When Danielle McKenzie takes to the start line alongside Aimee Fisher in the K2 500m at the ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Championships in Duisburg it will complete a scarcely believable four-month journey for the versatile Aucklander.
A former Ocean Ski Racing world champion, multiple New Zealand surf lifesaving champion and one of the star performers in the Nutri-Grain IronWoman Series in Australia, Danielle has long been one of the country’s most pre-eminent paddlers.
Yet after competing at the 2023 New Zealand Surf Lifesaving Championships in March, Danielle came to the realisation she required a fresh challenge with sprint kayaking viewed as a tantalising prospect.
“I realised I’d done everything I wanted to in surf lifesaving, I’d won five New Zealand ski titles, so I thought where else could I challenge myself and try something new. Canoe sprint was that challenge which also potentially offered the possibility of competing at the Olympics.”
During lockdown Danielle had dabbled with some kayak training but it was only in the second half of March did she formerly start to train in the boat with the goal to compete at the NZCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships at Lake Karapiro in April.
Combining preparing for her new discipline with competing at the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships in Perth and the little matter of getting married to partner, Cody, during this period was understandably challenging.
However, given advice by Australia’s former Olympic K1 500m champion Ken Wallace and training solo on the Gold Coast she slowly grappled with the nuances of the kayak.
“The boats were quite different to what I was used to,” she explains. “They are a lot narrower and a lot less stable, so I had to figure out how to stay balanced.
“The biggest difference is the sprinting technique and paddling in the flat water. In the surf I am used to a lot of uncontrollable variables and you can get away with a little less form and more grit. Whereas in the kayak you need really good technique for connection at the front of the stroke.”
Danielle also had to contend switching from being an endurance to a sprint athlete while adjusting from competing across several disciplines to just one.
Yet while the technical challenges of flatwater kayak were huge, Danielle admits she was able to quickly bring some transferable qualities from her rich and varied paddling background.
“As a ski paddler and ironwoman I’m used to training 1000s of hours at a super high intensity,” she explains. “I know how to train and race hard, so I already bring a strong mindset and I have the ability to improve technically to make the boat go faster.”
At the NZCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships on Lake Karapiro, Danielle set herself the goal to record a sub- two minute time in the K1 500m, although she was thrown into the deep end when racing reigning Olympic and world champion Lisa Carrington in the discipline and former world champion Aimee Fisher in her opening heat.
Carrington edged Fisher in a titanic tussle between the pair in a time of 1:49.10 with Danielle taking third to advance in 2:00.60 to the semi-final.
“To race the two fastest people in the world was pretty cool,” she explains. “Although it was a humbling experience. I just had to not put too much pressure on myself, lay it all out there and paddle my own race.”
Despite her lack of experience, Danielle claimed victory in the first semi-final in 2:00.97 before in the final placing fourth in 1:58.59, posting the sub-two-minute time she craved. Yet as the Aucklander freely admits of her first ever flatwater sprint regatta, it was a steep learning curve.
“I had a lot of ground to make up because I had a terrible start,” she explains. “Although I knew the back end of my race would be strong because I know how to push my body more and more.”
Also racing in the K1 200m – where she placed ninth in the final – and in the K4 200m and K4 500m “which were fun” – she found the regatta a rewarding experience and following a chat with CRNZ General Manager of Performance Nathan Luce and Lead women’s coach Gordon Walker she was invited for a five-week stint to train with the elite New Zealand women’s squad based at Lake Pupuke.
Relocating from Gold Coast and living with her parents in Castor Bay on Auckland’s North Shore she was made to feel hugely “welcomed” by the squad.
Fortunate to have already known Lisa and with Tara Vaughan a member of the same Mairangi Bay Surf Lifesaving Club as Danielle – she has slotted quickly into the training environment.
“Super excited” to be coached by Gordon Walker and CRNZ Performance Coach Chris Mehak she has taken on the demands of training for a new discipline, although the 29-year-old paddler admits she has had to start “from the ground up.”
“I’ve had to learn a lot about technique and how to balance,” she says. “I also hadn’t been to the gym for more than a year but as soon as I joined the squad I went into a heavy gym phase. The good news is every day I was setting a PB in the gym and also a PB in every paddle session.
“It’s a very professional environment and I have enjoyed my time back training like a full time elite athlete. Something I haven’t experienced in the last few years as I have juggled studying a Masters in Teaching and part time work commitments plus training and racing as an ironwoman.”
After training with the New Zealand women’s squad the idea of paddling in the K2 500m alongside Aimee Fisher was floated and was later confirmed with selection for Duisburg. Elated to be given the chance to compete for her country on the global stage, Danielle took time to process her meteoric kayaking journey.
“To be honest, looking back in April there is no way I would have thought I would be competing at the World Championships,” she explains. “I figured there was no chance. Since training with the squad and earning my selection I’ve twice had to re-book our honeymoon. Nathan and Gordy have taken a massive chance on us in the K2 500m and I’m super thankful for that.”
Praising Aimee as a “superfast paddler” whom Danielle has learned so much from the pair are gelling nicely. So what would Danielle like to achieve in Duisburg?
“I sort of know how fast we can paddle but I’ve never been in this situation before,” she says. “The main goal is to qualify a boat for the Olympic Games but both of us being elite athletes we want to do as well as we can.”
In the months ahead Danielle hopes to absorb as much information as possible to lead to further growth in her new discipline. She hopes to continue to enjoy sprint kayaking and adds: “I just hope to build on the legacy of canoe racing here in New Zealand and I would love to be a part of the Olympic
campaign next year.”
The ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Championships are starting this week in Duisburg, Germany. For everything you need to know about the event read our article here.