WHY CORY HILL ALMOST MISSED 20 BEACHES AND HOW HE ENDED UP WINNING
Cory Hill’s heart sank.
He was behind the wheel of his loaded family car, with wife Llani and his three sons in the back, about halfway through the 10 hour drive from the Gold Coast to Sydney for the Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches Ocean Classic.
It was Friday morning, about 24 hours out from the race.
However, at that moment, he knew he wouldn’t get there.
“I turned to Llans and said, ‘I’m not feeling good.” Hill recalls.
“The day before the baby was throwing up, but I just thought, ‘Oh they always do.’
“We got 15 or 20 minutes further down the road and I knew, ‘Nah, i’m going to be sick now.
“Then Coda threw up, so we said, ‘Let’s go home.’ We just pulled the pin.”
It seemed like that would be the end of his 20 Beaches story.
Battling a few more… ah, bouts of illness… the Hill family made it home to the Gold Coast and went straight to bed.
But when Cory woke up hours later, feeling marginally better, an idea popped into his head.
What if I just went anyway?
Logistically, that wouldn’t be easy.
It was now around 2:30 in the afternoon. There was one more flight to Sydney that he could scramble to catch, but the ski he was using for the race was sitting outside, tied to the roof of his car.
And with the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week fast approaching, he assumed Dean Gardiner wouldn’t have any in Sydney.
On top of all of that… he also had three sick young boys.
“It was predominantly Llani who said, ‘Book it. Just go. What’s the worst that could happen?
“That got me thinking, ‘Stuff it. Maybe I should just go.’ It’s a bit selfish, but I thought I’ll just go, and if I have to pull out, I will.
“I had something to eat, a big Mexican meal, and I felt OK. Just a bit queasy in the gut.
“I rang Dean [Gardiner] and asked if he happened to have a spare ski. I didn’t think he would, but he said, ‘Oh actually, I have one spare.”
“So I booked the flight, got to Sydney, booked a room at the airport hotel and went straight to bed.”
It was a huge undertaking, that poses a simple question.
“There’s certain titles that I chase and this is one,” Hill explains.
“20 Beaches is iconic in Australia. There’s Molokai, there’s The Doctor, there’s the World Championships now, and for me, there’s also Hong Kong. These are the races I grew up with and feel you have to get up for.”
“I was gutted on Friday driving north, thinking I wouldn’t be able to race.
“Then I started thinking about the ‘What If’s.’ You’ve done so much work. What if you woke up feeling OK? What if you felt 90% and could still get on the podium.
“I saw it as a challenge. I didn’t want to miss out, and I wanted to give myself every opportunity to get my name on that trophy again.”
When the starting gun fired, that appeared unlikely.
In a star-studded field, boasting some of the world’s best – Tom Norton, Mackenzie Hynard, Oscar Jones and the return of former champion Jackson Collins – Hill was struggling.
“4 kilometres in, I felt terrible. I felt like I was paddling uphill and battling to stay in the race,” he says.
With a light 10 knot southerly breeze blowing, and the aftermath of a big southerly groundswell that had pounded the coastline in the days prior, officials opted for a Collaroy-to-Pittwater course.
It’s the same course that had been used for the past two years, and the lessons learnt in those outings were front of mind for Hill.
“By about the 10 kilometre mark, I had paddled into the race and started to feel quite comfortable.
“I’m very aware of how fast those other boys would be in the final 2 kilometres, around Barrenjoey Headland and into the flat finish at Pittwater.
“I knew if I was going to win this, I’d have to do it at that point. Just put the pace on, hurt myself and make it a mental battle.”
So, that’s what he did.
At that stage, Hill was battling Norton at the front of the field, with Collins, Jones and Hynard all fighting closely behind.
“I think Tommy and I were clear at that stage, and I was hoping he was going to start looking over his shoulder for Jacko, rather than thinking he could catch me.” Hill says.
“I think it’s worked the last couple of years where i’ve been quite strong from that 10-to-18 kilometre mark, and done enough to enjoy the last two k’s.”
And again, that’s how the 2023 race panned out.
Hill crossed the line in 1 hour, 22 minutes and 46 seconds, ahead of Collins (1:23:11), Norton (1:23:16) and the ever-improving Jones (1:23:38), who finished in a close bunch.
Hynard (1:25:15) and Sam Norton (1:26:28) were close behind.
In the women’s race, Jemma Smith continued her build towards the business-end of the racing calendar by recording a dominant victory (1:34:46) over an impressive Emily Doyle (1:37:30) and Spain’s Judit Verges Xifra (1:37:46).
Kate Regan (1:41:36) and Jasmine Locke (1:41:44) rounded out the top five.
To view the full results of the 2023 Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches Ocean Classic, click here.
The result provides Hill with another memorable anecdote of overcoming intimidating obstacles on the path to victory, just like he did at the Molokai Challenge earlier this year.
For the two-time World Champion, it also uncovers a rather simple realisation.
“I don’t think it’s just for me, I think this is for everyone,” he reflects. “It’s just the classic case that you can overthink these things.
“How many times do you feel shit before a paddle, but then have a bloody good session? That’s what I kept telling myself going into it.”
“The guys I train with, Tommy [Norton] and Macca [Hynard] are among the best in the world. I’ve had sessions where I felt horrible, but I’m in front of them. And there’s sessions where I felt great, and I got smashed by them.”
“You’ve just gotta put yourself on the line and have a crack.”
With 20 Beaches brought forward from its traditional December timeslot to October, it also provides a crucial confidence boost ahead of a jam-packed racing schedule.
Over the years, Hill has always fired in the month of November.
But this year the world’s best will be busier than ever, the returning Hong Kong Dragon Run, Shaw and Partners WA Race Week and the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships.
It’s a challenge he’s relishing.
Among the noticeably-increased social media activity, that he may or may not be behind, was the word “redemption”.
Hill won the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week overall point score last year, but finished fourth at the Doctor – a race he has dominated like no other.
Asked whether that pain was fueling his campaign this time around, he laughs.
“I guess last year wasn’t my best year, but it’s not like I was unhappy with it.” Hill says.
“I guess, unfortunately, I’ve put myself in this category where even a 4th at The Doctor people ask, ‘What happened?’ Which is nice. Three people got you on a day, that’s not too bad.”
“There’s definitely races this year that I’ve planned on winning, and I am doing everything I can to win them.
“The Doctor, Worlds, Hong Kong are all coming up. I do peak for these races and I put a lot of emphasis on winning ‘the majors.’
“Everything else to get me here, like a fifth at the Bridge to Beach, where people ask, ‘What happened?’, is a stepping stone to win these big races.
“I’m a little bit older now, – not that I feel it – but it’s definitely a case of using the time that I have.
He’s interrupted by the excitement of his kids playing in the background.
“You can hear two of them now – thankfully the third is asleep – but with the family and the business I know I can’t be elite all year.
“But in no way does that mean I won’t get up in November.”
After adding his name to 20 Beaches’ Steve Wood Trophy for a fourth time, Hill was on the next flight back home.
His eldest son, Coda, was happy to learn that Dad had claimed another win, but the next morning, he was more excited by the idea of him being home to go for a bike ride.
Not that Cory will be forgetting the rollercoaster ride any time soon.
“This one was quite special for the story.”