What a race!?! The 2018 Shaw and Partners Doctor has joined the Gorge Downwind Festival in a new class of international surfski events. Drawing over 400 of the best surfski paddlers from across Australia and around the World, the whole week became a carnival and celebration of the sport of surfski. With daily downwind shuttles run by Coastal Cruising, three separate races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a staggering prize purse in excess of $100k, and culminating with a 27km crossing, the Shaw and Partners Doctor has become the absolute must-do event of the year!
The whole thing was made possible by the hard work and support of Ocean Paddler and Shaw and Partners. Dean Gardner and the Ocean Paddler Team pulled out all the stops and put on one heck of a show. I know the whole Ocean Paddler crew worked for months to make the 2018 Doctor a success and success it was. It was an absolute honor to be a part of an event of this caliber. As for Shaw and Partners, the title sponsor for this event and really the sport as a whole, thank you for the injection of excitement, publicity, professionalism and resources. This event and the sport as a whole are growing at a rate I have never seen in my time as an athlete. Shaw and Partners have become synonymous with the potential of the sport and I can’t thank them enough for the things they are doing for the sport I love. I can’t wait to see what they have in the books for 2019!
Pushing the Limit
Sadly, this year, I asked too much of myself in training leading up to the Doctor and I tore a muscle in my shoulder just weeks before my trip to Australia. I tried to rest it as much as I could, but sadly, despite my efforts, I wasn’t able to line up for the Doctor at my best. The process of training, peaking, and racing can often be a perilous exploration of personal limits. One mark of a great athlete is the ability to navigate this line between peak fitness and injury/overtraining. As Ironman Triathlon World Champion Sebastian Kienle put it, “it’s a thin line between fit and f@$!ed,” and sadly for this year’s Doctor, I was the latter.
The Race Itself
When race day rolled around, the conditions were mild at best. Luckily the weather wasn’t crushingly hot, but as the racers looked out from Rottenest Island across the ocean to mainland Australia, there wasn’t a single wave to be seen. The 2018 Doctor was going to be anything, but easy.
With hundreds of athletes lining up and tens of thousands of dollars in prize money on the line, let’s just say the race start was hectic. Even without a hotspot on the line, it was imperative to jump out hard and try to find yourself some clean water. My plan (foolishly) was to start conservatively, to protect my shoulder from the intensity of those first few strokes off the line. As a result, I was thrust into the meat of the melee. It was anarchy. And it was glorious. Paddles crashed together, boats bounced into one another, I was cut off multiple times, I ruthlessly cut people off myself, athletes were spun out, and it all culminated as a safety boat’s wake passed through the density of the pack, half the boats sticking to drafting tactics while the other half scrambled the catch the wake. All this happened in the first 1.5km!
As the field scrambled through the first few minutes of flatwater, Sam Norton and Jasper Mocke took an early lead and pulled the group to the first turn marker and the true start of the crossing. After smashing everyone to pieces in the Dash for Cash sprints the day before, Jasper was confident in his speed and took the race by the horns like he had done so many times in the past here at the Doctor. The lead pack quickly formed and as everyone rounded the marker into the depressingly calm, flat ocean, Sam, Sean Rice, Cory Hill, Michael Booth, Macca Hynard, Clint Robinson, and Tom Norton established themselves as the frontrunners.
I had been holding out a small shred of hope in the back of my mind, a hope that despite the forecast, despite how flat it looked from shore, there would be something to surf when we turned the first marker. Turning the can, praying for my first wave, hoping that by some miracle I could surf my way to a strong finish … the last of my hope died. It was flat, lumpy and hard work. Buckle up, Austin. I gritted my teeth and found the fastest rhythm I could coax out of my body.
Up at the front, Sean took the lead from Jasper. Despite a visa and travel fiasco landing him in Australia less than 24 hours before the race start, Sean put down the hammer and was the man to catch for the next 20km. Hot on Sean’s heels the leaders held together for the next 10km. Cory establishing himself as a strong second, while third through sixth was a close battle between Michael, Macca, Jasper and Clint. It held this way until just before the final turn marker, indicating the final 5km of the race. And it was around that time, with about 20 min left in the race that the wind finally started to come through and things got interesting.
Further back, I had been suffering along, resigned to one of the worst international finishes of my career, sitting somewhere around 20th place. I wasn’t paddling horribly, but I just wasn’t myself and I really struggled to truly push through the pain. And then the wind started to come through. It wasn’t huge, maybe 15 knots at the most, but it was enough. The flatwater grind began to change and as the waves picked up, and the conditions slowly changed to small downwind conditions. Something clicked in my brain and suddenly, my internal narrative went from “you’re finished” to “maybe you can do this.” I knew I wouldn’t be catching the leaders, but my race wasn’t over and I could at least finish on a high note.
I began to make my way through the field, all I could see were the waves and the person just in front of me. Knowing that every bit of effort to jump or catch a wave now would pay off much more than it had on the flat, I dug deep. Each time I caught someone I would refocus on the next racer. The landscape of the race had changed and I couldn’t help smiling.
Up at the front, the leaders closed down the final few kilometers of the race. Sean who had turned the final marker first and had been leading for the last 20km began to fade. Cory, who had been nipping at his heels the whole race, took command of the lead and charged ahead. Further back it was Macca, who managed to claw his way into third, while a surging Clint was hunting them all down. The final battle was intense and the top athletes milked every run they could to carve out their spot on the podium. In the end, Cory took the line honors, claiming his third Doctor title and showing everyone why he is reigning World Champ. Next up the beach was Macca with an absolutely incredible finish and his first ever podium at the Doctor. And Clint was able to charge his way into an impressive 3rd place and round out the podium.
For my part, I just managed to claw my way to a 10th place finish, dicing in an absolute battle with the incredibly talented Josh Fenn in the last few waves to the beach. Josh was the clear winner of the U19 race and impressive to watch during the two weeks in Perth. Definitely watch this space!