She represented Australia as an U19 in the Lifesaving World Championships last year and has just returned from the national competition on the Gold Coast with a gold, silver and bronze medal: We caught up with Alyssa Koenen to find out what it was like growing up with the sport on Magnetic Island, how it feels to mix it with Australia’s biggest names in the Nutri-Grain Ironman and Ironwoman Series, her plans for the future, and the sporting talent that runs in her family with her three siblings also excelling in their chosen sporting fields.
“You have all your friends at the club and the sport makes you stronger and more resilient to things you face in life”
With Alyssa’s mum and dad, Teri and Rob, owning the newsagency at Arcadia, it was an idyllic and outdoorsy upbringing for their daughters Breanna (20), Cara (19), Alyssa (17) and son Dirk (15). The kids were introduced to surf life saving at a young age and tried every sport that was offered on the island. “Mum and Dad said ‘school first’, but then they always wanted us to do sport and put us into as much sporting activity as possible,” Alyssa says. “There was a big push to get into surf life saving through school – it was something to do on a Sunday morning and suited the island life. In saying that, all sports on the island were popular: All four of us did AFL when we were younger – whatever was going, we joined in. Word got around as to what was happening so everyone would go down to the beach and have a go.”
While Alyssa continued with her surf life saving, winning Competitor of the Carnival at the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships (the Aussies) in Perth last year, Bre and Dirk immersed themselves in AFL, while Cara pursued netball. Dirk represented Queensland in the AFL U12 team and hopes to be selected for the U15 team this month (if his ankle injury heals in time), while Bre is playing AFL for the University of Queensland along with some Rep games, and Cara recently got a run-on with the Queensland Firebirds.
So, with so much talent, is there any inter-sibling rivalry? “We’ve always been pushing each other to do well at everything,” says Dirk, who does up to four after-school training sessions a week and a Saturday game. “There’s always a bit of friendly competition, but it’s been great.”
The Gold Coast Aussies that Alyssa has just returned from was her fourth national event and saw her enter a new age category – U19 – where she was up against some girls who were two years older. As well as sharing a tent with the likes of Ironwoman legends Courtney Hancock (who will be visiting next month for the Townsville Triathlon Festival), Harriet Brown, Krystal Smith and Rebecca Creedy; who are also members of the Gold Coast-based Northcliffe Surf Club and gave her plenty of tips; Alyssa performed well in the surf, winning the surf teams category, getting a silver in the rescue tubes, and bronze in her individual swim.
“It was really close in the swim – I think the three of us girls all came out together and I had an unlucky run up the beach,” Alyssa says. “I also did the open surf race and I got seventh in that, which I was pretty happy with.”
Alyssa is hoping to represent Australia again at the end of the year in the Pool Rescue Championships in Germany. She is planning to move to the Gold Coast later this year so that she can improve in the surf, and then make a decision about whether she ultimately wants to focus on the swimming pool or open water.
“My swimming is definitely the strongest component. With my craft, because we don’t have surf here, it makes it really tricky… that’s one of the reasons I joined the Northcliffe Club – I was able to go down three weeks before and train in the surf,” says Alyssa. “As much as I love it here, we are disadvantaged compared to being on the coast because they train in those conditions every day.
“I need to make a decision soon about whether to go with pool rescue or surf. I’m just going to see how I go when I go down south at the end of the year. If I improve in the surf I’ll stick with it, but if I don’t improve as much as I hope then I may cross over to pool rescue. It is fairly beneficial to be competitive in both components of the sport mainly for team selections, however, in the end if you want to do really well you need to pick one and concentrate on that one area within the sport.”
Alyssa is continuing her training in the ocean and pool, but has recently introduced some gym-based power-boosting exercises with trainers Justin Smith and Caitlin Braddick at Alpha Omega Health, which she says definitely made her more explosive in the most recent competition.
In terms of her performance tips for others, she says – while she gets nervous on the start line – she tries to remember that it’s what she’s been training hard for. She’s also a big fan of making the most out of transition time in multi-discipline events like the Ironwoman.
“I always find that it’s important to take your transitions fairly hard because that’s when a lot of other people are at their weakest and use it as a recovery,” she says. “But if you see it as another phase of the competition and use your transitions a lot more, that helps,” Alyssa says.
She’s also grateful to her mum and dad for all their support over the years and encourages other parents to get their kids involved in sport from a young age. She admits that it hasn’t always been easy, especially in Year 12 last year, and there have been sacrifices she’s needed to make (like being in bed at 8.30 every night as a teenager), but it’s been worth it:
“While you miss out on doing things with friends, I think, on the other hand, it’s better socially because you have all your friends at the club and the sport makes you stronger and more resilient to things you face in life,” Alyssa says.
“I’ve definitely had to sacrifice a few things, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. And my time management skills are certainly up there!”