Amelia Rose Watkinson, Hannah Berry and Rebecca Clarke at the 2019 Tauranga Half
By Kent Gray/Triathlon.kiwi
Rebecca Clark is bursting with confidence after a breakout 2022 and would love to join rivals Hannah Berry (née Wells) and Amelia Watkinson as a two-time champion of the iconic Tauranga Half on Saturday.
The challenge for the 34-year-old Aucklander is that Berry and Watkinson have no intention of allowing that to eventuate, motivated themselves by a third title to close in on Joanna Lawn’s record four wins at the Mount Festival of Multisport showpiece.
Toss Berry’s home course advantage and Watkinson’s eye-catching performances at the recent Australian road cycling nationals into the mix with Clarke’s international successes last year, and Saturday’s 2km swim, 90km bike, 21km run test is an even more mouth-watering prospect.
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So who will emerge as New Zealand triathlon’s fastest long-distance female, albeit with an early season asterisk? The end-of-season Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO) rankings – Watkinson 35th, Clarke 40th and Berry 65th – perhaps offer a clue but the trio are typically all playing the pre-race patter cautiously.
“Obviously this is my home race and therefore I have a pretty special connection to it,” said Berry, whose husband, Tauranga mortgage adviser Nick Berry, has helped bolster the pro race prize purse to a cool $28,000 this year.
“The field we have this year is looking really strong which is great to see. I’m excited to race and have a great battle out there.”
Reigning Ironman New Zealand (elite) champion Berry edged Clarke in last month’s Taupo 70.3 race – the duo filled the podium behind Swede Anna Bergsten – and is building slowly after an injury-plagued 2022.
Clarke, meanwhile, is out in 2023 to eclipse performances such as her 8th placing in the PTO U.S. Open in Dallas and 17th on debut at the Ironman World Championship in Kona last year. The Tauranga Half will be a handy indication of how her current Wanaka training block is progressing.
“I would love to go back [to Tauranga] and repeat a win to balance out the scorecard with Hannah and Amelia,” said Clarke who is also eyeing the Challenge Wanaka half on Feb.18.
“It’s awesome to have Amelia back in New Zealand racing and I am looking forward to lining up with her again. My plan is to be out the front in the swim and stay away on the bike. There might be some tactics if they catch up especially because of the undulating base track [the run includes two laps around Mount Maunganui], but I don’t want to give away all my secrets.”
The secret to Clarke’s 2022 success came with her runner-up finish to Sarah Crowley last May. It was a shot of confidence that helped her realise she can foot it with the world’s finest long-distance exponents.
“It was an amazing experience for me to size myself up against the best of the best, and actually come out pretty well,” Clarke said.
“You don’t have as much pressure on yourself when you’re lining up with Lucy Charles Barclay and Anne Hauge. You can fly under the radar but also be in a position to be pushed to be at your best.”
After silver medal performances at Noosa (Olympic distance triathlon behind Ashleigh Gentle) and Ironman 70.3 Melbourne and victory at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon to end a tough 2022 in style, Watkinson perhaps brings the best form into Saturday’s Tauranga test.
The Sunshine Coast-based Kiwi’s seventh and 10th placings in the road race and individual team time trial respectively at last week’s Aus Cycling National Road Championships certainly won’t have gone unnoticed by Berry or Clarke.
“I am in a good space at the moment. My body is healthy, I’ve had some good form on the bike and I’m excited to make the most of some domestic racing,” said Watkinson, referencing a training ride crash in Europe last June that left her with a broken elbow.
Like Berry in 2019 and 2022, Watkinson’s Tauranga titles were also achieved back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 but she hasn’t raced the event for four years, a year shorter than she’s called Queensland home.
“When the [Mount Festival] team reached out to me this year, I knew it would be a great race to get to. It’s always been a favourite for me, so to have the opportunity to be back is exciting.”
Samantha Kingsford, Hannah Howell, Fiona Gallagher and Deb Fuller are other names to watch in Saturday’s race but it will take an extraordinary effort to knock Berry, Clarke and Watkinson off the podium. The only head-scratcher is who will clinch the top spot.
The Tauranga Half doubles as the Suzuki New Zealand Mid Distance Championship for a big field of age-groupers, the best of whom can qualify for the 2023 World Triathlon Age-Group Multisport Championship in Spain.
There are also spots at the April 29-April 7 worlds in Ibiza on the line for the leading performers in Saturday’s Suzuki NZ Mid Distance Aquabike (2km swim, 90km bike) Championship.
Mount Festival of Multisport -January 21
(Pilot Bay, Mount Maunganui)
*Tauranga Half (2km swim, 90km bike, 21km run)
**Aquabike (2km swim, 90km bike)
Pressio Mount Festival Half Marathon (5km/10km/21km options)
Pilot Bay Ocean Swim (800m/2km/3.7km options)
* + ** Suzuki NZ National Championship events