© Christian Jung
Annabel Anderson is one of those athletes whose career highlights are too numerous to squeeze into a couple of paragraphs. An icon in the world of paddleboarding, the 37-year-old has won multiple SUP world championships and has been the world #1 for for six years straight, winning – outright – some of the sport’s most notorious races. And that’s just the world of stand-up paddleboarding, never mind the elite mountain biking, cycling, triathlon and skiing accolades she has accumulated over the years.
The New Zealand-born athlete is currently recuperating after suffering her second serious concussion of the year, along with some pretty horrific injuries following a ski accident, but very kindly answered my questions in her down time. Thank you, Annabel. It’s a pleasure to have you on Lessons in Badassery!
You’ve suffered two major concussions this year, most recently from a serious accident involving a cliff – what happened?
Concussions are no laughing matter and both knocks to the head were total accidents. The latest KO involved accidentally skiing off a blind cliff and tumbling 500m of vertical over more steep and rocky terrain. Not an ideal way to spend a Thursday, but in many ways being knocked out on the first impact likely prevented the accident from being a lot worse. I hobbled away from hospital with a dislocated hip, torn MCL, severe whiplash and multiple haematomas up and down my back.
Rewinding a bit, you have a background in skiing, triathlon, MTB… can you tell us about how your SUP career came about?
My paddling career was highly accidental. I was living in London and really missing the water. I was very fit from commuting by bike and running everywhere, and I talked my way into a major race in Hamburg. I had 3 days to figure out how to paddle a race-style board and ended up walking away with a wad of Euros for my efforts that weekend. One thing led to another and soon enough it became the challenge of pulling off amazing races around the world using events as the reason to go places. At the end of the first year, I knew that if I got smart about how I did this that I had a lot more potential. Within 6 months of that, I was beating some of the best men in the world and remained at the top of the women’s ever since.
Physically, what does it take to be a world class SUP athlete?
It takes a multitude of things to be successful but what is often overlooked is one’s ability to ‘read’ and ‘feel’ water as it’s an ever-changing landscape. Physically, it’s as much about legs and lungs as it is anything else and being able to pull off technical manoeuvres when you’re at maximal efforts because as soon as you fall or don’t stomp a wave, you’re suddenly very, very slow.
What kind of distances are involved in SUP, and what’s the effort comparable to?
Anything from a 200m sprint to a 30+mile channel crossing in the open ocean to a multi-day stage race to 1000 miles down the Yukon River or simply in and out of the surf around some buoys. Time-wise, a 200m sprint is around 60 seconds, 3km is around 18 minutes, 10km is around 1-hour and a channel crossing of 50km + is anywhere from 4-7 hours depending on tides, winds and sea states.
At the height of your SUP success, what did a typical week of training look like for you?
I liked to do a lot, and my weekly routine in the off season would reflect that.
Monday AM – Recovery, catch-up on admin/planning
Monday PM – Surf session followed by a run in the hills
Tuesday AM – Speed session on water
Tuesday PM – Recovery paddle and maybe a short race
Wednesday AM – Long gravel bunch MTB ride
Wednesday PM – Interval session on water
Thursday AM – Recovery/possible surf depending on conditions
Thursday PM – Off
Friday AM – Interval session on water
Friday PM – Run/dry land [training] Saturday AM – Interval session on water
Saturday PM – Recovery session
Sunday AM – Long Paddle or surf
Sunday PM – Off
Of course, this would all depend on the weather, conditions, events etc so more often than not this would be changed and adapted to suit.
What kind of strength training do you do?
I’ve never been huge on the gym, really only when absolutely necessary – in my case to rehabilitate old knee injuries etc. I’d prefer to mix up body weight circuits outside, surf, run and ride bikes.
You’ve said it’s insanely difficult to maintain motivation when you’re at the top of the sport for solong. Mentally, how do you deal with the pressure and expectation?
The hardest thing is to keep re-setting the goal posts. Once I started to beat guys, it became a case of me versus myself, so I had to turn things into a game to keep the spark alive. At the end of every season my board shaper and I would decide how we’d tactically approach the next year and I’d hatch the plan around that.
Mentally, I only had the pressure I put on myself, but if I’m honest the pressure to perform was always intense. I could always pre-empt what the headline would be if I might lose, as the usual noise and chatter would be around who got 2ndrather than about my performance.
Last year you won several MTB events including the Red Bull Defiance. How often are you able to get out and ride?
