Sports Baxter shakes off illness and paddles to Molokai-2-Oahu record finish By Kyle Galdeira / Special to the Star-Advertiser July 30, 2012 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COMConnor Baxter took another agonizing stroke to stay ahead of Dave Kalama en route to victory in the Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Nothing was going to stop Connor Baxter from defending his prestigious crown — not even a recent bout with pneumonia. The 17-year-old from Makawao, Maui, defended his title in the unlimited stand-up paddleboard division, finishing the 16th annual Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championships on Sunday in a course-record time of 4 hours, 13 minutes and 26 seconds — nearly 13 minutes faster than the mark he set last year. "I’ve been getting sick off and on with pneumonia, and I don’t know if I’m quite at 100 percent, but it was enough to get across and get first place," said Baxter through a wide grin after exclaiming that he was glad to be back on solid ground following the rigorous crossing. "Last year I did 4:26 and I was pretty psyched on that — it was a really fast time. … And this year, I was just trying to defend my title. I’m stoked to beat it again, and I can’t wait until next year." Nearly 300 of the world’s top traditional (prone) and SUP athletes took part in the grueling 32-mile race that began at Kaluakoi on Molokai’s northwest tip, spanned the treacherous Kaiwi Channel and finished in Maunalua Bay on Oahu’s south shore. According to reports from officials on the water, participants faced winds reaching 25-30 knots and braved waves with faces nearly 8 feet. "It was stormy, and there was a little bit of everything: real strong winds, some light wind, rain, big and small bumps — the whole gamut," said Dave Kalama, a 47-year-old Kula, Maui, native after he finished 24 seconds behind Baxter to secure the silver medal in the unlimited SUP division. He said it was his final competitive Molokai channel crossing. "To still be in the game at 47, I’m really stoked. The plan was to make sure there was no gas left in the tank when I crossed the finish line, and I can tell you I’m running on fumes. I can’t do anything more than that, and I had a blast." Kai Lenny claimed gold in the stock SUP division after crossing the line in 4:22:14. The 19-year-old from Paia, Maui, explained that the stock SUP boards are 14 feet long with no rudder, while the unlimited SUP boards are 18 feet long and include a rudder system, making the latter more conducive to surfing and managing the daunting waves throughout the channel. "The conditions were epic today, it’s unreal to finish this way," said Lenny, a mainstay in the world SUP surfing championships for the past two years who first crossed the Molokai channel at age 13. "I see myself coming back next year with an unlimited board, and going for the overall record." Brad Gaul put an end to Jamie Mitchell’s prolific 10-year win streak in the unlimited prone division, finishing in 4:43:54. Gaul, a 33-year-old Australian, finished second to Mitchell — who did not race this year after notching his 10th consecutive win in 2011 — in last year’s race, and finally got to wear the haku lei presented to each division champion. "I’ve dreamed of this moment for so long, and worked so hard," said Gaul, who referred to Sunday’s event as the Super Bowl of the sport. "There’s something about the channel and the anticipation of what it will hold that day is worth hanging out for — it’s an awesome race." Jack Bark of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., took top honors in the stock prone division, and finished in 5:28:16. Talia Gangini, 19, of Haiku, Maui, dominated the women’s unlimited SUP race, posting a time of 4:55:02 and smashing the previous record set by Andrea Moller in 2011 by more than 30 minutes. "That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done right there," said Gangini as she described the excruciating final few miles of the race during which she realized she was in the lead just prior to passing Portlock. "It takes a lot of time and training — all year, you’re preparing for this race. I’m so happy that I reached my goal." Honolulu’s Rachel Bruntsch topped the women’s stock SUP competition (5:49:10), while Jordan Mercer of Australia claimed the women’s unlimited prone division for the second consecutive year, crossing the line in 5:34:53. Joanna Bilancieri paddled to victory in the women’s stock prone division, grinding out the win in 6:39:43. The race was dedicated to George Ramos, a participant in each of the 15 previous events who is now in a race for his life. While he was itching to participate yesterday, Ramos said that his immune system and energy have been zapped by chemotherapy treatments as he battles stage-4 cancer. "I was really bummed and sad because I really wanted to do it," Ramos said. "It’s really tough, but I’ve got to keep going. … If you give up, you die." Ramos explained that he was diagnosed nine months ago with a rare form of cancer that took doctors and specialists four months to pinpoint. While he hopes to participate in the race in 2013, there is no timetable for a full recovery. "I want to do (the Molokai race) again next year, but I’m in limbo right now," Ramos said. "Hopefully the chemo works. My goal is just to survive first, but I really feel alive in the water." Previous Story Olympics: U.S. water polo results Next Story Olympics: Loaded field to swim 'Race of Century'