than he is currently moving at this point.
Figure 8 shows the state of the race as the middle fifteen seconds begins. Connor has taken a commanding lead of almost a full board length. Clement is in second with Rai, on his wash, fighting Claudio for third. Noic is fighting for his life. What he does with his next stroke saves his race. Figure 9 is approximately sixteen seconds into the race.
We can see that Noic has managed to get his nose to break slightly to the left. Rather than getting washed out, he’s put himself into position to use Connor’s wash. What happens next is amazing.
At twenty seconds (figure 10), Noic is now on Connor’s wash. He’s gained speed and has used that wash to climb back into the battle for second.
At twenty-five seconds (figure 11), Noic, still on the wash, has nosed into second, passing Clement and Claudio who is now struggling to stay with Clement. Connor has a full board length of open water lead. At just over half way it’s clear that, barring disaster, he’s going to win. The race is for rest of the podium.
As Noic passes Clement, we see the first signs of trouble for Clement as he begins to veer to the left at approximately twenty-five seconds (figure 11). My guess is that he realizes how far ahead Connor is and either knows or assumes that Noic is on his wash. He knows he’s fighting for a spot on the podium, but knows also that he’ll have no chance of beating Noic with Noic going almost the same speed as Connor on his wash. Over the next few seconds we see him make the gutsy move of veering to the left in an attempt to get on Connor’s wash. This is clearly visible in figure 12 at twenty-nine seconds.
Unfortunately, this appears to spell the end for Rai who, already dealing with Connor’s wash from the left is now being cut off by Clement from the right and almost falls in. You can see his paddle in the air, over his head, as he attempts to save himself.
Two-thirds and thirty seconds into the race (figure 13), Connor has already walked away with it. Noic has averted disaster and turned it into good fortune, using Connor’s wash to climb into a comfortable second. Rai appears to be finished. At this point it looks almost impossible for him to come back from the situation he finds himself in, leaving Clement, Claudio and Spain’s Manuel Hoyuela in lane 8 to fight for third.
To this point, Connor has paddled on the left only. At thirty-three seconds in, with a full board length of open water lead, he changes sides from left to right (figure 14). This probably isn’t his fastest side change ever and over the next second or so he will lose a little ground to Noic who is coming off his wash to the left and beginning his finish. Clement is still trying to get full benefit from Connor’s wash and is using it as best he can to hang onto third. At this point, Claudio looks like he’s falling out of it.
At thirty-four seconds, after making a fairly conservative side change, Connor takes his first stroke on the right (figure 15). He still has close to a full board of open water over Noic, but Noic has managed to close the gap slightly, coming off Connor’s wash and beginning to mount his finish. At this point it looks like Clement is likely to finish third.
Up to this point for the leaders, the race has been about max speed and getting to max speed as quickly as possible. We’ve seen that Connor clearly has the fastest max speed. Actually, this may have prevented him from reaching his max speed as soon as the others as, since his max speed seems to be considerably faster, he likely accelerated for longer. He’s established a commanding lead very early and now, with a just under a third of the race to go just needs to bring it home.
This is the part of the race where “slowing down the least” matters. There’s a point in every sprint race where paddlers are no longer accelerating and there is also a point where they are actually starting to slow down. The key is to get as deep into the race as possible before reaching that point and, once you start to slow down, slowing down as little as possible. At thirty-seven seconds in (figure 16) we see that Noic, who has shot of Connor’s wash, has cut into Connor’s lead which is now down to about a half board length of open water. Remember, Connor has just completed a rather conservative side change and so has lost a little speed at the same time as Noic has shot off of his wash. While it is too late for Noic to pass Connor, he can close the gap. Clement continues to hang on to third but Noic now has a full board length lead on him. Claudio still looks destined to come fourth and Manuel fifth as Rai, sitting in sixth, is dealing with wash from two sides.
What happens next shows how good Connor really is. With the finish line in sight and paddling fresh on the right side, he kicks it up a notch and appears to accelerate relative to Noic, pulling back his full board length of open water lead by the finish (figure 17).
Noic finishes a clear second, and the battle a full board length behind him is for third. Miraculously, Rai has somehow pulled himself back into that battle with Clement and Claudio, an incredible feat given the what’s happened to him in the middle of the race. In the end, Claudio seems to have the cleanest water which may have made the difference for him as he noses out Rai for third (figure 18). Rai has paddled an amazing race, considering the circumstances, to climb back to fourth and Manuel has inched past Clement who, after such as strong first half, appears to have lost the most speed in the last third of the race.
