By Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
Hobbling and hurting, invalided out of the final day of the world surf lifesaving championships in France, all Steve Kent could hope was that the rest of his New Zealand team would follow his lead and fight until the end.
He needn’t have worried. Watched on by their injured teammate, New Zealand held off a rampant Australian charge on the final afternoon to retain the Alan Whelpton Trophy, snatching gold in the final event of the day to win by 23 points.
It’s just the third time New Zealand has won the world championship, following victories in 1998 and 2012, and they owed much to the sort of fight Kent typified.
Launching himself into the water at La Grande-Motte Beach for the tube rescue on the penultimate day, the 26-year-old Olympic swimmer felt his kneecap pop. Having dislocated it twice before, he knew exactly what it was – though he also had no intention of stopping.
“I hadn’t got up to full speed in the heats and semis but felt it go about 20m into the wade going out,” Kent explained. “I had to stop running and start duck-diving off one leg straight away which lost me a lot of ground but I knew we couldn’t afford a DNF at that stage and all thoughts were on carrying on for the team. There was no way I was stopping – there was just too much on the line.”
Teammate and captain Andy McMillan, entrusted with the second swim, had a genuine rescue element to his effort as he picked up Kent at the cans, although the Titahi Bay club member, clipped into a rescue tube, still managed to kick all the way back in to the beach where New Zealand collected a valuable bronze.
“That was definitely the hardest bronze I’ve ever won but also one of the sweetest, especially as the guys held on to win,” Kent said. “I’m just incredibly proud to represent my country and help bring back the trophy once again.”
There were similar acts of heroism across the beach as the title was secured when Kiwi sprinter Paul Cracroft-Wilson outpaced Australian rival Jake Lynch in the last leg of the men’s taplin.
It capped an emotional day for Cracroft-Wilson, who earlier watched his Australian fiancee Melissa Howard stretchered out of the beach flags arena and taken to hospital with a broken collarbone.
Howard’s injury halted the Australian revival, after they’d started the day 49 points adrift, and allowed New Zealand’s Chanel Hickman to collect a consecutive world flags title, although coach Scott Bartlett was just as impressed by Cracroft-Wilson’s silver in the flags.
“The way Croffy picked himself up, after seeing his fiance taken off the beach in a neck brace and into an ambulance, was just incredible,” Bartlett said. “It was just an example of the tenacity that the team pulled off and he was just one of 12 incredible performers over the five days.”
Australian kayaking Olympian Naomi Flood and ironwoman Kristyl Smith got off to a fast start with a one-two finish in the women’s ski but New Zealand’s beach flag heroics were followed by valuable ironman placings.
Gisborne’s Cory Taylor had his best-ever international result, grabbing silver behind Australia’s multiple world champion Shannon Eckstein, while Mairangi Bay’s Danielle McKenzie – fresh from qualifying for the lucrative Kellogg’s series this summer – emulated Taylor with silver behind Flood in the ironwoman. Team captain Andy McMillan (St Clair) finished second in the surf race, while Natalie Peat (Papamoa), Natasha Hind (Lyall Bay), McKenzie and Hickman combined to win bronze in the women’s relay.
The real foundation for victory, however, was laid on the first two days in the pool, where McMillan, Chris Dawson (Midway), Kent and the Lyall Bay pair of Sam Lee and Hind – the latter three having competed at the Commonwealth Games – ripped the heart out of Australia’s challenge.
The swimmers broke three world records and Lee became New Zealand’s most successful world championship athlete, collecting three golds to move one ahead of sprinter Morgan Foster’s six total titles at that level.
By the time New Zealand hit the beach, they had a 74-point lead and Australia would’ve needed James Spithill onboard to be able to engineer a comeback of that magnitude.
“We fought a good fight but in the end the Kiwis were just too good,” Australian team manager Keith Caldwell said. “To catch up the way we did in the ocean events, particularly with Shannon and Naomi leading the way, was inspiring but we fell just short.”
The win is likely to be the swansong for Bartlett and his outstanding management team, who had to battle funding cuts and the last-minute loss of Australian-based star Devon Halligan to an ankle injury but still backed up after beating Australia in Adelaide two years ago.
“This win was a lot harder because we’ve had to overcome a lot more hurdles in the last two years but we managed to pull together as a team and it’s made it a much sweeter victory,” Bartlett said. “Having a huge Kiwi presence on the beach was a massive advantage too – it really gave the team a lift in those final few events.”
Australia exacted some revenge in the youth division, dominating the beach and pool to finish on 1065 points, well clear of second-placed New Zealand’s 787. The championships continue with the world interclub championships for the rest of the week.
Rescue 2014 national team scores
- 858 New Zealand
- 835 Australia
- 741 France
- 482 Germany
- 442 Italy
- 316 Netherlands
- 298 South Africa
- 296 Japan
- 231 Spain
- 225 United Kingdom