Personal tragedy inspires Hancock
SURF lifesaving stars Courtney Hancock and Caine Eckstein rewrote the record books with dramatic wins in the 2011 Coolangatta Gold at Kurrawa Beach on the Gold Coast yesterday.
Eckstein raced to his fifth Coolangatta Gold title over 46.65 tough, blustery kilometres, while Hancock won her first 30.5km women's race in the closest finish in the event's history.
Coffs Coast born and raised, Hancock now has the 'triple crown' of surf sports in her keeping, adding the Gold to her victories in the Kellogg's Nutri-Grain series and the Australian ironwoman championship earlier this year.
But that was only part of the story with victory coming at the end of one of the most dramatic and emotion-charged weeks in the lives of Hancock, younger sister and fellow competitor Bonnie, and her close-knit family group.
Hancock spoke of how she was driven on throughout the big race by the memory of her grandfather Ron Goodenough, an outstanding surf lifesaver, who died in Coffs Harbour 10 days ago.
"I thought of my grandfather the whole way ... the whole way ... and I think that really helped me," she said.
"I was just really focused on him.
"Bonnie and I went down for his funeral on Wednesday and we didn't get back until Thursday so it was really tough and I've been so emotionally drained.
"My grandfather was 90 but he was my best friend in the whole world.
"He was such an amazing swimmer, one of the main reasons I started surfing in the first place."
With such an important race looming during such a stressful time for the family, Hancock revealed the extent of the burden she was feeling.
"He was more than a grandfather to me so it's been really, really hard," she said.
"I wanted this so much for my family to cheer them up.
"Everyone has been so sad."
She spoke about a confidence-booster received during the visit home.
"When I went back to Coffs and I had a bit of a swim, there were some little girls who came up to me and said 'Courtney, we just want to be like you when we grow up'. That really gave me a pinch and that meant so much to me; that I've got kids out there who have been inspired by what I do. It's an amazing thing," she said.
"The women's race was incredibly close throughout and Hancock and Northcliffe club-mate Liz Pluimers were shoulder to shoulder in the final stages of the 7.5km soft-sand run to the finish.
It was only in the final 50 metres that Hancock was able to break clear of an exhausted Pluimers.
Her winning time was three hours, 20 minutes and 42 seconds - 50 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
Pluimers barely had the energy to cross the line in second place and immediately headed to the first aid tent.
Three-time event champion Hayley Bateup (Kurrawa) finished third.
Meanwhile, Eckstein said his fourth consecutive Coolangatta Gold title, completed in four hours 15 minutes and 26 seconds, was probably his toughest of the lot.
The Kurrawa club member was pushed during the early stages by Cronulla's Nathan Smith but established a winning advantage during the run legs.
"It was tough. I didn't expect Nathan to be there in the swim as I'd broken ahead a little in the ski," the 25-year-old said.
"I knew he was such a good swimmer. He popped up behind me which was sort of good because we worked together a little bit. I could get my breath back and work out for the last run-board-run.
"It was really hard with the wind, especially on the board as it was so choppy but I hadn't done one in a northerly before so now I've done one in every type of condition."
After finishing the swim alongside Smith, Eckstein broke away on the 4km run from Bilinga to Currumbin and the king of the Coolangatta Gold was not challenged again.
Smith finished second with Alex Tibbits (Mooloolaba) third.
It was an extremely satisfied Eckstein who high-fived the crowd during his run to the finish line as he left behind the doubts that had built up before the race after a disrupted preparation, which included a bout of glandular fever.
"I probably had the worst night of my life last night. I let the nerves get to me a little bit," he said.
"Every year I've done so much training that I've been confident but on seven weeks' training I wasn't sure if that was going to be enough.
"Luckily it worked out but I only got about 45 minutes' sleep last night, which was tough."
Eckstein's five victories make him clearly the most successful competitor in the history of the Coolangatta Gold.
Bateup, Alicia Marriott and Guy Leech, the winner of the inaugural event in 1984, are next best with three wins.