Interview with Hayley Nixon
Firstly congratulations on winning the World Surfski Series. How does it feel?
It was definitely a late charge, and it was somewhat unexpected. I think that as South Africans we get exposed to two or three title races early on in the year which the Internationals are not doing for example the FNB Durban Downwind and the Mauritius Ocean Classic. The fact that I was on the leader board so early was great but I always knew that the Internationals were coming and that they would possibly overtake me. So it is not something that I set my sights on but once I was up there, it became a question of how do I stay there?
Considering it was a late Charge – how did it all come about?
The initial idea was that Carbonology, my main sponsor was quite keen to help me out to get to some of the races in the States and Europe but those were only going to be later in the year. But everyone involved in SA surfski; Michelle Burn, Nicky Russel, Jenna Ward etc.. we’re going to Mauritius which was earlier in the year. I then went to Hein (Carbonology) and asked if there was any chance of going to Mauritius rather than Spain because I will get a chance to race against really good girls, so I will be able to gauge early in the season how I was doing. That is how I ended up going to Mauritius. It was a pretty daunting race because it was my first time and I literally flew in two days before and had to get myself ready for it. To cut a long story short – I physically crossed the line in 4th but one of the girls ahead of me got a DQ as she missed the turning can and that is what got me the initial points. In a way you create your own luck – by being there I was able to get my name on the leaders board. The plan was then for me to make my own way to Hong Kong but fortunately I contacted Colin Wilson from EuroSteel in order to help me get to Hong Kong as I was leading at that stage. Luckily EuroSteel said yes 100% and I was able to get to Hong Kong. Coming 2nd just behind Teneale Hatton in Hong Kong was unbelievable especially to finish so close to her. You go there wanting to finish in the top 3 but you do not know if you are going to pull it off. Once I had come second there we started to do the maths and realised that I was up there so it was in my best interest to do the final race “The Doctor” in Perth otherwise I could be knocked down in the rankings. Obviously I had no finances and nothing planned so I used the prize money from Hong Kong to get there. I also missed a whole month of work so I did not have one cent of income coming in. I phoned my husband and we agreed that I should go and then another company based in Australia called SkyFi also helped me. So between Hong Kong prize money and SkyFi I managed to get to Australia.
What do you think was the key factor in the win?
I think the answer is consistency; I got third in Mauritius, second in the Durban Downwind, second in Hong Kong and first in Perth and that is why I won it. To come in the top three for all your title races you are looking good. So I would definitely credit consistency.
Now that you have experienced The World Surfski Series are there any new races that have made it on to your to do list?
Yes definitely, there is a race in the States called The Gorge Downwind on the Columbia River, it has been made a title race for the forthcoming series so my timing could be quite good because I have never been to the States and I think paddling a downwind on a river could be quite an experience. So that is one that I am going to try hard to get to. Obviously I will try and get to Hong Kong because that is the venue for the World Champs this year.
I would also like to do the Nelo Summer Challenge, that looks like an iconic surfski race to do.
What do you do in your spare time between races sight see or train?
You make what you can happen – I was *** Jenna Ward and I are quite close and Jenna’s mom was with us so together we set aside a few typical Hong Kong touristy things to do and we made sure that those things happened. The training comes first so you prioritise that and then you see what you can fit in and around it that does not completely exhaust you. Obviously it is not stress free because even if you have the day off, you are thinking the whole time about the race and watching your nutrition. It is really a business trip because you are there for a reason. We went to the market and we hiked the Dragon’s Back trail which is an unbelievable hike but we saved that for the day after the race. You have to balance the touristy things with you main goals.
Are you going to compete in 2017? Which one of your Series race is a “must do again” race?
100%. I have spent most of the holiday just trying to work out where to go and which races to go to. Now I have to approach sponsors and see if they are willing to sponsor me.
Hong Kong – it was a very foreign place to be and also a very different course, you head out from the mainland to a clump of islands and you have 7km of crosswinds hitting you on the left ear them you paddle between these two beautiful islands. You then do a full 180 and have ***. there was a little navigation and a lot of winds and currents, some good sections of downwind and that is what made it exciting – I like races that have a little more to offer than ones normal straight downwind. Races like the Pete Marlin are beautiful and it is the South African coastline but Hong Kong was just different.
What are the people like who “host” you at the different races? Are you shown around or left to your own devices?
It is a little bit of both, in Hong Kong I was lucky to have a friend who lives there and I could stay with him but you are literally working things out as you go. You have to work out where to get transport, where to get food etc..
But Australia was completely different- Carbonolgy Australia literally bent over backwards to help; they organised me a boat, they funded part of my way—– I was hosted by an Australian girl who lent me her car which had roof racks and stayed about 10 minutes away from where I needed to be. I really had my bum in the butter at that stage.
Hayley, you have a very strong rowing background and in fact as recently as 2011 you represented SA in Woman’s Single Sculls do you still row in your spare time?
No, I think when I left it, I left it completely. I am not really interested in going back. I was a little wounded by the how things ended so I needed the break. I am happier now than I ever have been. I think that every athlete dreams about the Olympics but it is not going to happen and I just had to deal with it.
Row across the Atlantic in December 2013 – how did that go?
