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RACHEL CLARKE: SURF SKI CHAMP

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RACHEL CLARKE: SURF SKI CHAMP

RACHEL CLARKE: SURF SKI CHAMP

IMAGINE winning New Zealand’s premier surf ski race.

Then winning it again, and again and again, until you’ve done it seven times in a row.

Would you be cocky and over-confident? Would you be bored?

Because Rachel Clarke is none of those things. Racking up a whopping 100 plus kilometres on the water every week, she trains like someone searching for their first title, and speaks with a humble, gracious undertone.

“If I was to win an eighth one it would really be amazing, I am probably not in the form of my life at the moment having had a month off - I will just see how it goes and if I take out the title, it will be the icing on the cake,” says Clarke.

While her name is not a household one, it should be. 

She’s currently ranked third in the world on the international surf ski circuit, and two years ago held the top spot. Clarke’s also won the prestigious 52km Molokai Crossing twice.

“Long term I would love to go back to Hawaii and take out another title there, that's probably my main goal,” she says determinedly.

She’ll have that opportunity next May.

But for now, there are more boxes to tick closer to home.

The annual "King and Queen of the Harbour" race will this year be hosted by her home club, and therefore carries extra significance.

"It’s an endurance event which sees competitors paddle roughly 22kms in often choppy waters off Auckland’s Takapuna beach.

“The more wind and waves the better, some people don't like that, but I particularly do.”

Battling tough conditions isn’t just a sport for Clarke, it’s become a lifestyle. 

The 29-year-old recently joined New Zealand’s diplomatic protection squad, a job which sees her protect our highest dignitaries such as the Governor General and our Prime Minister.

“I guess you have to be pretty dedicated and motivated at the same time.

"Each week I will sit down with my coach and we will work out a plan because each work week is different it's not like Monday to Friday six to three you could be on a late shift, you could be on earlies, you could be on nights,” admits Clarke.

“Anywhere from 40 maybe 60 hours a week and then you are trying to fit in 15 hours of training on top of that. So, it is very hard to juggle, and you have remember not to go over the top and tire yourself out because recovery is also important.”

Clarke first signed up for the police for as a 21-year-old, spending the first six years as beat cop, before moving into motorway patrol. 

When she saw a post in the diplomatic division advertised, Clarke knew she’d found her next challenge, but she was made to work for her spot.

“First of all, there is five days of fitness. They really try and tire you out, make sure that you are really under pressure. Four-hour hikes, running, swimming and then when your most tired they throw in a whole lot of scenarios and see how you react under that pressure,” she recalls.

The perfect test for an elite sportswoman who’s been putting herself under similar duress for most of her life.

Clarke’s love of the water began early.

“I have done life-saving since I was five. I started paddling a spec ski when I was a 12.”

Growing up in Red Beach north of Auckland made turning that passion into a career a lot easier.

But she fears not enough kiwi kids are aware of the opportunities surf ski offers.

She tells me there’s been a small rise in the number of women competing at a high-end level globally, but no such boost locally.

"A lot of people don't know that ocean paddling and long-distance paddling actually exists and where you can go with it. You can actually travel the world.

"So, I guess just getting it out there, getting more people involved and getting people racing and seeing what it’s all about.

“You’re on the ocean, what better way is there to spend your life?” asks Clarke.

It may help that she has someone to do it with. 

Fiancé Sam Mayhew is a successful ocean paddler in his own right, ranked 10th in the world.

He believes female paddlers need more support from organizers.

“I think for women, just keep promoting them in events with prize money equal to guys to keep the girls that want to perform at that level encouraged.”

When Clarke competed in Perth recently, she was paid $500 (Australian) for coming sixth. 

Her male equivalent received $1200.

Ocean paddling isn’t considered a high-performance sport and often women’s prize money doesn’t extend as far down the field as the men’s.

Regardless, Clarke and Mayhew enjoy the battle they have on the water and would like to see that become more common place in competition.

“I love giving the men a run for their money and it’s quite cool to be racing alongside them.”

Or with them, if Mayhew gets his way.

“I also love mixed double where you can actually be in the same ski and I would love to see more races like that,” he says.

It won’t feature this weekend, but the singles racing is chock-a-block with around 160 people set to line up on Auckland’s Takapuna beach to compete for the crown.

And all eyes will be on Clarke.

“I don't know if there’s another person who has won a race in the world eight times in a row like this, so it is amazing,” gushes Mayhew.

“I think it’s going to be really tough, she’s coming off a bit of a work break and building nicely but she has got Teneale Hatton, who is an amazing paddler, chasing her and she will be peaking and wanting to get a title, so I think it is going to be a good battle.”

Hatton is a former Olympic canoe sprinter who once beat Lisa Carrington in K1 qualifiers. The bridesmaid now five times, she’s gunning to put a stop to Clarke’s domination.

“We do a lot of international racing particularly ding dong battles, so we are quite close rivals in that respect, so she will definitely be one to watch, ” Clarke says with a wry smile.

But bet your bottom dollar, having figured out her work-life balance, the only thing Clarke will be protecting this weekend, is her perfect record.