IN THE BOAT with: CORY HILL
He’s the man known as ‘Chill’, and not just because of his initials. Even at the world’s biggest events, Cory Hill is unflappable. The definition of cool, calm and collected.
On the surface, 2019 was no different. But in reality, it was his hardest year of racing yet. Off the water, he was forced to overcome more obstacles than ever before, as he explains to The Paddler.
There was a moment at the end of 2018, where I reflected on the year that had just gone by, and thought this could potentially be as good as it gets. Everything just seemed to go according to plan. I claimed wins at Moloaki, the Hong Kong Dragon Run, The Doctor and 20 Beaches – some of the races that are closest to my heart.
And the best was still to come. On December 21, Llani and I welcomed our son Coda into the world.
But as for being as good as it gets? Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong.
One thing I’ve always been aware of in racing is that you’re never guaranteed another win. On the first of February, 2019, with Coda now six weeks old, I got back in the boat determined for more success. How hard could it be, right?
That first session back seemed simple enough. Six kilometres. Three out from Northcliffe Surf Club and three back in. Pretty straightforward, or so I thought. Just before the turn, I got stung by a bluebottle and came in early. Not ideal.
The very next day I turned up to Surfers Paradise for a lifesaving carnival – although not for long either. I was knocked out in the very first round of the ski. It wasn’t the greatest debut as a racing father, but at least it was enough to get the hunger back in the belly after a much needed break.
I’m not going to lie – trying to live the triple-life of parenthood, running an accounting firm and training to win Molokai was far from easy. It put a lot of strain on our young family and there were times I weighed up training over being with my family. But I trusted the process and was committed to the cause, something made possible by the support of Llani. Not once did she question what I was doing. She would even drop the crew off for our 40 kilometre paddles knowing that I wouldn’t be back for up to four hours. When we decide that we are going to try and achieve our goals, we do everything we can to do so.
The weekly routine was clear on paper. Most days I would work from 6am until 3pm then head straight to the beach for a paddle, meaning I’d get home after Coda was fed. We would put him to sleep, but he’d wake up two to three times a night – the hurdles that we as males don’t consider when having a child. Even if he would sleep through the night – a miracle occurrence – Llani would still have to wake up and pump, as she was still producing milk.
I think this was the hardest thing for both of us in the lead up to Molokai. The lack of sleep, and therefore proper recovery, that we as paddlers need when doing so many kilometres each week. Come the weekend, I would try to knock out a minimum of 30 kilometres on the Saturday, and if it was windy enough, another paddle on the Sunday. This was our lives for the 16 weeks leading up to Hawaii.
The learning experiences didn’t stop come race week. And these lessons proved to be some of the hardest. Managing a baby on a place, managing a baby’s jet lag and managing a sick baby. We faced it all.
Molokai was a breeze for us in that regard. We travelled with the Shaw and Partners Race Team and had quite an entourage. There must have been a crew of 40 people all staying at the one hotel, so we were really lucky to have so many loving hands around to help with Coda. It’s a stark contrast to later in the year when it was just Llani and I.
Molokai 2019 came right down to the wire. Hank McGregor and I have had some amazing battles over the past few years, and although I was so happy for him to win, I wanted is desperately myself.
That’s when I started hearing the negativity. “He’s done”… “not the same paddler”… “a lot of new parents don’t win a race again.”
This was all ammunition for me. I was hungry to win and make my young family proud. The sacrifices drove me.
Soon after Molokai I was on the road again, but this time on my own. Third in Mauritius followed by another third at The Gorge. The murmurs continued, but I put my head down and realigned for the ICF World Championships and Ireland World Surfski League race in September.
We traveled as a family for those, and by this time, Coda was nine months old. It all started simply enough. A 9pm departure from Brisbane, so we thought, “let’s keep him up until we board and then he will sleep this whole first leg to Dubai.”
Geez, weren’t we wrong about that.
By 10pm Coda was overtired and we had given him one too many bottles. One hour into our 27 hour trip, he threw up all over Llani. But somehow we managed to get to Paris in good spirits.
Three seemed to be the consistent number. I finished third at the World Titles and also third in Ireland. I was happy with my performances, but I wanted that win so badly. I was chasing that 2018 feeling.
