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From roiling surf to football turf

Ironwoman Danielle McKenzie has been crowned the country’s best surf life saver, but she’s eyeing up an unusual change of codes. Jim Kayes reports.

Danielle McKenzie was terrified. Standing on the grass verge on Gisborne’s Midway Beach, she looked out at the thunderous surf pounding the shore.

Huge walls of water rose up in sets of three, four or five, smashing down into a white wash that roiled its way to the beach.

Her 15-year-old mind was racing through all the things that could go wrong in the surf ski race she was about to start in.

The “what ifs” were endless. What if she couldn’t get out past the breaking waves and instead, was washed back to shore?

If she did get out there, how would she get back in? Could she really catch one of those green monsters, and could she safely ride it back to shore? What if she nosedived… would she call for the IRB to pick her up, or try to swim back in?

As the permutations poured through her mind, her father, Duncan, a vastly experienced lifeguard, wandered over. “He asked me if I was scared,” McKenzie remembers. “When I said I was, he said, ‘Don’t worry, all the other girls are too’.”

So much of surf lifesaving is conquering your fears, and with those words the rough waters were calmed - in her mind, if not in front of her. “Only two of us made it out the back that day,” McKenzie says with a big smile, “and on the way in the other girl caught a huge wave and came off”.

McKenzie stayed on her ski and picked up her first New Zealand under 16 surf lifesaving title. She knew then that she could do it, that she could be a success in the sport.

She’s been doing that for eight years now, and is considered one of the best on either side of the Tasman. But in spite of her love for the surf, a burgeoning interest in a very different sport could rip McKenzie away from the beach, and place her on a football oval.

McKenzie finished this year’s surf lifesaving national championships, back at Midway Beach, with a clutch of gold medals. Not only in her favoured events - like ski and Ironperson - but also a first-ever gold in the surf swim race. For someone who reckons she swims like a brick, that medal has a special glow.

For a second time, she was named the top women’s competitor and the top overall competitor at the event - ahead of her equally-impressive male counterpart, Corey Taylor. It was welcome recognition that the endless days of hard work have paid off for the 23-year-old, and her decision to shift to Australia’s Gold Coast last year was the right one.

McKenzie is coming off her best season in the Kelloggs Nutri-Grain Ironwoman in Australia, with no finishes outside the top 11. She finished seventh overall. “It’s the best a New Zealand Ironwoman has ever done,” she says proudly.

New Zealand's top female surf lifesafer Danielle McKenzie is pondering a career in the AFL. Photo: Sonic Surf Craft

We first meet on the Saturday of the three-day nationals, huddled in the tent raised for the Mairangi Bay club, as the wind lashes rain into its walls. It's a miserable day, with spectators wrapped in raincoats and puffer jackets, beanies pulled down tight; some peeking out through gaps in the tents to spy the action, the braver ones battered on the beach.

For the athletes, this is surf at its toughest. There are no Baywatch moments here. It’s bleak, cold and potentially dangerous. Conditions that McKenzie now revels in.

She loves the waves and enjoys the challenge of mastering the surf, as much as beating those who brave the conditions alongside her. It brings to the fore her experience. “Being a bit older, you have more strength and surf knowledge and that helps against the young pocket rockets coming through.

“I like racing in that type of surf. You have to forget about how cold it is and remember why you’re doing something you love.”

She has loved it since she was seven, when her dad first took her down from their Castor Bay home on Auckland’s North Shore to the Mairangi Bay club. A keen athlete who tried her hand at most things at school, she remembers one significant disadvantage when she entered the ranks of surf life saving’s nippers.

“I was quite short. I was determined and I had that winning drive but I was short and that didn’t help in surf.” She grew while at Rangitoto College and now stands 177cm tall. She reckons she may not have finished growing yet.

Her height, athleticism and superb fitness have her eyeing a change of codes that would eventually see her turn her back to the waves - and pick up a ball.

“I want to play in the AFL,” McKenzie says.

The Gold Coast Suns will play in the AFL women’s league from 2020, and though McKenzie wants to compete for New Zealand in the surf worlds that year in Italy, she is also determined to have a go at Aussie Rules.

She admits she knows very little about the sport, and having not even watched a game till a few years ago. She’s unsure of the different positions.

But she knows she wants to kick goals, and realises she needs to play plenty of games if she’s to get up to speed in the sport. So she’s training to make the Bond University team in the Queensland league.

The radical change of code is driven by both her wish to play a team sport, something she misses in surf, and that omnipresent drive to challenge herself.

It’s a drive instilled in her by her parents. Her dad represented New Zealand in surf lifesaving in the early 1980s and her mum, Suzanne, was a representative netballer. McKenzie has a younger sister, Kayla, who also competes in the surf.

“My parents have always wanted the best from us, and Mum especially wants us to win. She can be pretty ruthless. Coming second, or third, or fourth, that’s not good enough,” the elder McKenzie says. “I like to win too, but I guess now that I’m a bit more experienced, I want to have fun too.

“But that drive to win is still there.”

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