Introducing – Danielle McKenzie

We find out more about the 25-year-old Aucklander, who caused a sensation by winning the ICF Canoe Ocean Racing world title in France in September in what was only her third surf ski race.

Water baby

Raised in Murrays Bay in Auckland, Danielle was exposed to water sports for as long as she can remember. Her father, Duncan, was a New Zealand surf lifesaving international, and she joined Mairangi Bay Surf Life Saving Club from the age of seven.

“Dad was always involved in surf lifesaving and every holiday we’d spend a lot of time on the water in either Pauanui or up north,” explains Danielle. “I’d be water skiing on Lake Taupo, always around a boat in the surf. Some of my best memories were catching the waves together with my dad, or him teaching me how to water ski.”

Sporting all-rounder

Naturally competitive, Danielle found sporting success both in and out of the water during her time at Murrays Bay Intermediate and Rangitoto College. She scooped her first national surf lifesaving title in the ski as an under-16 athlete but she also excelled in other sports too.

“At school I did every sport on offer from cross country running, waterpolo, rugby, snow skiing, to kayaking, everything,” she explains. “I played rep soccer and touch for Auckland and also won the AIMS Games multisport title.”

At the age of just 16 she also won a silver medal in the U19 age-group at the 2010 World Triathlon Championships before repeating the feat the following year to further illustrate her impressive versatility.

The Ironwoman

From 2012, Danielle specialised principally in surf lifesaving and was selected for the New Zealand junior team for the 2012 World Surf Life Saving Championships in Adelaide, where the Kiwis finished second in the team competition and she also claimed multiple second place finishes in the individual events.

The following year she appeared in the same New Zealand open surf lifesaving team in Japan as two-time Olympic kayak champion Lisa Carrington. She spent her semester breaks training in Gold Coast at the Northcliffe Surf Life Saving Club and for the past five years has appeared on the Nutrigrain Ironwoman circuit.

Ironwoman, which combines swimming, board paddling, ski paddling with some running, can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour to complete and Danielle has enjoyed some success.

“I’ve yet to win a race but I’ve podiumed,” she explains. “When I started I was just there to have fun but each year I’ve re-qualified and progressively got better and better.”

Danielle McKenzie  iron.jpg

Surf success

Danielle has carved out a reputation as one of the world’s finest female surf lifesaving exponents. In 2014, on her open debut at the World Surf Life Saving Championships, she triumphed as part of gold medal-winning Black Fins and also claimed an individual title in board paddling.

At the next edition two years later in the Netherlands, she won the world ski title as well as team gold with New Zealand, while at the most recent 2018 World Surf Lifesaving World Championships in Adelaide, she claimed silver in the team competition for New Zealand and regained her individual board paddling crown.

Australian adventure

After graduating in 2017 from the Auckland University of Technology with a Bachelor in Sports and Recreation, Danielle moved to live in Gold Coast supported by the Northcliffe Surf Club.

“It was the best location for me to compete in Ironwoman racing,” she explains. “It is just a really good training environment. I swim four mornings a week in the pool and most afternoons I’m at the beach with 3-4 ski sessions and two board sessions a week. I also do two iron training sessions a week and on top of this two extra runs a week and two gym sessions. Sunday is a rest day.”

Curious to expand her repertoire of events she made her ski paddling debut in 2017 at the 20 Beaches Ocean Classic in Sydney.

“I recall competing on a 15km triangular course and it was really hard,” she explains. “I was up against Hayley Nixon (the 2017 World champion from South Africa) and Rachel Clarke (New Zealand’s 2015 world bronze medallist) but I enjoyed the experience and finished second behind Hayley.”

World Champion

After finishing third in the Gold Coast Classic Ocean race – just her second surf ski race of her career – in August, the following month she committed to competing at the ICF Canoe Ocean Racing World Championships in Brittany, France. because she was planning to compete in South Africa shortly afterwards and was “on the same side of the world.”

She came into the event with little surf ski experience, but the Kiwi was optimistic of a strong performance.

“I expected to be in the first three because I was putting in the hard yards training for the Coolangatta Gold and I would have been disappointed had I not podiumed,” she explains. “But I knew at the same time, the race is over a long distance and a lot can happen.”

In only the third surf ski race of her career, the long-limbed Kiwi proved unstoppable, winning the race by a margin of one minute and 20 seconds from Hayley Nixon to be crowned world champion.

“I definitely felt like I gave it my all,” she says. “My body was shutting down at the end but it was unreal to cross that finish line in first, especially after receiving some bad family news (with the death of my grandad just two days before the race). I went through so many emotions; so many highs and lows during one race. I’ve known for some time that ski paddling is a strength and it was good to lay all my cards on the table during one race.”

Strengths and qualities

Since childhood, Danielle has been fascinated by the ocean and from a young age was honing her skills in the water.

“I would watch the surf forecasts for all beaches within an hour drive of home, just to get into the ocean for a wave” she explains. “As an 18 to 20-year-old my strength was board paddling – because at that age you don’t produce much lactic acid and can keep on paddling forever! I later started growing into my long arms, improved my strength and became a stronger ski paddler. I have always been confident of my surf skills which is key to racing well in Australia.”

Surf Ski future

Highly motivated after her World Championship success, Danielle hopes to place far more emphasis on surf ski in the future. Already eyeing up the defence of her world title in Portugal next year, she intends to compete against the cream of global talent in the next month or so at the Hong Kong Dragon Run (Nov 9) the Doctor in Perth (Nov 23) and the 20 Beaches Ocean Classic (Dec 7).

Danielle leads a powerful trio of world-class Kiwi female surf paddlers including Rachel Clarke and Teneale Hatton, who won a world bronze behind Danielle in Brittany.

“It is inspiring to have such strong girls pushing each other not only from the same country, but also from the same area as we all come from Auckland,” she explains.

Global traveller

Danielle, who in the past year has also taken up AFL where she plays for a local team in Gold Coast, has, nonetheless, a special affinity for surf ski.

“I love paddling in the ocean with my own thoughts, and I also love the competitive side of the sport and, as funny as it sounds, pushing myself through the pain,” she adds. “It is such a social sport and the travel takes me to some awesome locations around the world.”