SMITH USURPS HER RIVALS AFTER UNCONVENTIONAL CAMPAIGN
Jemma Smith came into the 2022 Ocean Racing World Championships as one of the great unknowns.
She hadn’t raced in her surfski since April, after choosing to focus on sprint kayaking for the past six months after qualifying for the Under 23 Australian team.
Yet the 23 year-old leaves Portugal with no uncertainty around her status on the international scene, crowned the new World Champion after a stunning performance.
“I’m really stoked with that,” she says. “I came into this race not really knowing how I would go because we haven’t raced internationally for a long time.”
“Seeing the World Championships being run last year, and Australia and New Zealand not being able to contest it, was really tough and I was itching to get back this year and put a good race together.
“I think we were all probably hoping for a bit more wind, the first half of the course definitely had a bit more assistance than the last half. It got really tough towards the end.
“I just tried to keep my head down and go as hard as I could to the finish line.”
Smith surged clear of her rivals over the last few kilometres to finish in a time of 1 hour, 26 minutes and 5 seconds.
Remarkably, that was almost a minute and a half ahead of 2019 champion Danielle McKenzie (1:27:31) in second and defending champion Michelle Burn (1:28:14) in third.
Smith and McKenzie have shared so many incredible battles over their careers, across both surf lifesaving and downwind racing, and from the start of the race it appeared this would be another.
The two athletes lead two different packs, with Smith opting to hold a shallower line, while McKenzie went further out to sea in search of assistance.
“I got here a couple of days early and spoke to as many people as I could to find out what was going on,” Smith says.
“I wanted to hold an inside line to try and get any flow out of the river mouth that could help me.
“There were heaps of girls up there at the start. It’s just incredible to see the standard of women’s paddling lift over the past few years and it’s awesome everyone can be back racing together.”
At the five kilometre mark, McKenzie kicked and gained a slight advantage.
However, this race was always coming down to the wire.
“Jemma came home super, super strong,” McKenzie says. “It was the first time I hit a wall, and man I hit a wall hard.
“It was either a mental game or my body just couldn’t handle it at the end.
“But we have to recognise Jemma, she was the very first person across the line. That’s pretty unreal to start 10 minutes in front of the boys and be the first home.”
While Smith and McKenzie share a long history of racing, Michelle Burn stepped into the storyline with them for the very first time.
“They were really cool to race,” she says. “I haven’t raced them before, so that was nice to finally go head-to-head.
“It didn’t completely go as planned, but I am really happy with where I was. I left everything out there and couldn’t have gone any harder.
“I felt comfortable and strong and I do know it wasn’t my strongest conditions, so hopefully I can be a bit closer and in the mix in Australia at the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week.”
Smith becomes the sixth different winner of the women’s World Championship after six runnings of the event.
Although she admits it wasn’t a title she was overly confident of claiming, after a build-up spent largely in the K1.
“I definitely haven’t done the racing in the ocean ski I normally would’ve hoped to have done over the past few months,” Smith admits.
“But Dani [McKenzie] has had a huge month racing overseas in surf, so to pull out a race like that after all of that is a massive effort and a credit to the kind of athlete she is.”
She credits the help of her local ocean ski squad on the New South Wales Central Coast, just north of Sydney, for helping to drive her short campaign.
“They’ve been incredible to me and helped me get the last-minute preparation for this race. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
And while she will continue to juggle her multi-discipline paddling, she admits the attraction of downwind racing grows stronger with every race.
“I think for sure, ocean ski racing is something I’ve fallen in love with these past few years,” she says.
“Not just travelling around the world where it’s such an incredible sport internationally, but also back at home where the community is so awesome.”