“THE MOST SPECIAL”: HIDDEN HURDLES BEHIND CORY HILL’S THIRD MOLOKAI TITLE
His nickname ‘Chill’ is an apt description of his character, but there was a moment the day before the Shaw and Partners Molokai Challenge when Cory Hill feared everything was falling apart.
He had been in transit for the best part of 18 hours from Australia’s Gold Coast to Oahu.
All that remained was one last 30 minute flight from Oahu to Molokai before he could rest ahead of surfski’s most iconic race.
Hill was already somewhat on edge – for the first time, he had chosen to travel on the eve of a major race, leaving no room for error.
Then came the message at the Mokulele Airlines terminal.
“[The flight] got delayed by about six hours… and sitting in that tin shed, in the sun, after coming off winter in Australia… that was shit.” He laughs, reflecting on the ordeal.
“It’s 50 kilometres from Oahu to Molokai and you’re sitting there just thinking, ‘I can see it. Just get me there.’ It was so frustrating because everything to that point had gone pretty well.
“I’d come so far, then of all places, you’re stuck in this little tin shed where there’s nothing to do, nothing to drink or nothing to eat. That was disheartening.
“I was thinking… am I even going to get to Molokai?”
It was the final hurdle in a campaign that presented plenty of them.
While the rest of the Shaw and Partners Race One team, as well as his rivals from South Africa, had spent the week preparing at the five-star Halekulani Hotel, Hill was back at home in Australia running his accounting business.
One of his closest friends – in fact, the best man at his own wedding – was getting married on the Friday night before Sunday’s race.
And despite a burning desire to capture a third Molokai title, Hill didn’t hesitate in deciding that he would be there at the ceremony.
“As much as I’ve gained a lot from sport, I’ve also missed out on a lot… events with friends and weekends away.”
“I don’t want to make it sound like a difficult decision.
“I came to terms with the whole ‘flying in the day day before the race’ four or five months ago. That was done.”
Which is just as well, because there were still more curveballs to come.
A perk of being a frequent face at races all over the world, Hill had chosen to use his travel points on an upgrade to business class to try and lessen the toll of travelling the day before the race.
“I think it was 10 hours before the flight, they came back and said it was unsuccessful,” he laughed.
“I got my hopes up by the whole concept.”
Still, he was upbeat.
Even sitting in the Mokulele Airport, staring down a delayed flight to Molokai that would deny his family the chance to buy dinner, and breakfast, before the 52 kilometre crossing.
“We actually found some friends who were able to get some food for us,” he says. “That helped a lot.
“And from there, I was on the island and viewed it as being ahead of the game all of a sudden.”
“Everyone else was still on Oahu while I was able to set my ski up and relax at the start line.
“From there, everything else went right.”
That resilience was needed on race day.
After being blessed with favourable conditions for the past few runnings, the 2023 Molokai Challenge was going to be a grind.
For the most part, there was no wind. The first five kilometres actually served up a slight headwind, before 35 kilometres of nothing, finished by 10 kilometres of a light side-wind.
The currents were in favour of competitors, under some patchy clouds and a temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.
The women’s field only contained three athletes – world champion Jemma Smith, Sascha Taurins and Ellie Saffron.
They began in an earlier start combined with some of the other categories, and Smith was in control from the outset.
She went on to claim victory in a time of 4 hours, 4 minutes and 41 seconds, ahead of Taurins (4:18:2) and Saffron (5:4:33).
“Molokai had always been something I wanted to do since I first learnt to paddle,” Smith said.
“Even though we weren’t blessed with windy conditions, the experience of paddling across the Ka’iwi Channel was surreal, as was having the opportunity to hang with and learn from so many legends of the sport throughout the week.”
The battle for the men’s title was more closely contested.
Returning to the surfski after another block racing SUPs, Australian Michael Booth dictated the early pace, and dragging the field along behind him.
That pack was whittled down over the opening kilometres, until the main contenders remained.
South Africans Hank McGregor, Uli Hart, Josh Fenn and Kenny Rice were joined by Cory Hill and Tom Norton.
Three-time champion Clint Robinson – now 50 years of age – wasn’t too far behind, with the rest of the field’s front-end somewhere in the same vicinity.
“I was able to test the waters a lot,” Hill recalls.
“I’d be in the pack sitting on 14 kilometres an hour, and wondered what it would be like out to the side on my own.
