World champ wins top sports award
North Shore constable Rachel Clarke, the 2014 Police Association Sportsperson of the Year, balances her public safety work with making a name for herself on the international surf ski scene. Kelly Quill reports.
Rachel Clarke receives the Sportsperson of the Year award from Police Association President Greg O'Connor. Photo: Alex Stammers, NZ Police.
The announcement that she had won the Police Association Sportsperson of the Year award came as a shock to Rachel.
“There are many other talented sportspeople within Police, so it is a huge privilege to win. I feel very honoured,” she said.
But Rachel’s ability to catch, surf and connect “runners”, or ocean swells, for long distances had already earned her four major international long distance race wins last year, including the prestigious Molokai Championships in Hawaii.
The gruelling 53-kilometre paddle from Molokai to Oahu attracts the world’s most experienced paddlers from Australia, South Africa and Hawaii, and is unofficially considered the world championships. For 25-year-old Rachel, winning that race was “the icing on the cake” of a fantastic year.
It wasn’t until she got off the water and headed to the finish line that she had any idea she’d been in the lead or that she was about to claim a victory that only one other Kiwi had managed in Molokai’s 39-year history.
“Everyone was cheering and then I realised I had won. It was the greatest feeling and sense of accomplishment.”
It could have ended so differently. Molokai was by far the furthest she had paddled and, despite having intensified her training in the year leading up to the race, she’d had no expectations of a placing.
About 30 kilometres in, she hit a wall of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. The temperature peaked at 30 degrees Celsius, a stifling humidity pressed down, and the trade winds and swell had deserted the competitors.
Rachel was two-thirds of the way across the Kaiwi channel, ominously known as the “channel of bones”, when she started to doubt her ability to finish.
“My hands were blistered and I began to get dehydrated. It was definitely a mental struggle to push past. I just kept thinking about getting through five kilometres at a time and pushing through that barrier.”
Back on land, Association President Greg O’Connor presented Rachel with her Police Association award at a ceremony at the North Shore Policing Centre late last month.
Rachel was nominated for the award by Sergeant Neil White, who described her as “a dedicated hard-working officer and committed competitor who still manages to work her gruelling training schedule around her frontline shifts”. She was not one to boast of her own achievements and word of how she got on at competitions was usually spread by proud colleagues, he said.
Rachel’s 2014 achievements also include winning New Zealand’s premier ocean paddling race, Auckland’s 25km King and Queen of the Harbour (which she won again this year for the third consecutive year); Perth’s 29km downwind race The Doctor, where she had so much fun chasing down runners she forgot she was even racing; and Sydney’s classic 20 Beaches race where she had to battle five-metre swells.
Although Rachel took up long-distance ocean paddling only five years ago, she is no stranger to water sports. Her earliest memories are of being involved in surf lifesaving at Red Beach (Whangaparoa) and playing on body boards.
“I’ve loved being in the water since then and have enjoyed every moment.”
As a teenager, she won several national titles in surf lifesaving, swimming and sprint kayaking, including the under-19/open double ironwoman at the 2009 National Surf Lifesaving Championships.
Combining training with shift work can be tough. “Sometimes, when I finish a shift, I just want to go home and have a nap, but you have to stay motivated and look at the end goal.”
In winter, while most of us are staying inside and avoiding the cold, she is out on the water, ignoring her numb hands and feet. Stormy weather is particularly good, as the larger swells are closer to what she encounters in ocean races.
Each week, she aims to paddle six times, do two gym sessions, three runs and a swim. Even an operation on her knee in the middle of the year to repair her iliotibial band didn’t slow her down.
Fortunately, partner Sam is also a paddler and, along with weekend group training sessions, has proven instrumental in pushing her and keeping her training on track.
This year, after two World Series races, Rachel is ranked first in the world, a good start to achieving her ultimate goal of winning the 2015 World Surf Ski series. This month, she will head to the United States with Sam to compete in the North American Downwind Champs in Hood River, Oregon, and the US champs in San Francisco.
In her spare time, Rachel is a volunteer lifeguard at the Red Beach Surf Lifesaving Club and loves going to the beach and spending time with friends and family.
Rachel Clarke 2014 Achievements and Highlights
NZ Police Association Sportsperson of the Year award
The Sportsperson of the Year award has been presented to members of Police who have displayed outstanding national sporting excellence for more than 40 years.
The Police Association has proudly sponsored the award since 2002.
Previous nominees and recipients include: