Annabel Anderson has been the World #1 paddleboarder since rankings started in 2012, and her achievements across a myriad of sports have been nothing less than phenomenal. Before Annabel discovered SUP she excelled at netball, running, horse-riding and tennis but chose to focus on skiing. She was 16 years old when she competed on skiing’s premiere tour, the FIS circuit and was well underway to become an Olympic level skier.
However, in 1999 Annabel broke her tibia while training and soon after her ACL. Annabel has always pushed herself to be the best she can and as a result has suffered her fair share of injuries and challenges. With skiing out for the time being, Annabel started swimming and biking which led her to compete in triathlons which she also excelled at and was selected for the NZ High Performance programme, an Olympic-development training academy. Once again, she trained hard and once again she blew out her ACL. So, she traded her bike for skis and began competing in free skiing until she re-ruptured her ACL once again.
Anyone else would have given up by now, however Annabel discovered sailing and through this she stumbled upon the sport of standup. The rest as they as they say is history. Annabel has gone on to become the most decorated SUP athlete and has been ranked World #1 female since rankings started in 2012. She has won so many events it would be impossible to list them all, she is a ferocious competitor, however remove the competition and you’ll a generous woman, happy to give her support and encouragement to anyone she meets. It was a real pleasure catching up with Annabel to bring you the latest on her journey…
2017 saw you win more accolades, not just in paddle boarding but also mountain biking, with excellent results in the Bannockburn Classic Adventure Ride, the Red Bull Defiance and The Gutbuster. You were once again crowned the 2017 female athlete of the year award at the annual Stand Up Paddleboard Awards won the Central Otago Sports Woman and Overall Sports Woman of the Year and were nominated for the Halberg Awards, and that was just in 2017. Do you have a favourite achievement? Why?
There was no one accolade or achievement that stood out over another, more it was the excitement of if I could pull off the year that I did across multiple codes, self supported (no financial sponsor) when the odds were more than stacked against me. It was nice to know that I could still smash pedals and put myself in the hurt box on bikes and it was a step towards further legitimising the sporting trade I have plied for the better part of 8 years and have those achievements recognised by my sporting peers.
But as far as achievements go, having the courage to speak up when I saw the need to do so, to have the courage to take on establishment, to ask questions and to open the conversation around gender equity in sport and to see the fruits of that work coming into fruition week in, week out this year will resonate louder than any award or accolade I have received to date.
How long have you been involved in paddleboarding? Mountain biking? Other outdoor pursuits? And what drove you towards these activities?
I first stepped on a board back in 2008 and did so may be 10 times before I moved to London in late 2009. It wasn’t until I wrangled a place to store a board in the London Rowing Club shed in Putney did I bite the bullet and buy a board to escape the concrete jungle make up for the lack of ocean and wide open spaces.
When I look back on things, I’ve always been a product of my environment. We lived on farms and used horses as an integral way to get around, so it was natural that I grew up on ponies and horses and still love to ride. When I blew out my first ACL, a vintage $500 road bike was my side step from the surgeon’s scalpel. I loved to run, always have and always will. When you spent every winter school holiday in Wanaka and your parents moved back to where they lived when you were first born, it’s hard not to ski. When you get transplanted to Auckland somewhat against your will post university for a ‘real’ graduate job and you see water on your doorstep it was inevitable that sailing would feature highly. The same went for mountain biking as I’ve engineered ways of spending more time back in Wanaka it’s been yet another way of playing in my back yard and adapting to the environments I find myself in. In short, I’ve always been a product of my environment and I’ll always find ways to play regardless of the location or the landscapes.
In 2013 you not only beat every girl at the French Oleron 30km Paddle Challenge, but also ever male as well, leading by over six minutes. Can you tell us about that?
I think I was in as much disbelief as everyone else, but that theme rang strong throughout 2012 and it wasn’t the only event I would win outright. What ensued was the controversy of unequal prize money, the accusations of cheating (goodness knows how you do that when you all paddle the same course) and of taking performance enhancing drugs. I saw the ugly side of competitors and humans. It was a very isolating and lonely time. No one really knew how to deal with these performances and rather than being championed and celebrated, it felt like they were covered up as it was an embarrassment to the men I was competing against. But it did make the back page of a couple of French newspapers…
I hear you stepped in at the last minute for a friend in the Red Bull Defiance, that’s a pretty impressive achievement – how do you keep yourself that fit all year round so you are able to do an event at such short notice? Or do you have a down-time?
I was going through a stage of making myself step into situations where I knew I would be unprepared and have to rely on my mental skills to get me through. Sure I have a general level of fitness that allows me to say yes to things like this but this was on another level given the weather, having not met my team mate and dealing with the ups and downs that come with teams racing.
For the past couple of years I’ve been really mindful of the need for some time out through October and November. A time to repair and rebuild the body, but increasingly the mind. But as I’ve been riding more and more, that downtime has been squeezed and one way or another life was going to force a time out. That happened this January when I fell back and hit my head on the concrete floor of the garage at home putting me in full post-concussion syndrome/TBI territory. I was some of the fittest I’ve ever been and it all came crashing down in a moment. It’s been an interesting journey of patience coming out the other side, but I’m relishing the time out, the chance to fully recover and to take a breath for a hot minute…or two.
Competing and performing at this level requires a huge commitment – how important is sponsorship in helping you to attain your goals?
