Young stars in record Monster field
They may not have the tepid temperatures of the Gold Coast but home waters have never looked so good for Tauranga lifeguards Ben Cochrane and Jess Miller.
The pair are lining up in Saturday's Mount Monster, sponsored by Dexion, joining nearly 300 other surf lifesavers chasing $9000 in prizemoney at the 25km, four-stage endurance race in Mount Maunganui.
It's the richest surf sports event in New Zealand, although the chance of a big payday isn't a motivating factor for Miller and Cochrane, who have spent the past 12 months training with the Northcliffe club in Queensland.
Photos - Mount Maunganui surf lifesaver Jess Miller and Omanu's Ben Cochrane will be competing in the Mount Monster endurance race this weekend.
Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
"There's a lot of hype about the Mount Monster in Australia and a lot of people from the club know I'm coming over to do this," Omanu's Cochrane explained. "It's on my home beach and in my home water and I just want to do it. If I come first or last, I'm going to have a smile on my face regardless."
It's unlikely he'll come last, given that the 19-year-old's training partners over the last year have included the likes of multiple world and Australian ironman champion Shannon Eckstein and New Zealand star Cory Taylor. That's lifted Cochrane's game to another level, though he'll have no idea what that level is until the end of Saturday'srace.
"I've definitely surprised myself how far I've come in the last year and I never thought I'd be in this position, training and keeping up with guys I'd previously only seen on television. I've never done the Mount Monster before and my focus this year is all on short-course ironman racing but I've watched the results over the last few years and I'm pretty excited to give it a crack."
With previous winners Taylor and fellow Australian-based star Max Beattie competing in the third round of the Kellogg's Ironman series in Australia this weekend, this year's race is wide open and Cochrane is just one of a number of males who could take it out.
Likewise the women's division - 2013 winner Danielle McKenzie is also in the Kellogg's ranks, leaving defending champion Kirsty Wannan (Piha) as the only previous champion racing. She'll have her work cut out to fend off the challenge of Piha clubmate and New Zealand under-19 ironwoman champion Hannah Williams, while Miller is also a vastly different athlete from the one who finished third in the inaugural race two years ago.
"Training with Northcliffe has played a huge part in my improvements as an ironwoman," the 20-year-old said. "I've gotten a lot stronger on my craft, especially the ski leg which I've really focused on and made a priority since moving to the Gold Coast. During my last Mount Monster, I felt like I was still a real beginner especially over a 12km distance so I am hoping this one will be a lot different."
The Monster starts and finishes on Mount Maunganui's Main Beach, with a 5km beach run, a spectacular swim leg which includes a jump off Moturiki Island's blowhole, a 12km ski leg to Omanu and a 6km board paddle.
For Miller, it will be a much anticipated home-coming, as well as something of a family reunion. Her brother Hamish, 17, has also entered the open division and is a phenomenal beach runner, while youngest brother Daniel and her father Doug will be competing in the teams division, with mum Jill on handling duties.
"Racing alongside both my brothers and Dad will be pretty special and there's no other race where this would ever happen. The Mount is just a beautiful place to have a race like this and it's awesome being able to come back to where I grew up and jump off the blowhole in an actual race and just come home and catch up with everyone."
Miller has some decent recent form, having finished third in the 34km short-course Coolangatta Gold in October. Noosa Heads-based 17-year-old Tainui Kaihau - who won Coolangatta Gold bronze in the under-19 division - will be competing on Saturday, amid a men's field that also includes Mason Bryant (Papamoa), Sam Shergold (Mount Maunganui) and Muriwai's Jake Allan.
The team ranks feature at least four Olympians; kayakers Steve Ferguson and Teneale Hatton are both representing Piha teams, while whitewater star Mike Dawson is in an invitation team with 2008 Olympian and French butterfly swimmer Magali Rousseau and former New Zealand surfing champion Matt Hewitt.
The Monster also features a unique prizemoney split, with $1000 going to the first open male and open female and a "Monster Pot" - awarded to first overall in the male, female and teams - based on the number of entries in each division.
Racing starts on Saturday at 10am.