Annabel Anderson: The Kiwi Queen

Whether she knows it or not, Annabel Anderson has forever changed racing— and made it a whole lot more interesting

On the morning of the 2012 Battle of the Paddle, few people knew who Annabel Anderson was. And fewer still realized the odds stacked against the 30-year-old New Zealand competitor who had only been racing for two-and-a-half years. A month-and-a-half before the race, Anderson tore her MCL, marking the eighth major knee injury she’d experienced in the last decade. Add in the fact that she broke her ribs in eight-foot hurricane surf at a SUP race in Florida, she wasn’t certain she’d hold up that morning.
And she had an audience for her second Battle of the Paddle California race: 15,000 people dug their toes into the sugary brown sand at Doheny Beach in Dana Point, Calif., the last weekend of September to witness the spectacle that is the BOP, SUP’s de-facto world championships.

In the finals, Anderson lined up against 20 of the top female paddlers in the world, most of whom she hadn’t raced against in the last year. The elite women’s finals started just after the elite men’s. After lap one Anderson sprinted through the chicane, her sun-streaked ponytail flapping behind her. She was in first, but it was still anyone’s race. With her head down, Anderson—all of 5’6”, 127 pounds—focused on catching the men in front of her.

At the end of the final lap, Anderson timed a set wave all the way to shore. She sprinted up the sand to the finish line, realizing no other women had crossed before her. A Kiwi in the crowd handed her a New Zealand flag. She’d beaten her nearest opponent by three minutes, becoming the new World Champion.

Inside, Anderson was filled with adrenaline and joy, but she was also in shock.

“I was prepared for so many things that day, but the one thing I wasn’t prepared for is what happens if I win,” she says.

One thing is certain when she shows up to a race: she’s there to win.

T H E   B E G I N N I N G

As a kid, Anderson’s nearest neighbor lived 40 minutes away across the rolling fields of her family’s sheep and beef farm in the high country of New Zealand’s South Island near Lake Wanaka.
Life on a farm is real. On any given day, there’s birth and death, blood and guts—life’s full circle up close. There’s hard work, good nutrition and deep sleep at the end of a long day. And there’s also the need to be resourceful, roll with good years and bad, and deal with weather of all types. Anderson describes her mother as such: salt-of-the-earth, able to deliver a baby lamb with her eyes closed and turn apples into jam.

These downhome characteristics instilled Anderson with an incredible work ethic. Long hours are standard for her. And growing up in a rural environment (New Zealand has only four million citizens), Anderson says she didn’t really know the difference between boys and girls in sports until she was older. She always played against boys.

“I put pressure on myself to live up to my own expectations,” she says. “As a little kid, I figured out that I had to do something a number of times over and over for me to be good at it.”

Her fellow SUP competitors recognize that work ethic now.

“That girl trains hard, that’s for sure,” says Gillian Gilbree who finished fifth at the 2012 Battle of the Paddle that Anderson won. “It was unbelievable to watch her so far out in front of everyone the whole race. She’s a really tough competitor. She gets her game face on and she doesn’t mess around.”

To point: last June, Anderson not only beat every girl at the French Oleron 30 Kilometer Paddle Challenge, but every male as well, leading her next opponent by six minutes and landing the cover a French newspaper in the process.

B R E A K I N G   P O I N T

Prior to SUP, Anderson excelled in tennis, netball, horseback riding and running. In high school, she chose skiing. At 16, she competed on the FIS circuit, alpine skiing’s premiere tour. Unlike most of her international opponents, who switched hemispheres in the off-season, Anderson, who didn’t have the resources to do the same, spent her summers at home training on land, often harder than if she was on snow.

Just before the start of the 1999 season, Anderson was on her way to becoming an Olympic-level skier. Her coach Adi Bernasconi, who was later an Olympic coach in Utah, warned Anderson that she might be over-training. He told her to take a break leading up to her first race.

“She was like a thoroughbred racehorse,” Bernasconi says. “She wanted to go, go, go!”

Ignoring her coach’s advice, she snuck in another training run before one of her biggest races of the season. Zooming down the icy slope at race speed, she misjudged a turn, and heard a snap as her left tibia broke.

The following winter, Anderson, who had only briefly recovered from her broken leg, decided to launch over a tabletop jump on her skis. She tore her right ACL.