Sponsorship only works if there is an alignment of core values between all parties involved. By nature I’m a deeply loyal person and have found it incredibly challenging to walk away from partnerships that conflicted with my values. I’ve borne the brunt of being the ‘little guy’ and had to walk away and that has cut pretty deeply. In the past couple of years, I went back to those core values, engaged my village of people who also lived to those values and had to turn up and win to make it to the next week. It was how I got my start back in late 2010, so it was almost like coming full circle. There were definitely times where I wondered if I had the strength to keep going, but something made me keep going and I’m glad I did. In a sense it was the ultimate type of commitment. I had to back myself and I had to deliver, no questions. I had the trust of my long time board shaper and I had a global village of loyal friends. We made it work and I’ll always back those who have backed me. It’s a two way street and it is one that will keep on going for a long while yet. As for now, I’m grateful for the support of Air Tahiti Nui. Of their support of my multi-discipline approach to sport and of my advocacy work surrounding gender equity in sport. At the end of the day, successful partnerships go back to alignment of values and a common understanding of objectives for all parties involved. I love the chance to bring these to life and to humanise the brand DNA through stories, collaborations, achievement, adventure and media platforms.
Is gaining sponsorship a challenge in your field and if so what are the challenges of this?
In the surf industry, of which stand up paddling is very much a sub category of – most definitely. When you know the fragility of the industry and the economics behind it, it’s not sustainable for the industry to fund its athletes and identities which puts the onus on non-endemic partnerships in terms of sponsorship. The same goes for many sports and events, but there is always opportunity if you’re willing to hunt for it.
In today’s world where social media seems to play such a large role in sponsorship, it seems that having followers may have more financial pull than being at the top of your sport. What’s your thoughts about this? It is definitely important but judging a person by how many followers they may have is a rookie marketing mistake (and one which is made by many). Social media platforms are only of value to a potential partner if there is a core alignment with the identity they are engaging to produce content or to promote products or services. There are a plethora of tools to enable this content to be streamed to the people it needs to get to which may or may not include the identity’s audience. Now and going forward this is where you are going to see more promoted content that is highly targeted to specific audiences and influencer led tactics that will continue to change as the social platforms pivot and adjust their algorithms. In short, its traditional brand marketing, you need to think before you act and you have to put some strategy behind what you do.
It sometimes seems that looking good while doing an activity carries more credibility that actually being good at something. I’ve heard it referred to as the athlete model. What are your thoughts on that?
Tag Hauer’s current campaign is a classic example of this where they use male athlete ambassadors but female models in their ‘Don’t Crack Under Pressure’ campaign. It reeks of chauvinism and is a complete turn off to majority of females who have half a brain. The surf industry has been infamous for doing this also. When brands use real athletes who are authentic and resonate with that brand, it generally works out well for all involved. But sometimes I really do wonder how many decision makers and agency heads need to be shaken to see what is actually going on and how they are in the driving seat to fix it.
In 2016 the Red Bull Heavy Water began, an invite-only paddleboard race held in San Francisco. For the first two years, women were not invited. What was the reasoning behind that?
Quite simply the event director did not think he needed to invite girls, then did an about turn at the 11th hour. Bad move buddy, in 2017 that resulted in societal uproar and it represented the wider conversations that needed to be had. Crises equaled opportunity, things have changed and they have categorically changed for the better.
The event is renowned for its heavy conditions, why do you think people still believe women can’t cope? Have they seen some of the conditions we’ve competed in over the years?
It’s ignorance and taking the easy out rather than addressing the real matter at hand of why girls weren’t invited in the first place. Not every girl needed to be invited, but there were a small handful that would have more than held their own in that field of men.
What motivates you to want to compete in extreme events? First and foremost, it is me versus my environment, me versus myself before me versus my competitors. But it has to feel right and it has to come from a deep feeling of excitement rather than fear or anxiety. If I can feel the ‘holy shit butterflies’, that’s usually a good omen to proceed, albeit with caution, within my own limits and to be present and aware of my surroundings.
You helped drive a campaign last year, #I Paddle for Equality, to get things changed, what motivated you to speak out?
I was the only one that had nothing to lose, whose performances could not be questioned, I had a responsibility to speak up, finally I was brave enough to do so.
It was pleasing to see women included this year. However, you are the World # 1 paddleboarder yet you were not invited. Why do you think that is?
How do you feel about that? It must feel very bitter-sweet? Maybe this is what happens when you ruffle feathers. In the grand scheme of things it’s a poor play on their behalf. If I was running their PR, I may have approached the situation quite differently. But we are talking about the same people that invited no females for the past two years of the event, so in some ways it is hardly surprising. If that is the price of being a change maker, I’d do the same thing all over again tomorrow.
Can you tell us about some of the other challenges you have faced being a woman in the outdoors?
I never faced any real challenge until 2012. Until then I had incredible opportunities. It astounded me that not all things were as equal as I was brought up or led to believe.
Who do you believe are our worst critics? Other women or men?
Both. We are females can be pretty good at tearing each other down. We all have a responsibility to be the rising tide that floats all boats. We will all be better for it.
One of the misconceptions about many top athletes is that because they are hard and aggressive in competition they must be the same in real life situations. What I have known of you off the water is a kind and caring and willing to do anything to help others. Do you find this misconception difficult?
People will always make up their own ideas of how they want to perceive others be it true or far from the truth. I’ve struggled a lot with misconception and the prejudice of others and it has cut me to the core for long periods of time. All I can do is stay true to myself, true to my friends and those who have always had my back and let actions speak louder than words now and into the future. But I will never apologies for being a competitor on a start line and turning up to do what has been my job, to play fair, to think rather than act in the heat of the moment and to know when to bite my tongue.