Te Paerangi Waka Ama Inc's Tiare Māori girls team is one of the youngest teams this week to qualify for the world champs.
Youth participation at this week’s Waka Ama Sprint Nationals shows more youth are falling in love with the sport.
Waka Ama New Zealand CEO Lara Collins says the majority of the 3300 paddlers competing at the nationals are youth.
“This week 2100 of the paddlers are under the age of 19 and 1200 of those are aged under 13. Our youngest paddler competing this week is five,” she says.
Members of the Horouta midgets team, who travelled from Brisbane to compete in the nationals for the first time this year, were “overwhelmed” because of the number of other tamariki racing, says their coach Henry Poutu.
“As soon as we stepped off the plane they were just overwhelmed, says Poutu.
“We don’t have this many kids over there at our nationals so they’re really looking forward to racing.”
Coach of the Tūrangawaewae Waka Sports boy’s midgets team, Barney Wharakura, says his paddlers have made a “massive” improvement this year.
The team won the W6 250m finals on Tuesday after coming eighth in the same race last year.
“This year was about trying to improve on that so exceeded that expectation. So I’m really proud of them,” says Wharakura.
The Tūrangawaewae girl’s midgets team also won the W6 250m finals on Tuesday. Their coach, Pura Hope, says the sport has become a part of their lifestyle.
“Our kids are down at the river every day, with or without a waka ama. So it’s just a natural step from swimming at the river every day. They come swim, they paddle – it’s part of their lifestyle.”
Sprint champion Tupuria King says it’s good for kids to race at the national event to get the opportunity to travel to the IVF Va’a World Championships in Tahiti and learn how to improve their technique.
“I’m hoping that within the next year or so that more kids can get the opportunity to go over there and paddle.
“In the last few years Tahiti has definitely set the benchmark for Va’as and what I can see here, so far with the young juniors paddling, more and more are adopting the Tahitian technique.“
The youngest teams already qualified to represent New Zealand in Tahiti are from Te Paerangi Waka Ama Inc's Tiare Māori girls team and Horouta Waka Hoe Club Inc's Baby Heli's boy's team. Both are this year’s J16 W6 champions after winning their finals on Tuesday.
“We’re off to Tahiti. We’re ready to pump some more. Hopefully get two times better,” says Manaaki Maxwell of Baby Heli’s.
Around 550 paddlers from this week’s nationals are expected to qualify for the World Championships to be held in Tahiti in July.