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SUP legend lucky to be alive after horror skiing crash

The world's number one stand up paddleboard woman for six years' running, Annabel Anderson, is rethinking her career following a skiing accident she can't believe she survived. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

Annabel Anderson has no memory of plummeting 400m after skiing off a cliff on Treble Cone. But she knows it’s just as well she doesn’t.

Being knocked unconscious at first impact in a terrifying skiing accident four months ago “probably saved my life”, the multi-talented Kiwi athlete says. “And I’d never want to relive that again.”

Falling like a rag doll, she suffered a long list of injuries – among them a dislocated hip, broken tailbone, ruptured ligament in her knee, whiplash and severe bruising.

“When I see where I fell it’s like ‘how the hell [did I survive that]'?” she says. “I’ve obviously got more things to do on this earth.”

But it’s meant that Anderson - the world’s number one women’s stand up paddleboarder since rankings began in 2012 - isn’t racing at this week’s ISA world SUP and paddleboard championships in China.

In fact, she’s not sure when, or even if, she will return to the competitive world of stand up paddleboarding.

The enforced break to recover – after years of rushing around the globe to compete – has given 37-year-old Anderson a little time to reflect on her career and what she might do next. She’s also been concentrating on simply getting back up on her feet. 

When LockerRoom spoke to Anderson, she had just finished walking up Mt Iron behind her hometown of Wanaka. Earlier in the week, she’d climbed back on a bike. And she’s been out on the calm waters of Lake Wanaka gently padding again.

It's a scene far removed from Anderson's unparalleled year of 2017, when she collected a remarkable swag of SUP titles around the world.

Among them were the long distance and technical race titles she comfortably won at the world championships; the champion of the Pacific Paddle Games (which also won her the sport's 2018 Female Performance of the Year award); and the title of overall number one SUP racer in the world – male or female. She is the only woman to have ever achieved the honour.  

All of this made her a finalist for this year's Halberg Sportswoman of the Year award.

But, since then, Anderson seems to have had nothing but bad luck. As she wrote on Instagram: “This ain’t my first rodeo on the rehab front”.

She was already coming back from injury when the skiing accident happened. She’d broken her thumb during a mountain bike stage race in the French Alps (she's a strong rider, winning a string of races in New Zealand and the US last year). And she was recovering from another concussion – a pull-up bar she was using in her parents’ garage ripped out of the ceiling and she smacked her head on the concrete floor.

In late July she suffered her most serious mishap yet. A more than able skier who competed internationally as a teenager, Anderson was out with friends skiing on Treble Cone. 

“It was a normal day’s skiing. A beautiful day. I’ve grown up on that mountain and I know the back of the field like the back of my hand,” she says.

There had been a dusting of new snow overnight, and so they went up to the Motatapu Chutes – challenging back-country terrain.

“When you’re a local, you know where to go,” she says.

But, as Anderson was skiing down into the basin, she mistakenly flew off a bluff. “How the snow was loaded created a visual illusion. And I got launched at pace,” she says.

“I’m really lucky I got knocked out at first impact, because then I fell another 400m vertically. When I came to, 10 minutes later, I was in the arms of the ski patrol.”

She was helicoptered off the mountain to Dunedin Hospital.

“Doctors said the head knock probably saved my life and a lot more broken bones,” she says. “Three days after the accident, I was drinking champagne with the guys who rescued me, celebrating being alive.”

Anderson has had more than her fair share of calamities as an elite athlete. Different leg injuries ended both her international skiing and triathlon careers; she’d had 11 surgeries by the time she was 24. Countless times she’s blown out the ligaments in her knees.

“Normally I’ve had to suck it up, because I had things I had to go on to,” she says. “But now I understand it’s okay to be broken. This is a forced letting-go.

“I’ve been running at a relentless pace for a really long time. Life forces us to slow up sometimes.”

"I've had six years of being the best in the world. I’ve won every title and beaten the boys. I got to pioneer something and leave it in a good place."

