Meet the Ironwoman Paddling Around Australia - Women's Health

Meet the Ironwoman Paddling Around Australia

The Aussie athlete, who is raising money for charity, wants to become the youngest and fastest person to complete the challenge.

When most people set a fitness goal, it might involve training for a funrun or doing a mutli-day hike. For former-Ironwoman Bonnie Hancock, it involves preparing to paddle her surf ski around Australia. Yes, the whole of Australia. That’s 10 hours of paddling every day for six months.

“I find the excitement and nerves are just starting to creep in now,” she explains. “Excitement when I think about the amazing places we’ll get to visit and nerves when I think of the sharks and crocs!”

However, Hanckock is no stranger to endurance events having first attempted the Nutri-Grain Ironwoman Series on the Gold Coast when she was just 17. Since then, she’s competed in nine Ironwoman series, represented Australia in her sport, and completed a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics; something she says that has benefited her own performance.

“I learned of the significant role our diet plays not just in sports performance but our overall health,” she says. “I think life is all about trying to find balance as best we can, if you aren’t giving your body all of the nutrients it needs, you’re one step behind in a race and life in general.”

But food is only one part of the equation for this adventure and for the past six months, Hancock has been conditioning her body for its toughest challenge yet. 

“The physical load on my body [during this paddle] will be unlike anything I’ve even taken on, even in all my years racing in the Ironwoman series,” she explains. “I’ll be doing around 100km of paddling per day so it’s a big ask of these 31-year-old shoulders! I think keeping my body together and avoiding injury will be the biggest challenge.”

To help lift her up in her lowest moments, Hancock will rely on listening to her fave tunes (“I love music and getting my daily pop culture fix!”) and also the fact that by attempting this paddle she is raising money and awareness for Gotcha4Life, an Australian mental fitness charity taking action to engage, educate and empower to end suicide.

Hancock, who leaves next month, spoke to Women’s Health about the logistics of her paddle (food, sleep?!), her intense training schedule and the biggest misconceptions she thinks people have about female athletes.  

Are you feeling nervous or excited about your upcoming paddle adventure around Australia?

“Well, it’s been such a big six months’ lead in, full of planning, so I feel like I’ve had two jobs: working in my dietitian clinic and putting logistics and sponsorship for the paddle together. I haven’t had too much time to get nervous which is probably a good thing! I have a 40-ft catamaran coming along for the duration of the journey and a team of eight support crew. One of the skippers’ rules is that we enjoy cheese and crackers on the deck each afternoon during sunset. That’s a rule I have no complaints about!” 

What is it about surf ski races that attracted you to them in the first place?

“Since I was young, I’ve always looked up to Karla Gilbert and I remember her taking on the big surf at Kurrawa (on the Gold Coast) on her ski and dominating the big waves. I saw these women carrying and paddling these 18ft/ 18kg skis and thought that is the ideal display of strength and resilience. Initially, when I was racing in the Ironwoman series, the ski was my weakness but as I grew a bit older, I started to build my strength and came to love the challenge of the ski. There’s no better feeling than holding this huge piece of equipment steady down a big wave. It’s the ultimate fix of adrenaline!” 

Will you listen to podcasts or music while you’re out on the ocean?

“Absolutely! One of the things I’m most looking forward to is having my Speaqua (waterproof speakers) with me each day. Depending on my mood and whether I need something more chilled out or pumped-up songs, I’ll have a playlist ready for the occasion. I also absolutely love listening to podcasts; Mama Mia Out Loud is my absolute favourite. I also love the Rich Roll podcast which often features people taking on big physical challenges.”

And how will you sleep? And eat? What are the logistics?

“The logistics involved in the paddle are HUGE, and the better part of the last six months have been spent organising them. Thankfully I’ve got a really good team around me to help. We will be staying on both the catamaran and coming to shore at different times, depending on the conditions. For example, there are sections in the Great Australian Bite and Western Australia where we won’t come to shore for a week or two at a time as it is absolutely deserted with cliff faces for hundreds of kilometres. So, we’ll stay on the boat. Along the more ‘civilised’ coastline of NSW, we’ll come to shore and stay at accommodation. In terms of food, we have eight people to feed so fishing will play a role to save on costs. We have had a meat company, Bindaree, come on board also which will help us enormously as protein is the most expensive part of the meal. As well as general food intake, I’ll be taking various protein and greens supplements to look after my recovery and immune system and have MegaBurn helping me out with these.” 

Speaking of sponsors, who is helping you on this challenge? 

“Well, Shaw and Partners Financial Services are the naming rights sponsor for the paddle, but we’ve also received major support from Gardner Cars, Nordic Kayaks and Bennett Surf Lifesaving.” 

How are you training for this trip? What are you focusing on?

“It’s such an interesting thing to consider-how you train for something like this, 10 hours of paddling a day for six months. You can hardly do 100 km paddles leading in to train for it as you’d simply go in with some kind of injury! Instead, I’m taking the approach of mixing up my training as much as possible, so as not to overuse certain muscle groups. I do a mix of ocean swimming, running, ski paddling and, very importantly, gym. The stronger and more flexible you are, the less likely you are to get injured when you ask your body to take on something so huge. We therefore put a big emphasis on mobility and functional movements which will directly benefit my paddling.” 

What do you think is a misconception about female athletes?

“I think a huge misconception is to think an athlete has to look a certain way. Some people are naturally prone to carry higher amount muscle mass or slightly higher body fat percentage and may not look as ‘fit’ as the next person. In my experience, I’ve seen female athletes of all different body types dominating different sports at the highest level. There isn’t a one-size fits all approach, and it’s about that individual finding what works for them. Thankfully we are moving forward in this area and coaches are ditching the idea of strict diets to get athletes to achieve a certain weight or image. At the end of the day, results speak for themselves and often, within reason, weight is such a minor part of performance.” 

What is a change you’d like to see in female sports in the future?

“An area I’ve always been very passionate about is receiving equal opportunities and pay as males. Thankfully we are moving forward in leaps and bounds when it comes to this but in terms of both media coverage and sponsorship opportunities, there is still a gap. Female athletes have so much to offer, and female sports are so entertaining, I have found myself recently disappointed to watch the prime-time news and not see one clip of females in the sports section! As a result, sponsorship is harder for females to find due to less exposure. I’d like mainstream media to entirely come to the party and see the value in showcasing female sports in the way it deserves. Young girls can then be seeing inspiring, healthy role models each time they turn on the tv, which I believe will have a very positive effect flow on younger generations of females coming through.” 

By Lucy E. Cousins

Lucy is a writer for Women's Health with more than 15 years experience under her belt. She's obsessed with everything from flotation tanks, meditation and activewear as well as all of the latest fitness classes. But she's all about balance... so in between fitness sessions, you'll find her with a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other

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