Aotearoa waka ama paddlers enjoyed much success at the World Sprint Championships earlier this month in London.
Among the 43 gold medals won by the Kiwis were the five won by 18-year-old Te Rangihuia Henare, who returned home this week, with two bronze medals for added weight.
Henare won three of her golds with the Elite V6 J19 girls team in the 500m, 1000m and the V12 Open Women's 500m races. The other two were for the Horouta club in the J19 1000m and V12 500m.
"It was really exciting, buzzy to come home with so many," she said about returning to Ōtaki with a "neck full" of medals.
For Henare, it was worth persevering through the Covid-19 pandemic that interrupted many sports, including the 2020 World Sprints that were due to be held in Hawai'i. After finishing with a lonely sixth placing at the 2018 worlds in Tahiti, she was determined to do better but had to wait even longer.
"I had a really good shot at coming home with a few more medals. So transitioning from that uncertainty of Covid-19 at that time, and just having to wait an extra two more years to actually have a shot at it, coming home was something else. Especially in my one man [V1] as well because one man is something that I've worked on for so long."
One of her bronze medals was in the J19 V1 race, where she finished behind Ngatuere Hapi and an Australian paddler.
What makes her haul more special for the Ngāti Raukawa, Ōtaki-bred champion, is having had to complete 12-hour round trips most weekends to get to training in Gisborne. She says many of her regular teammates in Ōtaki drifted away as the realities of Covid kicked in, leaving not enough local paddlers to put a team together.
"So I thought 'why not just go to the best club in New Zealand?' That was my main opportunity and I think what really motivated me to commit to such super long travel, especially at the start was most of the girls I was pedalling with at the elites were all from that club."
The Aotearoa J19 Women team, gold medal winners in London. Photo/Waka Ama NZ Facebook
She says that familiarity made it comfortable, and worth the travel to rub shoulders with some of the best in the business, including her coach Kiwi Campbell.
"The skills and knowledge you get from the Horouta lot up there is just buzzy, learning from the top of the top in our country.
"I've been able to learn and adapt to what they had to give. It was really a learning experience but, in the end, I'm glad I did make that decision to stay, because I'm back with a few golds, thanks to them.
"Having the opportunity to be under Kiwi's wing, learning from her and all her co-coaches to me was amazing because they set such a high standard to work, that you have to force yourself to meet those standards that actually develops your skills and who you are at the same time.”
One of the best things about Waka Ama, Henare says is the fact it caters to all ages. That made the worlds a whanau affair for her because her nan also paddled at Lake Dorney.
“It was super cool, having my nan on the same water as me, at that high competition level. It was cool having my whanau there as well, not only supporting me but both of us.”
Having just arrived back home this week, Henare would like to take a long break but says after spending most of her first year out of school focused on the worlds, is now looking forward to settling back into life, before possibly getting back in the waka with her mates ahead of the nationals in January.