During the season, not very much as often it would be simply too difficult to travel with bikes as well as boards, but I’d make up for it as soon as I got home in late October through until January when I’d be at home in the South Island of NZ with mountains right out the back door.
You’ve been vocal about the need for equality in surf sports. Has this been a hard slog at times?
I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand the importance of this unless you have been personally affected or implicated. Unless you’ve stood side-by-side your male contemporary with their cheque being close to double the amount that yours is made out for, do you really know what that feels like? Or if the boys get to compete for a bucket load of prize money and they simply don’t invite any girls? But it runs deeper than that. The contracts given to guys were always worth substantially more and the bias would cross-over to the use of images and who was used to promote.
Surf sports are not alone, have you seen the discrepancies in cycling? It’s a universal conversation that needs to be had across many sports, brands, governing bodies and the like. Just open up the sports pages in a newspaper in the weekend and count how many headlines are for men versus women. It’s not rocket science to work out that society has fallen victim to unconscious bias and that it is totally fixable. I wouldn’t say it’s a hard slog, but it’s a persistent slog of beating heads against a wall to see visible change.
You’ve been the only woman to ever achieve an overall No.1 ranking and have taken the overall win in competitions numerous times. Have you found the SUP industry react positively to this?
From the initiation of world rankings in 2012 until I stepped aside in early 2018 I lead the rankings consecutively. When someone wins that much it can be a very lonely place and I could feel a sense of apathy towards what I deemed to be amazing performances. Being at the top of your game is as much mental as it is physical and it meant overcoming a huge amount of hurdles in the course of duty to ‘get the job done’.
You’ve broken a lot of bones and had a lot of surgery but you’ve bounced back every time. Would you say you’re a pretty positive person?
When you do a lot of things, being broken tends to be part of the equation. In my late teens and early 20s I would really push boundaries without really realising the consequences and I really paid the price for these. It’s hard to be positive when life is serving you a shit sandwich but with experience you learn to understand that ‘this too shall pass’. When sporting career 2.0 came around, it was about playing to the red line but respecting it and dealing with what ever was thrown my way. I wouldn’t call it ‘positive’, I’d call it an ability to be relentlessly optimistic while exhibiting a ferocious amount perseverance and resilience to overcome set backs on the road to working towards whatever goal was in the vicinity.
When it comes to digging deep in tough races, how do you get through the low moments?
I’ve been there so many times that it’s almost an autopilot reaction. If all goes according to plan you hopefully won’t have to dig to the bottom of your reserves and there is only so many times you can go there in a year/season before you need some time and space to replenish the reserves. But, at the end of the day you are either born to hurt or you hate to hurt and I typically knew exactly which of my main competitors fell into which categories.
Are you good at making time for rest days? And what’s your favourite thing to do on your day off?
I’m traditionally pretty bad at rest and it took a long time (years) to become comfortable with sitting idle for a hot minute (or 60). In a perfect world, I’d use ‘active’ recovery and feel better for it through moving and getting to do other things, but when you factor in hectic amounts of travel, racing, training and the logistics of it all, sometimes you just need to stop and put the ambulance at the top of the cliff rather than deal with the potential fallout of pushing things a little too far for too long.
It’s been reported that you’re taking a hiatus from SUP… will you be back?
I never stated that I was taking a hiatus. A press release stating that I wouldn’t be attending the first major of 2018 came out from the event directors, and people took what they wanted from there without bothering to source check if that was the case or not. It just happened to be that I’d had a major concussion and was working my way back to normal when a front wheel blow-out on my bike resulted in a crushed thumb and then a freak ski accident resulted in another concussion, a dislocated hip and a torn MCL. For the moment, I will simply concentrate on making sure my body heals as close to 100% as possible and from there I will make decisions regarding the future. I don’t have anything to ‘prove’ as I’ve proven myself multiple times over, so there needs to be a bigger reason and purpose to warrant the investment of time and sacrifice of other things in life.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’ve always been a fan of Mahiku tights and Running Skirts Run Bun shorts as you can wear them all day long for every activity and simply rinse off under a hose without the need for multiple changes of clothing. They also negate the need for suncream which is a mega bonus. Add in a trucker cap and mineral make-up powder (rub it in and it doesn’t sweat off or come off in the water) and you have the hero trio of how to protect your skin from the elements.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am an official ambassador for Air Tahiti Nui and have the product support of some amazing niche brands, many of which are founded and run by women who had a problem and solved it by creating their own businesses. I have a habit of gravitating to and supporting epic humans doing great things with strong morals and outstanding product where ever possible.