The win by Connor is jaw-dropping in its dominance. Noic has raced an incredibly smart race, making the most of the situation he’s found himself in to finish a clear second. Claudio, who for much of the race was not in a podium position has closed his race stronger than everyone but Connor and Noic to pull up to third. Perhaps as impressive as Connor’s domination is Rai’s recovery from what looked like disaster to a fourth place finish just 0.37 seconds off the podium.
How did he do it?
So now that we’ve seen exactly how the race unfolded the question that begs answering is, “how did Connor go so fast?”. What can we learn from his race and what went into it that can help each of us improve our own paddling? We can explore a number of factors that contribute to Connor being able to put together a performance like this. Let’s look at them one at a time.
All of the athletes competing at this level have superior technique. They are extremely well connected and are good at applying the Six Fundamentals of Technique that I have talked about in detail in previous posts . We can take a look at Connor with regards to these fundamentals.
If you’re going to move forward you’ve got to think about moving yourself past the paddle rather than pulling the paddle through the water. Like all athletes at this level Connor does a great job of this. He is extremely well connected.
We can see in figure 19 that he’s in a really forward stance with lots of ankle flexion which helps get the blade buried very quickly with body weight immediately loaded on it.
Though the stroke length is short this is due to the extremely high cadence. Sprint technique requires strokes that are much more compact than we are used to seeing in distance racing, which allows paddlers to hit the high stroke rates we see in sprint races. In figure 20, we can see how he has used his hips, legs and body weight to both work against the water he’s gathered and is holding on his blade, and to get weight off the board and onto the paddle, thus helping the board sit higher in the water.
Viewing the race in slow motion (video 3) we can get an idea of how dynamic this part of his stroke is relative to some of the other paddlers. He seems to work against the water faster and more dynamically than the others without any loss of connection or slippage, getting his board to accelerate faster and sit higher in the water than those around him.
In figure 21 we can see that his top hand is high, in front of his face, and he’s just finishing using his legs, hips and body weight during the pull. The blade is still in front of his body at a mechanically beneficial, near vertical angle.
What happens next is what he does better than anybody. In figure 22 you can see how he has pulled his hips towards the paddle and has begun using his legs to push himself past the paddle. This movement is the foundation of an effective exit, which represents an opportunity to accelerate the board off the back of the stroke so that it carries more speed between strokes. I would argue that Connor gets more out of this part of the stroke than anyone else.
Viewing the race in slow motion (video 3), you can almost see how much more his board accelerates off the exit than the others, keeping his board higher in the water and carrying more speed between strokes and also making his next catch easier and more dynamic, while using less energy.
Figure 23 shows Connor immediately after exiting, already with his body in the forward position required for the next catch.
All he has to do is bring the paddle forward, which he does with the most direct (and therefore fastest) movement possible (figure 24).
Figure 25 shows Connor, fully loaded as he begins his pull, from the front. You can see how he’s over the water, shoulders stacked with weight off the board and on the paddle. This transference of weight onto the paddle along with the tremendous acceleration and high cadence his why his board sits so high in the water, almost as if it were skipping across the surface.
Nobody is going to be successful in a sprint race without being able to turn over strokes in the 90 strokes/min range. This high rate is necessary to keep the board on top of the water, reducing wetted surface and increasing speed. It also allows the paddler to create more of the impulses which accelerate the board forward. However, in this particular final the paddlers where pushing stroke rate to a new level. I honestly thought there was something wrong with my rate watch as I started to take stroke rates. It’s actually hard to push stopwatch buttons fast enough to get an accurate rate when the cadence is this high. I had to take stroke rates repeatedly for each athlete to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake.
The key, of course, is to be able to paddle at this high stroke rate with connection. It’s not easy but as we’ve seen in video 3 in slow motion, Connor maintains his connection at high cadence very well. Let’s look at Connor’s rate at various points in the race relative to the others.
|Start (1st set of yellow buoys)||Middle (last set yellow buoys)||Finish (last red buoys)|
|Connor||126 left||125 left||118 right|
|Noic||120 right||108 right||101 right|
|Claudio||112 left||103 right||92 left|
|Rai||120 right||Side change||113 right|
|Clement||123 left||111 left||91 left|
Two things we see here are worth noting:
- Connor had the fastest rate at both the start, middle and finish
- Connor had the least decline in rate over the course of the race and virtually no decline from the start the end of the middle interval. This suggests he didn’t really slow down till the red buoys when he did his side change, and then he slowed down less that the rest of the field. It also suggests that his board was still moving the fastest at the finish.
What we see is that not only does Connor have fantastic connection, but he is able to maintain that connection and paddle at higher rates than his competitors.
Connor made one, fairly conservative side change in which he lost a little ground. You could argue that he could afford to take his time changing sides with the lead he had. I don’t know whether he intentionally took his time or not, but once he regained his rhythm on the right he was again going faster than the other boards in the race.
In contrast, Noic changed sides twice. He may have been forced into his first change, from left to right, early at the first yellow buoys, due to Connor’s wash. He stayed on the right till just after the last yellow buoys when he switched back to left. Claudio switched once, from left to right at the third string of yellow buoys. Rai, switched twice, from right to left and back to right. His side changes were almost certainly influenced by the fact that he never really had any clean water in the race. Clement paddled the entire race on the left.
The trend here is that most of the guys are changing sides once in a sprint race of this distance, unless forced by wash to change more often. In the past we’ve seen them complete an entire race on one side but with lower stroke rates. I can’t remember a race where the stroke rates were this high. It could be that with rates as high as we’re seeing in this race, the need is there to change sides at least once rather than going the whole way on one side.
Let’s confine our discussion of Connor’s equipment to his board. I don’t know enough about Starboard paddles to talk intelligently about the one he is using. Nor do I know the length, blade area or shape. Suffice to say, he’s comfortable with the paddle he has in his hands and the length is such that it allows him to hit the rates he’s hitting without compromising connection. Obviously, that’s got a lot to do with his technique, but were his paddle too long he’d be unable to turn it over like he is here and if it were too short, he’d be missing connection at the front of the stroke even with superior technique. The essential point here is that paddle length is a personal thing, matched to each athlete’s technique, physical strength and preferred paddling gear. The lesson we can learn from Connor here isn’t that one should have a specific length of the paddle above their head, but rather the importance of finding out what paddle works for best for you for the distance and conditions you’re racing in, allowing you to both connect effectively and hit the cadence you’re after. The only way to do that is to experiment and learn. Eventually you’ll find, like Connor has, the ideal size and length for you.
In terms of his board, let’s look beyond that fact that it is a Starboard. We all know that Starboard designs and makes awesome boards. Witness the fact that the entire podium was riding Starboards. It’s an extremely popular board with the world’s top riders. However, we see paddlers win races on other brands as well. At this level it seems the top athletes can make any board work well. Instead, let’s ask the question that people have been asking me since they saw the race, namely why did Connor choose to race on a 2023 14 x 20.5” All Star rather than a Sprint? I mean he’s racing in a sprint race, after all, isn’t he?
I’m not surprised he opted for the All Star. First off, at 20.5”, it’s narrow. It’s not like he’s riding a barge. Secondly, with its wider, fuller, higher volume shape, it has a greater planing surface than the sprint. That helps keep the board on top of the water between strokes and when you’re taking over 100 strokes/min the board pretty much skips across the surface of the water with very little board actually in the water. It’s entirely likely that at these stroke rates there is less wetted surface on a 20.5” All Star than on the narrowest Sprint which is more likely to sink back into the water more between strokes. Furthermore, as the All Star is a more stable board it gives you a little more margin for error which is really nice when sprinting at such high rates.
Does this mean the All Star is a better board than the Sprint? No, it simply means that it is better for Connor, ironically, in a sprint race. It’s better in a technical race as well as it is made for the types of conditions we typically see in a technical race and is better turning. So where does the Sprint shine? Well, in flat water distance races a Sprint is a better board. These are the races it is designed for and if you’re riding an All Star in those races you’ll find it is much harder to keep it on top of the water for longer periods of time than it is in a short sprint or technical race. Connor commented after the ICF World Cup in Oklahoma City than he could not compete with Daniel Hasulyo in the distance race who was riding the Sprint. Recall that this race was held on a flatwater, sprint canoe-kayak course. Daniel is one of the best distance paddlers in the world, but he was also riding a perfect board for the race and the conditions. Similarly, at the recent 11 City Tour, we saw the Sprints shine. They’re definitely a better option than an All Star for that race.
The lesson for all of us is to pick the right board for the race and the conditions you’re racing in. It takes an investment in time to really get a board dialed in, so choosing the “right” board is not always an easy thing to do. However, if you’ve spent the time to get to know your boards, you’ll know the right board for the race and the conditions.
I’m not going to reveal too much about Connor’s preparation for the ICF Worlds or any other race. It’s up to Connor to share as much detail about his training as he’d like to. What I will do is comment briefly on a few general things and the philosophy we’ve approached his training with.
The first and biggest thing of significance is that Connor decided a couple of years ago to specialize in sprints and technical racing, rather than try to race everything. That’s not to say he doesn’t race distance races or do longer workouts to train his specific aerobic base. He needs to be good enough in distance racing to be competitive at APP events, which combine results over multiple events. However, his priority is sprint and technical racing, making it easier to train with specificity for these events at major competitions like the ICF Worlds.
It is incredibly hard to race at the highest level in two such extremely different events as a sprint and a long-distance race. Consider what we see in other sports. You never see athletes racing the 100m, 200m or 400m and the 5000m, 10000m or marathon in athletics. Similarly, in the pool, you never see the same swimmer competing in the 50m or 100m and the 800m or 1500m. And, in canoe-kayak, you rarely see an athlete attempt to race both 200m and 1000m, let alone hope to do well in both. Success in sport at the very highest level requires specialization. Sprints require highly developed neuromuscular abilities, anaerobic abilities and aerobic power based on glycogen metabolism. Distance racing is more dependent on aerobic abilities based on a combination of glycogen and fat metabolism and much less on anaerobic and neuromuscular ability. If you’re attempting to be world class in both, you’re chasing your tail. It’s simply not possible to compete with athletes who are specializing when you, in your training, are essentially pulling your body in two different directions while trying to train for everything.
Specializing has allowed Connor to focus more on the abilities he needs for his priority events. He can train the precise abilities he needs the most with higher quality, thus creating greater training stimuli which lead to greater results.
The second thing I will say about Connor’s training is that his experience and his enormous base, both in terms of aerobic fitness and SUP skills, allows him to more easily specialize. Consider that Connor has been racing at the highest level for well over a decade. He’s grown up downwinding in the most challenging water in the world, has SUP surfed Jaws and raced in just about every major event in the sport. His aerobic base is enormous, but so too is his inventory of skills which he has refined to the highest level. With athletes with this kind of background, it’s possible to do less training and yet still maintain base (and skills), rather than be required to do the high level of training that most of us need to develop that base and those skills. This provides opportunities to do both more specialized higher intensity training and get more quality rest and recovery between sessions. This has had a definite impact on the level Connor has been able to take his training to for sprints and technical racing while still allowing him to maintain sufficient base and skills to be competitive in high level distance racing and downwind racing.
Obviously, Connor’s remarkable consistency in races over the last several years speaks to his strength as a racer from a psychological perspective. In this particular event his was obviously as well prepared mentally as physically. Through my experience in canoe, both as an athlete racing at the highest level and as a coach working with the same level athletes, I’ve learned that you don’t dominate a race at this level without being incredibly “on” mentally. Connor’s ability in this race to get out so fast and stay on the gas through virtually the entire race when others were faltering certainly speaks to his physical preparation. However, the focus and commitment required to continue to hammer with not even the smallest sign of letting up, even with a such commanding lead, speaks to how hungry and mentally prepared Connor was for this race. While all the athletes in this final are incredible racers who know how to rise to the occasion, what Connor did in this race was special and was done as much with his mind as his body.
I remember watching one of the greats dominating a race at the world championships in canoe a number of years ago and someone beside me saying that a performance like that “was a gift to the sport”. That’s the way I feel when I watch this race over and over again on video. I’ve probably watched it a hundred times now and it doesn’t amaze me any less than it did the first time I saw it. All of these guys are taking sprint racing on a SUP to a new level, yet what Connor did I this particular race was so far above even that that it is hard to believe. It was a performance for the ages and the greatest sprint race we’ve ever seen in SUP. It will be really interesting to see how this performance stands up over the years to come.