HILL AND SMITH START SHAW AND PARTNERS WA RACE WEEK WITH CRUCIAL WINS
Cory Hill admits he had some “doubtful moments” during the Fenn West Coast Downwind.
The two-time World Champion and four-time winner of the Doctor chose to forge his own line in the first race of the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week, pushing further out to sea than his rivals in search of assistance.
In the back of his mind was the disappointment of his 11th place finish at the 2022 World Championships.
But unlike in Portugal last month, today, Hill blew the field apart.
“To come back and have a win, the confidence is sky-high again,” Hill told The Paddler.
“There was wind out there and I do pride myself on being a downwind paddler.
“When we’re doing fast times out there, I definitely want to be the one to cross the line first. Today really helps.”
The first international race held in Perth in three years was red-hot.
A south-westerly ‘Doctor’ blowing at around 15 knots greeted the 250 competitors to the 24 kilometre course from Fremantle’s Port Beach to Sorrento.
But in a welcome surprise, the wind defied the weather forecasts and built further in speed throughout the afternoon, as paddlers tried – somewhat hopelessly – to dodge the seaweed on their way up the coast.
The men’s start was messy, with the majority of the field floating well beyond the start line, while others chose to stay back behind the mark.
Organisers weren’t able to reunite the group, but even if they did, there would be no catching those at the front.
The pace was on from the outset, with now-local Michael Booth leading the attack in his return to surfski racing.
Before long, the usual contenders joined him – Tom Norton, Kenny Rice, Hank McGregor and Hill among them.
“I was just really punching and trying to do the hard yards first and head out to sea, then come home with the wind.
“I felt I was in line with the leaders on the inside but I had the better angle. Speaking to the other boys, they said it was exactly where it came to at the end.”
MEN’S TOP FIVE: From left to right, Michael Booth, Tom Norton, Cory Hill, Riley Fitzsimmons and Hank McGregor.
Hill (1:23:06) crossing the line for victory some 40 seconds ahead of Norton (1:23:45) and Riley Fitzsimmons (1:23:58) in third.
Fitzsimmons, the two-time Olympian in sprint kayaking and Australian champion surf lifesaving paddler, produced arguably the most impressive performance of the day as he continues to familiarise himself in downwind racing.
McGregor (1:24:25) was fourth and Booth was in fifth.
Norton, Hill and Fitzsimmons on the Shaw and Partners podium.
For Hill, it’s the perfect start to the week, blowing away any hangover from his World Championship campaign.
The last time the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week was held in 2019, it formed one of his greatest runs of results.
After his outing today, that feeling is starting to return.
“2022 Worlds was my first time off the podium,” Hill reflects. “I had forgotten what that felt like for some time.
“I always pride myself on being consistent. It highlights that you can have a bad day, regardless of who you are.
“I’m glad I got it out of the way this week. Unfortunately it was at a World Titles, but moving forward the focus is definitely on this week and also 20 Beaches.
“This is my favourite time of year to race.”
While Hill rediscovered his winning touch, Jemma Smith continued with hers.
The newly-crowned World Champion beat home a star-studded female field in a time of (1:35:18), less than 30 seconds behind 2019 World Champion Danielle McKenzie (1:35:46) in her first race since switching to Epic.
The two were locked in another typically-tight downwind battle, with Smith pushing away in the final kilometre.
South African Michelle Burn (1:37:30) was around just under two minutes behind, in a top three repeat of the World Championships.
Countrywoman Melanie van Niekerk (1:38:31) and Australian ironwoman Hannah Sculley (1:38:47) rounded out the top five.
Michelle Burn, Danielle McKenzie, Emily Doyle, Melanie van Niekerk, Jemma Smith and Ana Swetish at the finish.
“It feels really great,” Smith said after her victory. “It’s just awesome to be back here in WA and racing, and to kick it off like this is absolutely unreal.
“It’s absolutely unreal to see so many of the South Africans over here and people from all around Australia finally able to come back to WA is so great.
“It just makes for such a tight field. I think the top 15 is really, really strong.
“We’ve got lots of girls coming across from surf lifesaving as well, there’s a few unknowns but it’s really awesome to get out there and race against a great calibre of field.
“It was really, really fun out there and I’m stoked to take the win at the end.”
The win consolidates Smith’s outstanding run of form, now having won three-straight races over quality fields.
And she knows how important that momentum is in the five-event WA Race Week format, which continues with an 11 kilometre sprint on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think it definitely gives me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the week,” she says.
“These conditions out here today are hopefully what we’ll have for the rest of the races, so it’s really good confidence going into them and hopefully I can build from here.”