Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last couple of years have been positive for Surf Life Saving Australia.
At the end of 2020, Channel Nine was announced as the new broadcast partner for the IronMan and IronWoman Series.
This saw the series return to live free-to-air television for the first time since 2013.
This weekend marks another big moment for the series when it returns to Bondi Beach.
“I am so excited about getting back to Bondi Beach,” said IronWoman Courtney Hancock.
“It has probably been 11 years since we have raced a series at Bondi so most of the athletes competing on the weekend will never have raced there.
“The people of Bondi love the whole sport of surf life saving, so I know that there are going to be a lot of people there.”
It’s fair to say that there is very little in the sport of surf life saving that Hancock has not achieved.
She has three IronWoman champion titles to her name and in 2021 she made history by winning her fourth Coolangatta Gold title.
But what is particularly exciting to Hancock ahead of this series is the next generation of ironwomen coming through.
“The series is so iconic and a big part of that is the next generation coming through,” she said.
“They are coming through with a big push and a big presence and it is what is keeping our sport alive.
“One of my favourite points in my career was my debut, so I’m excited for the youth that are making their debuts this weekend and the people competing in her first series.”
Like many who compete in the series, Hancock has a deep love for the sport of surf life saving.
She started surf life saving when she was five years old.
What has kept her in the sport is the sense of community around it and how much the sport demands of you both physically and mentally.
“The sport produces some of the best athletes in the world and it’s not like there has been a slower period or a decade without talent coming through,” said Hancock.
“It’s not just about the fitness, it’s the skills and the mindset you need to be successful.
“Everyone competing has a lot of feathers on their cap, but they all got involved with the sport and started as surf life savers, so many started to help and to rescue people and have carried on to be professional athletes.”
An IronWoman series demands physical excellence over a three-day period in multiple formats including the WaveCross, Survival and EnduroSurf.
But for Hancock, sometimes the simplest example can help illustrate just how demanding the sport is.
“When it’s the height of summer and you are running from the soft sand onto the water’s edge, that feeling you have of your feet burning and your heart rate increasing is how we feel for the entire race,” said Hancock.
“No matter how fit you are, sprinting across the soft sand keeps your heart rate high, then you jump into the water and need to hold your breath.
“This sport demands top-end physical ability.”
The last season has been one like no other for Hancock, who has had to carefully manage her training schedule.
She competed in the Coolangatta Gold, which was pushed back due to the pandemic.
Preparation for that event required endurance training, so once it was completed she took some time to rest before beginning preparation for IronWoman qualification.
“The trial was good for me as an athlete but it was nerve racking trying to secure my spot, knowing that I wasn’t automatically a part of the series,” said Hancock.
“I had to come down from that adrenaline and then begin preparation for the series.
“But I have done a lot of racing and I have had the perfect preparation for me.”
Hancock arrived in Sydney earlier this week and has had a gentle lead-up to the series.
“No matter what race you are competing in, you want to be in phenomenal health; it’s not just COVID, it is much more than that.
“I want to be the healthiest I can be and if I can do that, then I know I have put the hard work in and I will have a great race.
“It’s an endurance weekend so it’s not just about that first day, it’s about getting through the series as strong as I can.”