Her last semester of high school was spent on crutches living back at her parents’ home. (She had an athletic scholarship to an elite boarding school and wasn’t used to living at home). “I went out of my tray those six months,” Anderson remembers. On top of all that, her doctors also diagnosed her with glandular fever, which she acquired after repeatedly exhausting her system.

While healing, she enrolled at the University of Otago and tried swimming to rehab her knee. She also started biking. For $500 NZ (about $200 U.S. in 2000), she bought the best bike she could afford (it was mediocre). This quickly led her to triathlon training.
Three months into finding a crew to train with for triathlons, Anderson finished in the top 10 at the Oceania Triathlon Championships and was selected for the New Zealand High Performance Program, an Olympic-development training academy near her university.

Triathlon got Anderson back into competition and provided skills she would later apply to standup racing. The Kiwi excelled in the sport, but like skiing, she pushed too hard. In 2003, just before the World Triathlon Championships, she re-ruptured her ACL. Her doctor said she needed an operation. Her coach told her to take painkillers and harden up. Anderson listened to her coach and kept training, further injuring her already-fragile knee.

By 2004, at 23, Anderson decided to trade her bike back for skis. Fat twin tips re-invigorated her love of the snow, so she took a winter off to compete in free skiing. At a big mountain contest, Anderson took a shortcut back to the chairlift on a training run, hit a block of ice, and re-ruptured her ACL for the fourth time. Annabel decided she was done competing in sports for good.
“I broke myself because I was scared of failure,” she says. “I put my body through years of torture because I was addicted to adrenaline and that helps you overcome a lot of pain. I didn’t want to accept the reality of the real world.”

F A C I N G   U P

Forced to get real, Anderson landed a job marketing for a leading poultry company in Auckland. In her spare time she discovered sailing and a physiotherapist who helped fix her knees.

On a sailing trip, Anderson stumbled into standup. After the Auckland to Fiji yacht race in 2008, she was in Musket Cove, Fiji. She needed access to a boat anchored across the bay. “Rather than hail a long boat to deliver me across, they suggested I take the board,” she says. “It was really just to get from point A to B.”

Her second SUP experience was with 45-knot winds at her back, struggling in 10-foot swells. “I likely spent more time falling off than standing up. Little did I know that would be my first true downwind experience,” she says.
Anderson had no idea that a standup paddleboard would soon change her life and bring her back to competitive racing. Again.

T H E   S T A R T

Anderson needed a change from the Auckland day-to-day. In 2008, she gave her two weeks notice and applied for a work visa, sold everything, and moved to London. To save money, Anderson ran and biked to her various jobs. First, with her a commerce degree in marketing and applied sciences, she set up an office for a New York law firm, then worked for a marketing agency and later at the global headquarters of Rolls Royce.

On one of the many grey London morning commutes along the Thames River, watching rowers glide by, the water called to her. “Why not SUP the Thames,” she wondered?
Anderson convinced the coach of the London Rowing Club to let her store a board in the boat shed at Putney.

Around the same time, she heard about a standup paddle event in Hamburg, Germany. “I figured, ‘Why not?’” she says. She had never been to Germany and it sounded like a great way to see the country.

Anderson persuaded the organizers to extend her an entry. Despite never having stepped foot on a race board, she finished second in both the sprint and the long distance events on borrowed boards (a Starboard as fate would have it). She also pocketed 1,500 Euros.

“I thought standup might just be the greatest excuse to travel to places I never would have thought of visiting,” Annabel says.

Her wanderlust began anew. After Germany, Anderson started a partnership with Starboard that would later turn into a sponsorship. She travelled to local European races, using prize money to fund her adventures. And she immediately started winning.

The rest of the year, Anderson proceeded to win or place in the top three at all of the races she entered, from back home in New Zealand to Bangkok. But nothing was ever easy. Transporting equipment is often the biggest challenge facing the international competitor: “People think that I have this strategic travel schedule, but I planned races only around where I knew I could get boards,” she says.

There were other mishaps too. On a trip from Bangkok to France, she developed a staph infection that left her in a French hospital for two weeks. From there she went to Italy where she broke her toes getting in the water, but competed in a French river race later that week anyway. She had to win in France in order to fund her first trip to Hawaii where she took third following her first Molokai to Oahu Paddleboard Championships. After Hawaii, she travelled to Utah, New York, Florida and then took a quiet third place at the 2011 Battle of the Paddle in California behind four-time champion Candice Appleby.

