Going for Gold

At 10.30am on 18th November I was standing on the beach in Hong Kong waiting for the gun to go for the start of the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships.

This has been a while in the making. When I started paddling at North Bondi Surf Club, spending more time in the water than staying on the surf ski, I really would never have believed that I’d be on my way to the World Championships as part of the Australian team. It was such an incredible honour. 

To qualify for selection we had to take part in a minimum number of races in the 2016/17 Australian Ocean Racing Series. Finishing the required races and taking out the series for my age group put me forward for selection.

In April this year the email came through from Australian Canoe that opened with ‘Congratulations on your selection to the 2017 Ocean Racing World Championships Team.’. Whoo hooo!!!!! I was so happy!!

When the uniform arrived, no prize for guessing the first thing I did when I got home. Yep, put it on and took a selfie. I was just a little bit excited. 

HK uniform.jpg

 

Once Molokai, the big race in Hawaii, was out of the way, it was all focus on Worlds, both paddling and strength training. The endurance was there, it was time to increase my speed. In the last few weeks running up to the race I was over it. Over the training, early starts, the constant focus and pressure I put on myself. I felt physically and mentally fatigued.

But I knew this was also how I should be feeling. It meant I’d put in the work. Then it was time to get on the plane and head to Hong Kong. The cherry on the cake was Mum being there. Having not seen her since Christmas last year, and it being the last time before heading to Africa, I was so happy to see her and have her there to share this incredible experience with.

HK Team1.jpg

Of the 27 paddlers in the Australian team 13 of us were from the squad I train with, coached by the legendary Jim Walker (who was also in the team). Pretty amazing! Being surrounded by the people I paddle with made such a difference. There were team training sessions in the run up the race, we did a bit of sight-seeing together and there was a big team dinner.

HK Team2.jpg


The race itself is known as the ‘Dragon Run’, and is a 22.5km paddle from Clear Water Bay finishing at Stanley Beach. It starts with about 7kms to the first turning point, Ninepins, into what is generally the downwind section for the next 10km or so, before the turn to home and the final 5kms.

In the lead up to the race we had monsoon winds and rough seas, resulting in some fun training sessions and nearly being blown off my ski more than once. Come the women’s race, it was a completely different picture - windless, flat and very muggy.

 (Race morning view from Stanley where we finished)

(Race morning view from Stanley where we finished)

It meant for a gruelling, long paddle in the hot, humid conditions. Despite the recent wind there wasn’t much swell left on offer.

Race day we headed down to Stanley to load the skis on the trailer and then get the coach to the start. At Clear Water Bay it was time to settle the nerves, get set up and have a warm up. And take a quick pic with the Jimsquad girls.

HK Girls.jpg

Then it was guns up and we were off. After a hectic start my focus was to find a wash to sit on (behind another ski to get the drag).  I saw one of the women in my category go past. With over 20kms to go, I wasn’t too worried. I jumped on the wash of one of our under 23 women and gradually we caught up.

About 9kms into the race, I managed to get on the wash of the woman in my sights. It was decision time. Sit here and hope that no one else goes past (and that no one else in my category had snuck past at the start), plus that I can out sprint her to the finish. The other option was to put a push on now. I went the latter, upped the speed and gradually built up a lead.

It was seriously hot work. I spent half the race dreaming of jumping into the water to cool down.

The point for the turn to the finish seemed like it was not getting closer. Finally it was there, but there were still 5kms to go (over 30mins). Now this really did feel like it took FOREVER. I was in a world of pain. Hands bleeding, exhausted, body hurting and just when I desperately wanted to ease off, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the women catching up. 

Time to dig deep. I shouted at myself (which weirdly does help) and tried to find some strength to tap in to. I was not going to drop a place now. Come the last 1km it was pretty ugly. Technique was gone, grunting like a tennis player, giving it everything I had. I had to, this was it, this was Worlds, my goal for so long and something I may never get the opportunity to do again.

HK Finish.jpg

And then, after 2 hours, 14 minutes and 12 seconds, it was over. To say I felt relieved, is a massive understatement! One of the challenges for me, and what Jim had been helping me with, was to stop being the endurance athlete and keeping too much in reserve. I had to cross that line feeling like I couldn’t do any more. Job done, I couldn’t have paddled another 50m.

When I came round the corner, there was the Jimsquad crew, Mum and the other supporting parents. Seeing them, hearing them cheer, brought tears to my eyes. I was so happy. Now it was time to do what I’d been dreaming of all race. Flop in the water, heaven.

HK Finish 2.jpg

With multiple categories being contended by many paddlers, at that point I wasn't 100% sure where I’d finished. Then the result came through. GOLD!!! Suddenly all the months of training, the early mornings topped off by the effort and pain of the race were most definitely worth it. The presentation was something else and incredibly special. Standing on the podium, receiving my medal and turning to watch the Australian flag being raised to the national anthem is a moment that will be with me forever.

HK Medals.jpg

The next day it was the turn of the men and a completely different set of conditions. The monsoon winds picked up and delivered the goods – the swell was up. It made for a very tough, technical race. I was happy we hadn’t had those conditions - it would have been a very different race. 

HK Jim and Sarah.jpg

(Me and Jim Walker, who had an incredible race and got gold)

Just quietly, the Aussie cheers were by far the loudest. We were very much there as a team and there were amazing results from everyone with many medals being won. A huge thank you to Jim for being such an incredible coach, for seeing what I’m capable of, building my confidence and pushing me. To the team, thank you for all the support, the cheers and help. I feel very lucky to have been part of this team and getting to take part in such an amazing event.

Now time to ease up a bit on the paddling for a few weeks and give the body a rest ahead of the rather long paddle next year...

Sarah Davis