Hunter was lucky enough to join Team Teva to participate in the Catalina Crossing, the biggest race on the US calendar and one that attracts paddlers from all over the world.
“They are the top Tahitian women’s team. They won the Hawaiki Nui last year, which is a big Tahitian race, and the prize was winning airfares to participate in the Catalina Crossing,” Hunter said, clearly still buzzing from the experience.
“They needed a few more paddlers, and they asked me to join.”
She had raced against the team many times over the years, but it was her performance in the Te Aito contest, which took place in June just before the World Championships, that prompted Team Teva to pick Hunter and Mariana Hodges, a racer from New Zealand.
“In the Te Aito race in Tahiti, I came fifth overall out of 85, so they sort of went through the rankings and I was luckily enough to get picked.
“I wasn’t really expecting to get chosen. It’s the first time that a Tahitian women’s crew has invited an outside paddler to join them, so it was a big thing.
“I was incredibly honoured to be selected, it feels very special. To paddle with the Tahitians, it’s a paddler’s dream I guess; to be with the best in the world.”
Hunter, the world’s number two in distance paddling, first travelled to Tahiti, where she joined a training session with the group she would be racing with.
“They have their own way of doing things, the Tahitians. You just gotta go with the flow basically, with what’s happening,” she explained.
“And it was really great, because we all clicked together, you know, we all bonded, it was full of laughs.”
Despite collecting more accolades than one can count on both hands over her career, she still feels there were things that she picked up from her time with Team Teva.
“There were just little pointers the coach was giving to myself and Mariana, just to blend a bit better with the crew. It was just little things on technique that were awesome to have.
“I believe that you can always improve, and these are just little tips on how you can improve that little more. They paddle strong and deep, and there’s no room for slackers.”
When it came time to race, the team was all business, and managed to win with a time of 4.03.31, just a head of three-time-winners Dana, who finished with a time of 4.05.02.
“You could really feel the power in the crew, as they are really strong paddlers, which was necessary because it was such a close race.
“We definitely went there with the expectation of winning. It’s expected that the Tahitians will win, or at least be in the conversation. But we knew there would be tough competition, like Dana.
“They are very strong, big Americans, and they were right behind us the whole time. So it was just a non-stop race, paddling for four hours.”
Although just the fact that she was in the race was enough of a reward, the trophies that were given to the team really hit home how special the result was for Hunter.
“It’s more the honour of winning the race, crossing the finish line we were all so ecstatic, from the coaches to the paddlers.
“And it’s the biggest race on the US calendar, it’s their big national race, so it’s a big race for them. It was really special to win it.
“It’s a race that I never would have expected to be involved in. It was a race that I knew of, so when the invitation came through I was just over the moon because I had been hoping after the World Champs that there would be some sort of invite.
“So when this came up, I was like ‘yes thank you’.”
Participating in the Catalina Crossing was a cap on what was a fantastic year for one of the best Cook Islanders ever to take up a sport.
“It’s been a really awesome year. I’ve been in amazing races. I got to paddle with the New Zealand team at Takapuna beach in February, the Worlds in June, and then the Catalina Crossing.
“It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that no one would turn down.
“I also lucky to have the support of my family, they were right behind me because they knew that it was something that was hugely important.
“I really couldn’t have done it without them.”