A year ago, Danielle McKenzie put in one of the most dominant displays ever seen in more than 100 years of New Zealand surf lifesaving championships. The bad news for her rivals? The Mairangi Bay star has only improved since then.
Fresh off a sizzling display at the Queensland state titles at the weekend, McKenzie heads into this week's TSB-sponsored national championships in Mount Maunganui starting Friday in form and firing.
She's not sure if she can emulate last year's extraordinary eight-gold haul but, after breaking into the top-10 overall in the Oceans6 Australian professional series, she's not counting anything out either.
"Although the series standings and the races results maybe didn't show it, I feel like my racing improved so much," McKenzie said. "My results were much more consistent and I've really enjoyed the training environment this year, especially having the likes of Floody as coach."
'Floody' is Australian surf lifesaving great Naomi Flood, an ironwoman champion and Olympic kayaker. Under Flood's tutelage, McKenzie has watched her own outstanding ski paddling capabilities soar even further. She won the open women's ski race crown at the Queensland champs, added the double ski, ski relay and board relay titles and finished second in both the board race and ironman.
As dominant as that performance was, it wasn't a patch on last year's New Zealand titles in Gisborne. She picked up individual wins in the surf race, ironwoman and ski race and helped Mairangi Bay to team wins in the tube rescue, surf teams race, taplin relay, double ski and ski relay. It eclipsed Nikki Cox's 2008 performance of five gold medals and is believed to be the most open titles - male or female - won at a single championship since records began.
Aside from the sprint events, the open women's run-swim-run crown is the only New Zealand title McKenzie has yet to win in the past four seasons - ironically, that's the same period Papamoa's Natalie Peat has dominated that particular race, gunning for her fifth successive win this week.
And a rising tide of talent is following in McKenzie's wake. Amy Barron (Mount Maunganui), Hayley Cox (Lyall Bay) and Jess Miller (Mount Maunganui) are all now entrenched in Australian clubs and beginning to make their mark on the professional series, while the likes of East End teenager Claudia Kelly and Midway's Olivia Corrin will be racing both under-19 and open divisions this weekend. Corrin looms as a potential challenger to McKenzie and defending champion Devon Halligan in the board race, while Kelly's paddling ability also has huge potential.
It also means the numbers in the open women's division are on their way back up; 49 will contest the ski race and 43 have entered the ironwoman.
"It's definitely back up on the rise, which is really pleasing," McKenzie said. "When I look back to when I was under-16, the open women's fields were so strong. I remember trying to race up and being stoked just to make a final. You're starting to see those young girls making the step up now and it wouldn't surprise me to see them on the podium or winning this weekend."
The three-day nationals carnival starts on Friday morning, with nearly 1200 athletes representing 45 clubs from around the country, while the masters titles are on tomorrow.
Caption: New Zealand surf lifesaving star Danielle McKenzie on her way to victory in the open women's ski race at the Queensland championships last weekend. Photo by Harvie Allison/www.harvpix.com
Chris Emmett, TSB Nationals Event Manager
Phone 027 457 1023