Danielle Richards would be forgiven for looking back on things a little differently.

After a decade racing on the Nutri-Grain Ironwoman series, and a meteoric rise to the top of the downwind world, Richards, nee McKenzie, stepped away from surf sports last year to chase the Olympic dream.

It was an enormous showing of commitment, only outweighed by her and husband Cody packing up their lives on the Gold Coast and moving back to New Zealand.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

Richards had never paddled a kayak before, yet against expectation, she quickly ascended to the sport’s world stage.

Just three months into her journey, she partnered with Aimee Fisher to finish 8th in the K2 500 at the Canoe Sprint World Championships.

Then, in March this year, they qualified the boat for the Olympics, claiming two more quota spots for New Zealand.

Richards and Fisher after securing New Zealand two more quota places at the 2024 Oceania Canoe Sprint Championships.

But Richards won’t get to fill one.

After what those within the sport have described to The Paddler as a ‘controversial and unfair’ selection process, she was overlooked for a place on the team in Paris. It was a heartbreaking outcome.

Yet when she reflects on her whirlwind journey, she has no regrets.

“The Olympics are such a massive opportunity and it was one that I couldn’t pass up,” she tells The Paddler. 

“I’d go back and do it again if I had the same chance.”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

Richards opted against going into the specifics of the shock selection call. 

As tough as it would have been to stomach, when listening to her reflect on the journey, it’s clear she’s at peace with the outcome.

The overriding emotion now is a sense of gratitude for the learnings from her own sporting experiences.

“It’s the people that you surround yourself with that shape you and make you who you are,” she says.

“Over my career, and moving to Australia, there was the Northcliffe squad as well as Jeremy Cotter’s squad that had the likes of Mackenzie Hynard and Ken Wallace. All of those people have a big influence on who you are and what you end up doing.

“The High Performance side of kayaking kind of made me reflect on the importance of that.

“High Performance sport doesn’t always bring out the best in people. It’s based on how good you are at that moment. If you stop performing, they don’t really want to know about you.”

“I’m so glad that I moved to the Gold Coast and spent eight to 10 years gaining life experience in that environment there.

“When I really look back at it, I spent so much time as an ironwoman and a long-distance paddler that I just couldn’t convert my muscle fibres quick enough in a year to be that fast kind of paddler.”

That perspective is why Richards is so excited for the next chapter of her sporting story.

With an unmatched resume of results to her name, Richards has taken on her first official coaching role, signing on to lead Omanu Surf Club alongside another New Zealand surf sports legend in former world champion ironman Cory Hutchings, in a return to surf lifesaving.

“To be honest, I was OK with not doing surf lifesaving for a year,” she reflects. “I was enjoying pursuing something new and was able to separate myself from it.

“Going to Aussies and New Zealand Nationals has brought me back into it, and it’s made me realise that there’s so many people out there that want to see me involved in the sport. It’s helped me to enjoy it again.

“The racing, the people involved, the culture of surf sports… It’s given me a drive and a purpose.”

“That’s probably not so much the racing side of the sport, though. I really want to use my skills to give back to the next generation of athletes.

“There’s a lot of talent in New Zealand and we want to harness that to create growth and inspire young athletes to go out there and beat the Aussies,” she laughs.”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

That’s not to say her own competitive fire has gone out, though.

Richards will return to downwind racing at The Gorge in the United States of America next month, and after winning Auckland’s King and Queen of the Harbour, she’s also earned herself a trip to race in Tahiti at the end of August.

The Shaw and Partners WA Race Week is in her sights in November, and while, at this stage, she isn’t planning to compete at the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in Madeira, the 2025 edition to be held in South Africa is a possibility.

“I’m still trying to find exactly where I want to go,” she says. “But I’m actually happy putting myself second for once.

“As soon as I start coaching in August I’ll be putting my needs second, but I’ll still be training. It’s who I am and it’s what I like to do.

“I’ll just be doing a whole lot of fun stuff and we’ll just see where the racing goes.”