Kiwi white water women rafters – paddlers taking it to the world

A star-studded Kiwi women’s rafting crew is training hard for the National Championships in the Bay of Plenty at Labour Weekend.

Up for grabs is selection for the IRF World Rafting World Championships in Rotorua and Kawerau, in the heartland of New Zealand’s North Island from November 13 to 24, 2013. Nikki Kelly is one of the Rotorua-based ‘Okere Ladies’ crew along with Kelly Wood, Denise (Buba) Martin, Alana Whiteman, Annie Cairns, Kiwi Olympian Luuka Jones and Nikki Whitehead Denise Martin and Nikki Kelly are 4 time rafting World Champions – 1999-2001 and 2003. “We are in the Guinness Book of Records for holding most consecutive world titles,” says Nikki Kelly.”And since 2003, we’ve been second, once and 3rd, twice.” It is a remarkable record for part-time Kiwi paddlers, competing away from home, against crews from the powerhouses of world rafting – Europe, South America and Japan. “I came into the crew in 2002, and won the title in Czech Republic in 2003,” adds team captain, Kelly Wood. “And Annie Cairns was in the world title crew in 2001 and 2003.”

Another member of the ‘Okere Ladies’ team, Luuka Jones, has traded the kayak she raced at the 2012 London Olympic Games for a place in the 6-person raft. She was part of the New Zealand crew that won silver at the Rafting World Championships in Costa Rica in 2010. “Training for the Rafting Nationals has been wild and I am currently counting the bruises,” says Jones. “It’s intensely physical navigating a 6-person inflatable through slalom poles and sprinting down white water – and not without danger. At Kawerau, I fell out as our raft bounced off a rock and got run over,”  she adds. “Our raft flipped on the Kaituna and I had to swim out and climb up through the bush to get back to it as it floated downstream. This really is a rafting career highlight because it puts me in a different comfort zone.”

The Pre-Worlds and National Championships at Labour Weekend will be raced on the same rivers and in the same INCEPT rafts as the World Championships, a year later. Local and international paddlers will take part, including teams from the Czech Republic, Australia and Japan. On Friday October 19 there will be Sprint and Head to Head races on the Kaituna. On Saturday, October 20 the Slalom will be raced in Kawerau on the Tarawera. The finale will be the Down River race on the Rangitaiki, on Sunday October 21.

Nikki Kelly is excited to be competing on home water at the pre-world and the 2013 World Championships in front of local crowds, including friends and family. “It means we can focus on training and racing, not fund-raising and that will make a big difference to our chances of winning gold,” she says. “Hometown advantage is huge – with three different rivers to race on, the overseas teams will have a lot of rapids to learn. Raft racing is challenging. You are on a natural resource – mother nature – and rivers are so dynamic and changing that knowing those rivers and rapids will help immensely.” The international crews may have a lot to learn, fast, but they are looking forward to coming to Rotorua and Kawerau in 2013. “They all want to come to NZ and experience our rivers,” says Kelly, “To host them is a huge honour and to know they are all so excited to come here is great.” New Zealand rivers are well known among the international rafting community. “The rivers we have near Rotorua are unique and each have their different characteristics and challenges to make for a dynamic overall competition,” continues Kelly. “Our rivers are regarded as pristine, remote, steep, difficult and some of the best – beautiful is another word, world class,” she continues. “Another huge factor is Rotorua is a town equipped to host 400 competitors plus support crew and cheerleaders.” Rotorua has hosted several large World Championship events in the last ten years and has the infrastructure to match it’s status as one of New Zealand’s main tourist destinations.

Around 50 crews are expected to travel to New Zealand in November, next year – 30 men’s and 20 women’s teams. “So many of them want to come to NZ,” says Kelly. “It’s about the travel and different cultures, not only the competition.  Having days to sight see and indulge in our culture is important and a lot of people will plan a holiday after competition to travel around and experience our country.”



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Media: Graeme Simpson –