The turquoise-blue water gently slapped against the hull of the single vaka paddled by 2015 Pacific Games gold medalist Serena Hunter just off the coast of Rarotonga. On one side of the vaka flying fish skimmed across the surface of the sparkling water, on the other, the jungle-covered mountains of Rarotonga were in clear view. Serena was enjoying a routine training session for the 2015 Molokai Solo ocean race, accompanied by the Cook Islands’ top male paddler, Reuben Dearlove.

Suddenly the sky darkened and heavy rain fell. The wind howled and swirled, the ocean heaved and choppy waves violently took over the calm waters. Rapidly, the horrific squall was driving the vaka and Serena in an unknown direction as visibility was reduced to next to nothing, and paddling had become hopeless.

According to Serena it was a one serious life-changing moment.

“It was Queens Birthday weekend, and we were out paddling in the ocean when the storm hit us. Reuben and I lost each other, and I got blown straight out to sea,” said Serena.

“At first I went with it as it was happening so fast, but it just carried on. Twenty or so minutes later when it eased I could only see water. I couldn’t see land. It was overcast, and I had lost my sense of direction. I had no idea where I was. I paddled for a bit, and then luckily I sighted land. If the storm had carried on another ten minutes, I don’t think I would have been able to spot land. It was definitely a life changing moment, and only a few days before I was due to fly out to Molokai, so it definitely shook away some of the nerves I had had leading into Molokai as it definitely put things into perspective.”

Serena then went onto Hawaii to tick off one of her bucket list goals the Molokai solo, a 55 km ocean paddle from Molokai to Oahu, coming sixth overall.

When not out on the water paddling, Serena manages Koka Lagoon Cruises, the popular lagoon tour at Muri Beach. Married to Conrad Hunter, also a former paddler and now kitesurfing addict, they have four children: Teava (21), Jayden (18), Reva (7) and Tia (4).

“I have always been sports mad since I was a kid initially into team sports like netball and basketball. Then I got into triathlon in a big way in my late twenties.” In 2001, Serena won a silver medal at the Mini South Pacific games in Norfolk Island, representing the Cook Islands. She then went onto represent the country at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.

“Soon after that I got an injury from over training. So I turned to outrigger paddling which my husband introduced me to. ”

Serena took up paddling in 2004 and in 2005 she represented the Cook Islands once again, this time in singles and six-man vaka paddling in the Mini Pacific Games in Palau.

“I just love being out on the ocean. I still do the triathlons on and off, but oe vaka is my passion!”

Serena’s passion for competitive sport resulted in her being chosen twice as Cook Islands Sportswoman of the Year, in 2001 and 2005.

“The proudest moment for me though was when I won gold at this year’s Pacific Games and the Cook Islands anthem was played.” Serena won gold in the V1 10km paddling event ahead of Tahiti and New Caledonia, and also bronze in the V1 500m event and a silver with her teammates in the V6 marathon event.

“The great thing about paddling is that anyone can do it, at any age!”

Serena shares her love of paddling with others, coaching the Ngakau Toa women’s crew for the popular Vaka Eiva event.

So what does Serena do in her spare time, away from training and overseeing Koka Lagoon Cruises?

“I simply enjoy time out with my family, chilling out and having fun with my family.”

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