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  • Kenny Howell

Q&A with Danielle McKenzie – Epic Athlete

By Kenny Howell

Danielle McKenize - or “DMack,” her obligatory Aussie nickname - joined Team Epic in November 2022. She is a human ball of steel, literally and figuratively speaking. An elite ocean ironwoman, she competes in the grueling and iconic Nutri-Grain Ocean IronMan & IronWoman series in Australia – a feat which she has accomplished every year since 2014, becoming the first female New Zealander to ever reach the podium. Ocean IronWoman competitions combine swimming, running, surfski paddling, and board paddling. The surfski component is the longest, most technically challenging, and riskiest leg of these professional events. Danielle’s forte is the surfski, although IronWoman athletes must excel in all four disciplines to succeed.

Her achievements in surf lifesaving competitions are jaw-dropping. She won her first National Title for New Zealand at age 15 and has now won 5 consecutive titles for the Kiwis. The list of her big wins below is just a small sample size.

Total of 41 Surf lifesaving National titles for New Zealand - The most of any athlete in NZ.

5 x NZ National Surf Lifesaving Surfski Champion

2 x Australian Surfski Champion

1st, 2022 Gorge Downwind Champs, Columbia River Gorge, USA

1st, 2022 International Challenge Malaysia

1st, 2022 Shaw and Partners Race Week, Western Australia

1st, 2022 & 2019 Shaw and Partners Perth Doctor

1st, 2022 & 2019 Shaw and Partners 20 Beaches

1st, 2019 ICF World Ocean Ski Champion, Quiberon France

1st, 2019 Steelcase Dragon Run, Hong Kong

Club World Surf Ski Champion, 2016 Noordwijk Netherlands

In 2017, Danielle relocated from Auckland to Queensland, Australia to take advantage of additional training opportunities, and chase the many surfski competitions held there year-round. While a relative newcomer to the discipline of ocean surfski racing (distinct from the multi-event surf lifesaving comps), she has made a huge splash since joining Team Epic with spectacular results in quick succession, winning the Western Australia Race Week series and the renowned Doctor downwind race in November, followed by the illustrious 20 Beaches race in Sydney in December. We checked in with Dani to find out more about her background, her secret training techniques, and preparations for her first Molokai Challenge coming up in May 2023.

Epic: You’ve been on a real tear over the past several months. Is this the most wins you’ve had in one season?

DMack: I enjoy every competition. We raced 7 weekends in a row, which has been super tough, but also super fun. I have never been good at sticking to one sport. Hence why I race the multiple discipline ironwoman and compete in Ocean ski as well. I love to race and race hard, which is where the success comes. I tend not to count wins, however this season has been a very successful season. Breaking through with a couple of Ironwoman race wins, on the podium again for the overall Nutrigrain Series (3rd) and taking out the Summer of Surf Ski series.

Epic: How old were you when you started surfski paddling, and at what point did you realize this is what you wanted to pursue professionally?

DMack: My family spent lots of time holidaying at surf beaches and at the lake (Taupo) growing up. So I spent my time in the water pretty much all my childhood. I competed in my first multisport race at the age of 12 which included a 2km kayak, 7km mountain bike and 3km run. The girls started 2 minutes behind the boys and I passed all the boys in the first 2km kayak. So you could say I wasn’t so bad at paddling from my first race. Growing up through Mairangi Bay Surf lifesaving club I was inspired by Katie Pocock (Epic team paddler) who used to race kayaks and ocean skis. I moved to Australia in 2017 to follow my dreams of competing in the Australia Ironwoman series and found that I was a really strong surf ski paddler, and I enjoyed the challenging surf conditions. Most of my battles were against Hannah Minogue in the surf where we would go race for race against each other all the way to the line.

On the Ocean ski side, I always knew I would be able to paddle an ocean ski and do well, however it took me awhile to get on a ski due to affordability. I always wanted a chance to have a crack at the top girls in Ocean ski and finally a chance came along in 2019 in France at the World Surf Ski Champs. I took out top honors almost 2 minutes ahead of Hayley Nixon. I went on from there to compete in Hong Kong, Perth and Sydney where I took out all the big races. Obviously covid put a stop to 2020 and most of 2021 but I enjoy travelling, racing and meeting new people which I find are the best parts of ocean ski.

Epic: In addition to being an Epic Team paddler, you have started working with Epic Kayaks in Queensland. How do you manage that work with training time and the racing schedule?

DMack: Its been great working for Epic. It allows me a more flexible schedule throughout the week and the chance to work from home on some days. On the Gold Coast we have fantastic weather so you can’t complain about taking Epic customers out for a demo at Currumbin!

Epic: The Epic V11 surfski has been your boat of choice as an Epic Team paddler in ocean racing events, and the boat obviously moves well for you. What are some of the highlights of the V11?

DMack: I love how the V11 excels in the smaller conditions, I find the boat gets up to speed quickly and maneuvers nicely making sure I get the best opportunity to catch all the best runners. Its also very nice to have a light ski!!