If I was going to bounce back – like I was so determined to do – then October was the perfect time. It’s always been a massive month of training for me. It isn’t packed with races, which is nice, and instead there’s more time to train. The weather becomes warmer and the wind starts to howl. It’s a good time to be a paddler on the Gold Coast.
By now, Coda was 10 months old and in a really good routine. We had planned to head over to Hong Kong as a family, but with the riots that were taking place, we decided I would go it alone. Hong Kong is a special place for me, as it was the first international race I went to. The city is so unique, and somewhat surprisingly, it has awesome downwind conditions. 2019 served up exactly that.
I was chasing a three-peat of wins, and was actually feeling quietly confident. Hong Kong has been a home-away-from-home for, with the Landman family taking me in for each of my race wins over there. They have four children of their own, which helps to keep the focus away from racing itself.
And added bonus, when I woke up on race day, the wind was already blowing and looked really similar to the prior two years. The stars had aligned to help secure my maiden fatherhood win.
The pace was on, but as the pain set in, I thought about my young family back at home and all of the sacrifices we had made for me to be here. That spurred me on.
Crossing the line knowing that I had finally won my first international race as a father was such a special feeling. I only wished that they were in Hong Kong to watch.
The Shaw and Partners WA Race Week was next. A couple of days at home, then I was out the door. It wasn’t easy, I already missed Coda so much over that weekend and then I was back on the plane for another week. But we made that commitment at the start of the year to do everything possible for the best results possible. This was all a part of the plan.
With the way the Race Week point score was structured, I knew an early win was important. The first race was the West Coast Downwinder and the conditions were fun. Luckily for us, we were told it would have the worst wind for the whole week – and even then, it was windy. I was able to record another win ahead of a very competitive field.
Races two and three played out in the same way. They are both 12 kilometre “sprints” from Fremantle to City Beach, and both served up great conditions. Thankfully I was able to take out both of these, but that’s when the nerves started to creep in. All of a sudden it seemed like it was my race to lose, a far cry from the first 10 months of the year. It’s almost as if people were believing in me too much. I had to stay focused, trusting my own ability. But at the time same, I know how hard it is to beat anyone in that top 10 – let alone all in one race.
There was one more job to do. Win it.
Once again the wind was fantastic. Right on the 20 knot limit. I actually felt really comfortable and not nervous at all. It just seemed like it was supposed to be.
I had a great battle with Sean Rice but managed to sneak ahead. At the Centaur marker, with six kilometres to go, I held a slight lead over Sean and Nick Notten. As we turned, the wind was right behind us and everything linked up. I thought to myself, “All I need to do here is hold 3:15 pace and the title is mine.”
The first km after the marker was a 3:12.
The next, a 3:12 again.
It was too much fun to call it racing. I hit the beach to claim my fourth Doctor title in five years, and I was psyched.
I rang Llani as soon as I could and she put me on FaceTime. She said, “I am so sorry you missed this Cory.” He was taking his first steps.
I was gutted. That hit me really hard.
I look back at the event now, and as much as I want to sit down and play with Coda and not miss a single thing, that milestone was never guaranteed. Even if I was at home, I could have been at work or out of the house anyway.
It is amazing how much love I have for him. I am prouder of anything he does – even the smallest achievements – than I am of the lifelong goals I’ve been lucky enough to achieve. The sport is in such a great place and The Doctor is put together by all of my major sponsors. They support my family throughout the year and provide them with some of the most incredible opportunities that I’ve had. In my mind, they’re my extended family, so I am fortunate I could be there for them as well.
There was one more job to do in 2019, and that was the 20 Beaches. Another world-class field assembled, but this time without the incredible downwind we received in Perth.
Thankfully I recorded another win. Despite the challenges, I finished the year the same as I had the one before – in the winner’s circle with some of the titles that I respect most.
What drove me in 2018 was the knowledge that change was on the way. Last year, I felt I had something to prove. I am now racing for my family, and that’s a really nice feeling.
I saved my best achievement for a few months later though – marrying the woman of my dreams.
Nothing is ever easy, and 2020 has been a testament to that.
But one thing that racing – and now fatherhood – has taught me is that the greatest things never are.