Home beach advantage will be a huge help to New Zealand's top crop of surf lifesavers as they prepare to do battle in Mount Maunganui, starting today.
The 12-strong Black Fins team will compete against the best surf athletes from Australia, Japan, Great Britain, South Africa, the United States and Canada in the three-test International Surf Challenge, while a Junior Black Fins team will compete in the youth division.
There are only a handful of survivors from the last time New Zealand hosted an international event, with current Black Fins Nick Malcolm, Cory Taylor, Max Beattie and Natalie Peat all racing for the New Zealand Youth team at the International challenge at the Mount in 2011.
It will even be a novelty for Olympic kayakers Kayla Imrie and Marty McDowell, who have represented New Zealand for a number of years but usually in Europe.
“Surf lifesaving's where it all started for me and it's how I got to the Olympics so it's cool to get back amongst the sport in this environment,” says Imrie.
“A lot of family members are coming up from Wellington to support me - normally overseas, I'm lucky to have a couple of them at any event - so I love having them here after having them support me from afar for so many years.”
McDowell raced the last International Challenge in Australia two years ago but has been able to focus on surf ski following his return from Rio, where he's set kayaking aside for now and started work for an engineering company.
“Working for a living is definitely a change and it's perhaps made training a bit harder but it's good to finally earn some money and not be on the bones of my arse,” says McDowell.
“It's been nearly six years since I've solely focused on ski paddling and I'm loving being back into it and being back in this New Zealand team.”
New Zealand go into this week as three-time world champions, although Australia are the defending International Surf Challenge champions after winning in Maroochydore in 2015.
Olympic kayakers Kayla Imrie and Marty McDowell are code-swapping this week, representing New Zealand in a three-test surf lifesaving series in Mount Maunganui. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media
Beattie, Taylor, Danielle McKenzie and Devon Halligan all have plenty of experience on the Australian professional surf series, while sprinters Kodi Harman and Olivia Eaton both have had success on the world stage.
The first test starts at 8.20am today, with the second and third tests on Saturday and Sunday.
Earlier this week, the Black Fins were spotted training on Mount Main Beach.
In the lead up to today's competition, the team has been doing a number of training and team building sessions as well as getting out into the local community, visiting local surf clubs and schools.
Black Fins team manager Mark Weatherall says they are really excited and looking forward to getting to Mount Maunganui.
Mark says spending the days leading up to the event in Mount Maunganui is a great opportunity to promote the Black Fins brand across the community and catch up with so many of the people that have supported them over the years.
"It's wonderful to have the opportunity to compete in front of them on a home beach when so often we are racing overseas and in a different time zone," he says.
Junior Black Fins team manager Shane Smith says the team is enjoying training together as a group and continuing to build on their strong team culture.
“The athletes are really excited about the upcoming competition and measuring themselves against what we expect to be some very tough competition.
“Also, it is not often that these athletes get the opportunity to represent their country at home in front of a home crowd, family and friends which will just add to the occasion."
Black Fins: Danielle McKenzie (Mairangi Bay), Devon Halligan (Omanu), Olivia Eaton (Mount Maunganui), Natalie Peat (Papamoa), Carina Doyle (St Clair), Kayla Imrie (Paekakariki), Cory Taylor (Midway), Max Beattie (Omanu), Lewis Clareburt (Lyall Bay), Nick Malcolm (Mairangi Bay), Kodi Harman (Papamoa), Marty McDowell (Titahi Bay).