Danielle McKenzie arrived in France for the 2019 World Titles as a relative unknown but left as the champion. Across an incredible few months, she then claimed the biggest races on offer, announcing her arrival to surfski in a way that had never been seen before.

For the first time, Danielle reflects on her meteoric rise to the top, as well as the unseen sacrifices that got her there.

Sport has always been my life.

Growing up, I played anything I could. I claimed world championship medals in surf lifesaving and triathlon, but my passion extended far beyond that. Soccer, basketball, touch football, waterpolo, cross-country running, cycling and triathlons – it’s a long list. It even saw me pack up my life two years ago and move from Auckland to the Gold Coast to chase my dream.

So, when I was asked last year if I wanted to travel to France and race an ocean ski the ICF World Championships, I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t do any qualifying races, but with the support of Canoe Racing New Zealand, I was fortunate enough to be given a spot. A new sport, in a new part of the world. I knew it was going to be an adventure!

It’s fair to say my preparation was a bit different to everyone else’s. My priority was training for the Coolangatta Gold, but I was also playing AFL for a local club – all while juggling bar work. I was putting in massive hours training. Most days, I would swim five to seven kilometres in the morning, then either run or go to the gym, before an afternoon ski or board session. But Saturdays were the big ones, some days going for as long as three hours – and that was all before a game of footy. In fact, my only build-up race on the ski was the Gold Coast Ocean Classic, where I finished third behind Georgia Laird and Jordan Mercer – two great athletes. I hit the wall just before the finish, reinforcing how much I had to do before Worlds. But still, I was quietly confident of a strong performance, given my workload for the Gold.

I arrived in France five days before the race and loved every second. I had never paddled a Fenn Spark before, but that didn’t stress me out. Mentally, I felt really strong. Although there were so many unknowns about which course we were going to race and how long it was going to be, I felt prepared for anything. One thing I’ve learned over years of competing is that there’s no point worrying over the things you can’t control. It was all so relaxed. We even hitchhiked to the opening ceremony, knowing luck was on our side! That mindset carried onto race day.

Standing on the start line the nerves did begin to creep in, but I always believe they can be converted into good energy. To be honest, winning hadn’t crossed my mind. I just wanted to make everyone work for it. The start was fast, but after a few kilometres, I began to feel the runs under my boat. I actually ventured further out to sea than most, and was pretty relieved when the leading men came through – because, honestly, I had no idea where I was going! I actually had no idea what I was coming either, but I knew I’d given it my all, and that was enough for me. But to cross the line and see the faces of Cory, Boothy and Macca, it all became real. Towards the end of the race I was in so much pain, but years of ironwoman racing gave me the confidence to keep pushing… And knowing that I didn’t have to go for a run or swim after! Crossing that line, and becoming a world champion was such a surreal feeling. There’s none better! That was the moment I knew this sport was for me.

I arrived back home a week before the Gold, where, given the previous few weeks, I happily finished fifth. From there, I went on to claim fifth overall on the series too. But after Worlds, I was hooked on ocean ski racing. I started doing more downwind paddles on the Gold Coast, where we mixed with incredible conditions, amongst awesome wildlife and crazy storms – it was all an exciting new adventure.

I claimed a win at the Shaw and Partners North Bondi Classic and the prize money allowed me to take a bigger step into the sport and head to Hong Kong for the Dragon Run. Even with a few strong results, I was still fending for myself. Thankfully race organiser Bruce Seymour was able to help me out and arrange for me to stay with two local paddlers, Lina and Tat. The trip was incredible. I met some great people and the hospitality was amazing. I felt like I was starting to understand the racing more, too. I researched the course layout, and even took fluids with me on the ski for the first time! Something clicked in Hong Kong. I raced with confidence – I was there to win, and I wasn’t going to let anyone get in my way. I pushed hard from the start and felt like I maintained a solid pace throughout the race – something I think we develop racing Ironwomen. It’s go hard, and then go even harder.

Great Minds Like A Think

​Before I knew it, it was time for Perth. Unfortunately, I had to miss the Shaw and Partners Race Week due to my commitment to the Ironwoman Series. But I focused on the positive, which was that I could go all-in on The Doctor – arguably the best downwind race in the world. Perth served up another race I hadn’t done before and another example of the generosity of the paddling community. I was hosted by the well-known surfski family, the Jenkinson’s. Rob and Julie were fantastic and showed me some great paddling spots. My first race of the week was the Dash For Cash, and although I performed horribly, I loved every second. The short, sharp racing creates a great environment. The beach was buzzing! It was the perfect hit-out before the big one.

I’ve never had a race day build-up like The Doctor. Heading out to Rottnest Island on the ferry, I was nervous. Nervous because I get seasick, nervous to find my boat among the hundreds, nervous waiting for the wind, and nervous because all I wanted to do was to get my blade in the water. This feeling was different to other races. I was in paradise but knew the pain that was coming. You never know how the race is going to turn out, but I just knew I wanted to win. Although now, for the first time, I felt the weight of expectation too. But those feelings fade away once a race starts… And even more when the wind starts too. The more wind, the happier I am – and Perth may just be the happiest place of them all. I kept a close eye on the times I was hitting, and I couldn’t believe it. It was faster than I’d ever gone.

Hitting the cardinal marker, I just knew I was going to win. The runs were so good – it made you feel on top of the world. Crossing that finish line, I was fizzing with excitement. 28 kilometres of pure fun. And it felt incredible to claim another win. Three from three, I couldn’t believe it. This one was extra special, as I could share it with my mates and my partner Cody, who’s always been so supportive of me.

My racing experience began to change at the Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches. This time, for the first time, I felt like it was mine to lose. A target on my back. A few nerves were out, but again, once the race starts I focus on using turning that nervous energy into positive energy to drive my paddling. Dealing with race pressure is never easy, but I try to single-mindedly believe that I’m good enough to win and remember that I’ve done the work. I was actually prepared for a sprint finish. I just had this feeling it would come down to that. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and thankfully, I was able to record the same result.

I have so much respect for the incredible women I race against. They all have a background in another sport and are now using it to help drive this one. Without the quality of the female paddlers, the competition would where it is today – and it wouldn’t be heading in the direction that it is. One impression I want to have on ocean ski racing is to inspire other women just to give it a go and experience the incredible opportunities that we have.

And those experiences are something I want more of. My focus will still be on ironwoman racing – it’ll always be my love – but now I’ll be putting more focus on surfski racing. I’ve enjoyed the competition, travel and adventures and want more of it. I have a passion for the ocean, so as long as I am in it – no matter what sport I’m doing – I’ll be happy!

2020 was going to be my big year racing internationally. I was well into my Molokai preparations when shit hit the fan, and COVID-19 brought everything to a stop. For now, I’m keeping fit by challenging myself in different ways. Getting faster at down winds when the opportunity arises and getting more time in the ski than I have ever had before. This forced rest has given me the opportunity to reflect on all the crazy back to back races around the world. I am thankful for the opportunities I was given. All I can do for now is to stay active and fit, and the rest will look after itself. The one thing that doesn’t change is my love of paddling in the ocean, and my love of hard work. A drive to be better. This is what I put my success down to. Already this sport has taken me to some incredible places, and given me some incredible experiences and new friendships. My desire for more of that isn’t fading during this downtime. I can’t wait to get back into racing, whenever that may be.