The three-time Nutri-Grain IronWoman champion talks about life on – and under – the waves. By Richard Cooke.

Credit: Luke Marsden

Iron maiden: Courtney Hancock, 26, iron woman

I started as a Nipper at the age of five at Sawtell Surf Life Saving Club. Mum and Dad had a house at the beach there, and wanted me and my three sisters to learn all the surf skills. I became a water baby from then. As soon as I saw the Nutri-Grain IronMan and IronWoman racing on TV on a Sunday afternoon, I thought, “That’s what I want to do with my life and my career.”

I haven’t looked back. I moved to the Gold Coast after school, and here I am today having my 10th year as a professional. I’ve done a lot of other things along the way, but that’s always been the No. 1 passion.

I cherish my titles and those moments, but I like to not look back. For me it was always just wanting to achieve the next goal, to see how far I could get.

I’m definitely a thinker. I like to dissect my races, and think not only “where did I go wrong?” but also concentrate on the things I did right. I’m quite hard on myself, but you’ve got to keep positive thoughts going through your mind as well.

I had an injury where I was trapped under water. I’ve been pretty lucky with my body, it seems to be pretty tough. But at the start of the year I actually got stuck on a surf ski. They’ve kind of got a Velcro strap, and our feet are locked in. That’s to hold us in when we’re catching waves and going out into the break. A seven- to eight-foot wave turned me over, and my foot got stuck up in the strap. I couldn’t get out, and I was held down for three waves. It’s not a long time if you just stood on the land and held your breath, but being under water there’s a lot of turbulence within the whitewash. It was a very frightening situation. By the time I got my foot out, the bottom part of it was broken.

Everything happens for a reason. Perhaps I was meant to have a bit more of a break and let my body rest for this season. Hopefully things will go better than last year. Now that I’ve had my foot in a boot for a month and not been able to run, that really sent me crazy.

I don’t have a least favourite discipline. I enjoy them all – they all have a different meaning to me. The ski is definitely my favourite because it’s so unpredictable. It’s only been in the IronWoman for about 15 years. To see the way the women have improved in strength is just unbelievable.

When I was little, I always wanted to rescue any kind of animal. But people? Out at Sawtell Beach, we’ve got a beach that’s called Southies, and it’s got a big rip that kind of comes out from the creek there. One day when I was walking past, fully clothed, a little girl got sucked out there. I’ve never seen someone get sucked out so quickly. I just ran down the rocks and picked her up. There’s always something going on. I think when you’re at the beach, you’re always watching. You’re not only an IronWoman, but you’re a surf lifesaver. I guess you’re always on guard.

I love to hear what preparation other athletes go through. Everyone’s so different and you’ve got to find exactly what works for you. You’ve got to be so strong mentally when you’re an athlete. It’s pretty inspiring and motivating that, you know, you’re not the only one whose getting up at the crack of dawn when it’s five degrees outside.

Being bullied wasn’t a very nice time in my life. I’m lucky it didn’t last for too long. But I came out of that a stronger person. I can also give advice for other people going through that as well, because I have been there and been through that. I really feel for the people going through it, but at the same time I always have this thought, that if you are being bullied, it means you have something that they want. It’s almost a compliment, because they’re obviously threatened by you in some way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Iron maiden".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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