Epic: The racing calendar can be a brutal grind throughout the year, including international events as well as the many surf lifesaving events around Australia. How do you keep the competitive fire stoked, and avoid burning out?

DMack: I don’t really have an off season anymore. However, I always make sure I am enjoying everything I do. So if I feel my body burning out during the competitive season, I will take a few days to myself or take a short holiday just to let myself have some downtime. During our winter months (June-August) most training follows a long and steady program for both surf and ocean ski, with racing mostly happening overseas once a month at the most. Moving into our Spring (September-Nov) many important ocean ski races are happening ie the World champs and The Doctor. Then our summer competition season (Dec-April) is all based around the short surf lifesaving racing. With a heavy race focus in Australia we can race 5-6 weekends in a row with 1-2 weekends rest and then racing again.

I have learnt to take extra time and enjoy all the travel I do. So when I am overseas or in a new place I always make sure I spend a few extra days before or after competition. I loved the Gorge last year jumping on the mountain bike and going for another paddle the day after the race.

Epic: With all your recent success, what are you goals for next season?

DMack: The first goal is to tick off the Molokai to Oahu ski race. I have done it one a prone paddleboard back in 2017- and said I would never do it again on the prone. However, even though I have never paddled that far (on a surfski), if the conditions are on, I believe I will enjoy it! And obviously would love to try and win it!

Other goals are just trying to continue my winning form around the world, push boundaries in women’s surfski racing and enjoy paddling.

Epic: You have a huge number of victories in surf lifesaving and have been racking up wins in ocean surfski races. Is that unusual in the history of the two sports? Do you expect to pursue both disciplines equally going forward, or perhaps changing focus at some point?

DMack: Well, I must admit that I have never been good at sticking to one sport. I wouldn’t say it is unusual because in surf there are lots of disciplines generally everyone is really good at one leg. Ski is a good one to cross over because you can compete in ocean ski and potentially kayaking.

Epic: Is there a favorite surfski event on the calendar that you look forward to the most every year, and if so, why?

DMack: After my trip to the Gorge last year, this is in my top 2. I got to stay with a great family, met some fantastic people, enjoyed adventuring around the hood river and I enjoyed the weeklong atmosphere of downwinders.

But ultimately The Doctor. You can’t beat 5 days of racing in a week and finishing with one of the most prestigious races in the World, especially if it’s a pumping Fremantle wind.

Epic: After a 3-year hiatus due to COVID restrictions, the Molokai Challenge is coming up in May. Considering its unique status as surfski racing’s greatest test, what does your training for Molokai look like?

DMack: Well. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow this training program…. Because our surf season finishes first weekend of April. I haven’t actually started any Molokai training yet. Which is not ideal! Ha. But at least I won’t have the issue of over training.

I see my training as a bit backwards. I will have a good short base, from all the short intervals and races we have been doing. This is good for intensity to chase the runs. However, the main part I will need to focus on is distance and time in the ski. On the weekends is where I will try to get at least one long paddle in. I have never paddled this distance before, so each session will be about loading the body progressively.

Epic: Ocean surfski racing requires a range of talents – flat water speed as well as downwind surfing finesse, long distance endurance, and even some navigation. What aspect are you best at, or is each element an essential part of the whole package?

DMack: I love the downwind surfing (the yahhooo moments) I like to call it. I am a pretty average navigator, although I haven’t been lost yet. And I am a sucker for hard work! But to be at the top you pretty much have to have it all.

Epic: Gender equality in prize money has come to some races in the surfski world. In your opinion, what impact is this having? What more needs to happen to support women in the sport of surfski?

DMack: Women’s surf ski has continued to go from strength to strength. We have seen that gender equality in prize money has improved. For pretty obvious reasons, the women’s fields are not going to have the same participation numbers as the men’s fields. However, it is still important to continue to push for greater participation and visibility to keep up this momentum.

Epic: What training advice or tips do you have for aspiring surfski athletes, as well as the recreational racer wanting to step up their game?

DMack: I am a huge fan of learning to paddle behind a good paddler in a double ski. You get to see exactly what they do and when. In my opinion one of the best learning tools.

Get into some runners, this is what the skis are made for. Enjoy it!

Epic: What has been your biggest challenge or obstacle to overcome in sport, and do you have any advice or encouragement for others that might struggle to achieve their goals?

DMack: Probably some of the biggest challenges I have faced is the expectations that I set for myself. For me to overcome this is knowing that I have gone through the processes and left everything out there to give myself the best shot at winning, then I can accept the result.

Make sure to set achievable goals and as long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing then keep at it.

Epic: Rumor has it that you always keep a pack of M&Ms in your life jacket pocket. Is that true, and is that your “secret weapon”?

DMack: Its true. You never know when you might need a little extra snack. Plus, M&Ms don’t melt!

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