“So I’d pull out of the pack and paddle in line with them, and I thought, ‘OK, cool. It’s comfortable.’ So I’d come back in and kept in touch with the race.
“Llani [Cory’s wife] and my Dad were having a heart attack on the boat worrying I was in trouble or I wasn’t thinking straight, but the case was I was testing throughout the first 15 kilometres because it was a comfortable pace.”
With each passing kilometre, Hill grew in confidence.
“I’d done more work for the race than I think I ever have,” he says.
“Funnily enough, I put it back to being so stressed about getting there the day before and making sure I had done enough to overcompensate for that.
“Now I look back at prior campaigns and wonder why I didn’t just do that anyway,” he laughs.
The gruelling conditions took a toll on the field, and one-by-one, paddlers dropped out of contention.
Until there were just two left, like there has been so many times before.
Hill and McGregor.
“It was probably 30 kilometres on the dot when I pulled up alongside him,” Hill recalls.
“It was also a scary moment. Quite often with such a strong competitor like Hank, it becomes a bit of a dog-fight.
“We were literally a metre or two away from each other, and we were both away that was when the race started.”
As quickly as they came together, they then split apart.
McGregor opting to track slightly further south, while Hill headed north towards Oahu.
“I knew the next five kilometres were really important,” Hill says. “Because from there, you’re in a mental battle with yourself, regardless of who is around you.
“Llani was giving me feedback saying, ‘You’ve got 30 seconds… you’ve got a minute… you’ve got a minute and a half.’
“It actually blew out to two minutes and 10 seconds at one stage, but I said to the boat, ‘If I keep this pace, am I good?’ Because I was starting to cook myself.
Even though McGregor did close that gap, there was no catching Cory.
The two-time Molokai Champion adding a third title to his name, finishing in 3 hours, 31 minutes and 9 seconds. McGregor (3:32:59) and a strong-finishing Josh Fenn (3:38:03) made up the trop three.
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Waiting in the water at the finish line for Cory, was his wife Llani with their eldest son, Coda.
“It’s such a family effort now, these days. I have Llani and I have three kids. It’s really special for them to see the hard work I put in and them see me succeed.
“All of those sort of things come flooding out. It was really special.”
“2015 when I first won was a shock, then 2018 had great conditions where I felt like I shouldn’t be beaten, in a big ocean swell race like that.
“Now, it’s five years on from that. And when you consider the time, it kind of feels like a generational thing.
“To do it in the flat too… yeah, it was emotional. I’m really proud of the product I put forward. There wasn’t many weekends or weekdays without intent behind my sessions.”
In fact, Hill rates it as the most special of his three victories.
“Just because of the circumstances,” he says. “There were a lot of hard decisions and there were a lot of hard weekends to make this happen.
“We haven’t raced there since 2019. There was so much unknown and so much talk around it from everyone that was over there for the week.
“For some reason, this one did just feel that bit more special.”
Part of that was the added motivation Hill held after his 2022 racing season, where he finished fourth at the Doctor and 10th at the World Championships.
“It’s been a long time since I didn’t hold a title, right?” He says.
“From 2015, I at least held a Doctor, Molokai or Worlds title, if not two or three of them at a time.
“I felt unfulfilled because I didn’t have a race behind me where I felt like it all came together.
“This year, to come back and remind everyone I’m still here, and more so remind myself that I can still do it, it gives me confidence I can keep going.”
For how long he keeps going, he’s unsure. But there’s no plan for that to be any time soon.
Hill admits he draws inspiration from his closest adversary McGregor, after another hard-fought battle.
“Hank is 10 years older than me, and we’ve gone 1-2 more often than not here,” he says.
“If you flash back to 2014, he had a first and I had a third. ’15, I was first and he was second. ’16, I hit the rocks but we were 1-2 throughout.
“’17 was Sean [Rice] was first then it was Hank and I. ’18 and ’19 we went 1-2, then 2-1.
“Without both of us being here, the other one would be racking up the kind of stats that Dean or Oscar have.”
However Hill holds no desire to try and achieve that.
“Nah, not at all. I’ll tell Oscar otherwise, but no,” he laughs.
“I’m pretty content with what I’ve done, but I’ll keep coming back for years.
“We love coming here as a family, and now that I’ve done it this year, I might keep following the same travel plan so I can continue for plenty of years to come.”