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Kiwi surf star pushes back the horizon

Newly-crowned world canoe ocean racing champion and IronWoman star Danielle McKenzie loves hard work, but a frenetic few months paddling around the globe have finally caught up with her.

New Zealand’s best female surf athlete is spreading her wings. Or, perhaps more accurately, pushing back the horizon.

Danielle McKenzie has added long distance surf-ski racing to her impressive surf lifesaving exploits this year, winning the ICF canoe ocean racing world championship on her debut.

She's since backed up that victory in September with a stunning string of wins - Hong Kong’s 22km Dragon Race, The Doctor - a 27km race from Rottnest Island to Sorrento - in Perth, and Sydney’s 20 Beaches Ocean Classic race from Palm Beach (of Home and Away fame) to Fisherman’s Beach.

It doesn't mean she's turned her back on surf lifesaving. In between those races, she represented New Zealand at the International Surf Rescue Challenge in Durban, South Africa, and returned to the Nutra-Grain IronWoman series in Australia, where she was third overall going into the weekend.

With one more event to go, in North Cronulla next month, she’s on track for her best-ever finish in a season. 

That would cap off a remarkable few months for McKenzie, who turned to long distance paddling almost by chance. 

She decided to give the world champs in France a crack on her way to South Africa to join the Black Fins for the rescue challenge.

“My flights to South Africa were already paid for, so there was only the flight to France I had to worry about,” she says.

And when she won the world champs - surprising many of the more established long distance paddlers in the process, and pushing fellow Kiwi and 2015 world champ Teneale Hatton back into third - McKenzie used her prizemoney to book a trip to Hong Kong.

The money she won there paid for her next trip, and so it’s been as she's continued to collect the winners purse - her successes funding her new-found sport.

But the hectic nature of the last few months, with six weeks of non-stop racing, has taken its toll.

Danielle McKenzie preparing to race in the Nutri-Grain IronWoman event on the Gold Coast. Photo: Harpix.

When we spoke last week, McKenzie, 25, was feeling unwell, and had taken two days off from training to try and get better ahead of Sunday's IronWoman race at the iconic Surfers Paradise beach.

“I am a little bit sick, and that’s inevitable given how much racing and travelling I’ve been doing," she says. "But I’m still going to give it 100 percent on Sunday.”

She finished the day eighth and was happy with that considering how crook she had been in the build-up.

McKenzie has loved her foray into long distance ski racing, and says her gruelling training for iron events has held her in good stead.

Her background in surf means she’s experienced in all conditions, and she credits the two or three training sessions she does each day for surf for the stamina she has in the back-end of the long distance ski races.

Each race has seen her win reasonably comfortably, by about 90 seconds, which equates to about 400 metres.

When quizzed on why she’s added long distance ski racing to an already busy life, McKenzie chuckles and suggests she “really likes hard work”.

“Mentally, in long distance racing you're working against yourself because often you can’t see the other competitors and you don’t know what line they've taken," she says.

“And I like pushing myself to the limit, and I really enjoy being out on the ocean.”

It has been that way since she was a little girl and her father, Duncan, took her down to Auckland’s Mairangi Bay Surf Life Saving Club.

She won her first national title when, aged 15, she won the U-16 ski race at Gisborne’s Midway Beach and hasn’t looked back.

Earlier this year she won “10 or 11” gold medals at the surf nationals at Mount Maunganui and she will be back at Midway in March to defend her status as New Zealand’s best female surf athlete.

She is, perhaps, New Zealand’s best female athlete across all sports given her prowess as a swimmer and a board and ski paddler, and has deservedly been nominated for the Halberg Awards.

She’s up against another amazing woman who is handy in a kayak - Lisa Carrington - and admits she would enjoy the challenge of joining Carrington (herself a former surf athlete) as a flat-water racer.

But she’s so busy in the surf at the moment, she’d need to be shoulder-tapped to give it a go, as Carrington’s New Zealand teammate Kayla Imrie once was.

“I’d have to move back to New Zealand for that to happen,” McKenzie says  "But I’m pretty comfortable living on the Gold Coast at the moment."

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