No, but I am glad that you brought it up because that is how I found surfski. After the 2012 Olympic selection disappointment I went home to lick my wounds and my mom found an article in the paper about a guy that I used to row with by the name of Camron. He was in the process of putting together an 8 man crew to row across the Atlantic. I automatically put my hand up and sent him a message saying how do I get involved / what is the plan? He said that he was battling to raise the money so we cycled ** and when we got home we organised a 24hr row-a-thon to try and beat the world record and raise money for the venture. The next thing was to try and get in to the ocean but there wasn’t a boat available in South Africa so I got hold of Marine Surf lifesaving club and they put me in a surfski as the next best thing. After 6 months of trying to raise the money I went back to Cameron and said “look I cannot raise the money but I am starting to really love surski’ing so I am out.” Cameron went on to join another crew and did the crossing. It would have been cool to do it – but I am happy with the way things turned out.
You have a long history of racing – were you always competitive?
Yes, at school I was a really keen swimmer and Penny Haynes is my idol. At school I swam provincially. So when I went to Rhodes University I thought I would take my swimming to a new level but they didn’t have a swimming team so I dropped the ball on that one. I discovered that they did have a very good rowing team so it became my obsession to get in to that.
What would be your advice to young women who would love to follow in your footsteps?
It has not been easy and I think that people think that I have pulled it all off in three years. People often ask how did I do it so quickly and I think that they forget that I rowed competitively for the better part of 8 years. I was almost a full time athlete so it is not quite been a three year career; it has practically been a 12 year career and I am actually only seeing the results of all the years of hard work now. So I think that the bottom line is that it is not going to happen overnight. It will take hard work but I am living proof that hard work does pay off. Yes, I have changed sports and I may have got further if I stuck to rowing or got in to paddling earlier. People need to bear in mind that the engine has been training for 12 years. People see the 10 happy posts on social media and forget about the other 355 days when we are out there training.
You compete on the international stage and hold down a full time job – how do you manage?
I am lucky in the sense that I work for myself; I am a registered biokineticist and I work at a medical centre where I effectively pay them a monthly rental and I can work as much or as little as I choose. That gives me the freedom to leave and come back if I need to go to training or take a day off if I need to go to a race in Cape Town. The harsh reality is though, the days that I am not there, not a cent coming in to the bank. So it has its difficulties and finances are a daily struggle. The training is good because I believe that at my age one quality session a day is almost enough so if I can do one really well – then it is money in the bank. The problem I find more than anything is recovery. For example at least three days in the week I am at work by 5:30 and will work through until 16:00 and then join the squad for training on the water for an hour / hour and a half, then back home for supper, get ready for the next day and the following day start again. I sometimes wish that I had more time to just recover.
Another lesson is called time management – for me you have got to do whatever you can to make it work! If know that I need to see x amount of patients and do y amount of training sessions then I need to fit that in and I need to manage my time. I just need to be really strict with myself. I have to set a routine and then stick to it! So that how I got through it.
My trump card is the fact that my husband is a phenomenal chef and he basically cooks for me every night and feeds me and keeps me going.
You have mentioned training with a team – is this a particular team that you train with?
I spent the better part of the last 2½ years training with the McSquad which was formed by Lee and Hank Mcgregor. That was unbelievable because it is a fairly big squad of girls and guys and it is really competitive training and everyone is very driven and that exposed me to sprints, marathons and surfski. Over the last six months I have transitioned over to a squad that is more focused on surfski paddling. It is called the Wild Dog Wilson squad and I now train full time with them under the coaching guide of Liz Hope. It has been a good transition and I was ready for it and I am really happy to be with a squad that is more focused on surfski.
Might we see you at the world champs in September?
Absolutely, well I have to make the side first, but if I make the side you will see me on the start line! I raced World champs in Gyor, Hungary 2015 and Oklahoma City 2014. I specifically took last year off to focus on surfski paddling and step away from marathons which was easier financially because the previous year I had to fund raise to get to Hungary (marathon) and Tahiti (surfski) World Champs and it is just too stressful. So to answer your question, yes, this year I am going to give it my all and try and race world marathon champs in Pietermaritzburg.
Any chance of see you on the river?
Last year I did the Duzi in a double but not this year. I am off to do the Drak Challenge. I might look at doing something like the Berg River Canoe Marathon again this year but rivers are not my focus; if anything they will be part of a training programme.
Do you follow a particular diet?
I have dabbled with a few things over the years; I have dappled with a high carb diet, banting and a low carb diet but for the last two years I have actually worked with a dietitian here at work. Basically I am not overly strict, I think moderation is key, I do watch what I eat but there is no special fad diet. I focus on a balanced diet and focusing rather on my requirements for the next day’s training. I like to say that I eat to live
Favourite way to relax?
Funny question, Paul my husband would probably tell you that I like to pretend I am relaxing but I always have ants in my pants. But I do like downtime – my way to relax is having a glass of red white out on the patio. We are also dog people, luckily my mom has the dogs but any opportunity we get, we take them down to the beach for a walk.
Who are your Sponsors
Carbonology – Is my main sponsor and they back me with boats, paddles and help me get to races. He also subsidises some of my race entries and when I went to Australia they literally got me a boat paid for my race entry really bent over backwards to help me out.
EuroSteel – they are new sponsors that have jumped in to help but the final details were still to be negotiated at the time of going to the press.
When did you get married?
Congratulations Hayley. It has been great chatting with you and we look forward to seeing you in your next competition!