T H E   B I G   O N E

Despite her highs, lows continued to blow in like typhoons: two-and-a-half months before the September, 2012 Battle of the Paddle, Anderson slipped down some stairs at a restaurant and tore her right MCL. She said it was one of the hardest points in her life, but through Bikram yoga, sweat and a lot of positive thinking she went on competing. The next month, she won the elite women’s division at the NYC SEA Paddle and came in second overall.

While her results for the last year were solid, Anderson hadn’t lined up against any of her biggest opponents leading up to the 2012 Battle of the Paddle. Many people still didn’t really know who she was; the mountain girl from New Zealand wasn’t expected to win the biggest race of the year in a sport traditionally dominated by ocean athletes.

When Anderson came across the finish line in front, even she was a bit surprised. “I knew I’d be in the top five but I wasn’t sure how I’d measure up against the rest,” she says. Neither did anyone else. The press in New Zealand didn’t even know about her win until after she returned home.

W H Y   S H E   W I N S

Anderson doesn’t mind rubbing shoulders. She’s used to tight, crowded turns from biking and isn’t phased when people bump her board on the water. Getting bumped and thrown onto asphalt at 30 miles-per-hour on a road bike (which happened several times) is much more intimidating than getting knocked into water. It helped her hone her aggressive approach to racing.

Anderson is tough as hell, a fierce competitor, but off the water, she’s also sensitive and caring, comfortable enough in her own skin to sport outlandish costumes for charity events (as she did a this year’s Standup for the Cure). In the middle of her interview with SUP magazine, a middle-aged Kiwi man approached her, interrupting the interview so he could tell her that she was his hero, humbly asking for her autograph on a napkin.

But when the elite men crossed the BOP finish line last year, second and third place all hugged their new champion. When Annabel crossed the finish line first, her competition wasn’t as congratulatory.

With bigger sponsors looking to enter standup racing, the women’s race scene is competitive. During races, things can get heated. As fans, this is something we should celebrate. The women’s SUP race game is coming to an apex, featuring beautiful, athletic, hyper-competitive women that are, at the same time, completely marketable.

Anderson and fellow racer Candice Appleby have, rather casually, created a fantastic rivalry that could someday (if we’re lucky) compare to Andy Irons’ and Kelly Slater’s storied clashes on the ASP World Tour. Regardless, there’s no love lost between the two. “She is definitely more than aggressive when competing,” says four-time BOP champ Appleby, and leaves the intricacies of the rivalry at that. Anderson didn’t want to comment.

“If you beat (Anderson) around a buoy, she isn’t going to cry about it or apologize for beating you,” says Nikki Gregg, a veteran on the race circuit. “But she’ll be stoked for you if you have the balls and the strength. Annabel does her talking on the water, and no matter who you are, she’s going to try and kick your ass.”

T H E   N E X T   C H A P T E R

We hope it doesn’t anytime soon. Anderson certainly doesn’t plan on letting up. She aspires to elevate SUP as a sport and is just coming into her own as a marketable athlete. She knows the game is young. She’s also learned a lot and is approaching the next year with a wiser outlook. “We all must come together to be positive role models for the sport to grow,” she says.

She’s started developing partnerships with bigger companies to help bring standup to a broader audience. She was recently approached by Subaru to become their new brand ambassador for New Zealand, and is excited about the opportunities this will bring to help others realize their own dreams through sports and adventures.

“Annabel is one of the most, if not the most, passionate racers in the sport,” says Caren Forbes, Starboard’s international marketing manager. “She deserves the recognition and has earned every ounce of her winnings. The impact that Annabel has on the entire SUP scene in New Zealand has been incredible.”

After her BOP win, Anderson went back to New Zealand for the Southern Hemisphere fall and summer. The Kiwi press eventually realized what she’d accomplished and Anderson made weekly television appearances and was all over the news.

And despite the injuries, the setbacks and all the victories, Anderson’s energy remains. During one weekend when not racing, she emceed a New Zealand charity event, did a free SUP demo for a group of women, and set up an adventure with friends. And she never stops training.

“I guess I just love the thrill of the chase,” she says.
Shelby Stanger

This feature originally ran in our Summer 2013 issue.

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The article was originally published on Standup Paddling

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