- Annabel Anderson

For almost a decade, Anderson has been living out of a suitcase for at least 10 months of every year. Before now, she’d taken only one decent break in her sporting career.

The girl who grew up on a high country farm near Lake Wanaka was travelling the globe from the age of 16, skiing on the alpine circuit, with her aim to become an Olympic skier. In 1999, she broke her leg in training and then suffered a knee injury in her comeback.

She then started swimming and biking, which led to triathlons, and a place in the sport’s high performance programme. Again, she badly hurt her knee. An attempt to compete in free skiing was yet again stymied by injury.

When Anderson finished a bachelor of commerce in marketing at the University of Otago in 2004, she “stepped away from anything competitive – I was so burnt out.”

She concentrated on the corporate world for the next seven years, working in Auckland, then London for multinational companies such as American Express and Rolls Royce.

But, at the age of 29, the water beckoned, and she started stand up paddle-boarding on the River Thames. She convinced organisers to let her enter a 2010 SUP event in Germany, with no previous experience, and finished second in the sprint and distance races on a borrowed board.

That began her love affair with SUP racing.  Although she’s broken toes, fingers, ribs and more knee ligaments, she established herself as a tough, relentless and aggressive competitor on the world circuit. By 2012, she was the number one woman in the world. A position she hasn't relinquished, until now.

Dealing with her recovery has been a lesson in patience and acceptance for Anderson. But she has “relentless optimism” that she will be back on the mountains and the waves.

There were some things that she couldn’t wait for though. Ten days after the ski accident, she was out on the lake, lying on her board, paddling her hands through the chilly water. It was her “chicken soup for the soul”.

She’s been religiously visiting her physio, and is toying with the idea of going back to yoga. She’s planning a trip to California to see a doctor who, over the last few years, has been tending to her wear and tear with stem cell therapy.

“I tore ligaments in my right shoulder in January last year, and with the treatment, the ligaments regenerated. It saved me from having a shoulder reconstruction,” she says.

“Every day I’m getting 0.01 percent better, and eventually I’ll get there. I’m still so far from any kind of starting line. It might be six months, it might be two years, but I’ve learned to be okay with that.”

But will she return to the SUP start-line? “It’s funny, really. When I finished my season this time a year ago, I knew I really couldn’t do much more than what I’d done,” she says.

“I’ve already had six years of being the best in the world. I’ve won every title and beaten the boys. I got to pioneer something and leave it in a good place. I earned a living from doing what I loved – even though I did the last three years of my career without sponsors.

“The clincher for me would be making it better. I honestly feel I have more to give now, than I do to gain.”

That could be in her leadership off the water. Anderson is already a vocal advocate in the #ipaddleforequality movement in her sport, focusing on issues like pay equity and more opportunities for women paddlers.

The sport – currently in a state of conflict and confusion - needs guidance. There’s an ongoing dispute between the International Surfing Association and the International Canoe Federation over who has the right to govern stand up paddle-boarding, as they push for inclusion in the Olympic Games.  

The bitter wrangle for control has now been dragged into the Court of Arbitration for Sport – international sport’s supreme court – and canoeing’s attempt to hold its first world SUP championship was scuttled.  

“It’s a really sad situation," says Anderson. "The sport has all the potential, but right now it’s been fought over in the biggest mudslinging match. It’s hideous.

“There’s no leadership, no governance – and it’s impacting on grass roots, the industry and the sport.”

Anderson says she will need to “redefine my relationship with competition” if she’s to carry on competing in SUP, and it’s a process she’s still going through. But it’s unlikely she’ll be sitting watching the lupins bloom in Wanaka for too long.

 “I don’t think I will retire from anything. I’m certainly never going to retire from having fun.”

Another New Zealander made headlines at the ISA world SUP and paddleboard championships this week, with 16-year-old Stella Smith of Gisborne winning New Zealand’s first SUP surfing medal, a bronze in the women’s event.  

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