Going for gold

GOLD RUSH: From left, equestrian star Jonelle Richards, swimmer Amaka Gessler, cyclist Jack Bauer and hockey player Anita Punt.
GOLD RUSH: From left, equestrian star Jonelle Richards, swimmer Amaka Gessler, cyclist Jack Bauer and hockey player Anita Punt.

Four athletes with strong ties to the Nelson region, equestrian eventer Jonelle Richards, Black Sticks hockey player Anita Punt, relay swimmer Amaka Gessler and road cyclist Jack Bauer, are now in London preparing to make their Olympic debuts.

Wayne Martin spoke to the athletes' parents for a unique perspective on what it's taken for them to realise their Olympic dreams.

Lesley Richards clearly recalls her daughter Jonelle heading out to the horse paddock one Christmas Eve and wishing her pony a merry Christmas.

Jonelle was just a kid at the time, yet it seemed like the most natural of actions, affirming as it did, the irrepressible bond between child and animal.

Considering where Jonelle is now, preparing to launch her first Olympic campaign as part of the New Zealand eventing team at London's Greenwich Park, it was also a pertinent illustration of a lifelong passion that has now materialised into a dream fulfilled.

Road cyclist Jack Bauer's Parapara roots and the Christian upbringing provided by his parents Hans and Carolyn helped instil in him the kind of grounded early life experience that taught him the value of self-discipline and goal-setting.

Relay swimmer Amaka Gessler, born in equatorial Nigeria, appreciated very early in life the value of staying wet in temperatures constantly hovering in the high 30s. Year round access to the community hospital pool, where her parents Wolfram and Johanna then worked as doctors, began a lifelong involvement with swimming that's set to reach its zenith at London's Aquatics Centre in 11 days.

As for Anita Punt, her rise from the Waimea College First XI to the Black Sticks women's Olympic hockey team has been meteoric. Yet throughout the entire process, and notwithstanding occasional moments of self-doubt, the 24-year-old striker has always remained true to her Nelson roots.

Richards and Gessler have come a long way from their formative Motueka years. Bauer's experiences of Golden Bay might now seem like a distant memory and Punt has also had to move further afield to accommodate her growing international ambitions. Yet they're linked by a common thread as they now chase their own respective versions of Olympic glory.

Any athlete's Olympic selection is based on hard work, a fair smattering of talent and a single-minded focus. But dig a little deeper and you'll get a real insight into the sacrifices and commitment required by athletes to reach the top - and it's often the parents that help provide that perspective.

It was no easy ride for Jonelle Richards. But even from her formative years with the Moutere Pony Club, mother Lesley recognised her daughter's absolute commitment to the sport.

"When Jonelle first started riding, I really thought it would be like most things children try, a passing phase, and would fall by the way," says Lesley.

"Jonelle never had to be pushed to do anything regarding her pony. From the very beginning, I said ‘if you want to ride, then you must do the work', thinking that would put her off.

But she was totally dedicated - every day without fail and regardless of what the weather was like, she looked after her pony. "She got jobs after school, delivering pamphlets, newspapers, mowing lawns, baby-sitting, to assist with the cost and, looking back, although this was harsh as she was only about nine years of age, it made her realise the time and money that horses cost and helped make her the person she is to-day."

Now 31, she moved to Britain in 2003 with her fiance, fellow Kiwi eventer Tim Price, having previously relocated from Motueka to Christchurch.

Lesley says that "being an Olympian was all she ever wanted from the very beginning and this dream never faltered".

"Her love of horses just grew and grew. She did have to work hard as I am not a horsey person so could not help her as someone with horse knowledge could.

"So she has achieved this all by herself, but with my financial backing and support."

Lesley also recalls an incident that confirmed Jonelle's commitment, after Jonelle had suffered "a nasty fall" off her pony.

"While getting medical attention, she was worried about not being able to go to pony club that week. It was this accident that made me realise that she was serious and this was no passing phase."

Jonelle's Moutere Pony Club instructor, Annette McFadgen, says she was "full of guts" and, even then, revealed a unique talent.

"[It was] not refined talent, of course, but stickability talent and determination," McFadgen says.

"She was a very determined child. She was quite hard to teach to do things because she wanted to do it her way. She was a wee bit stubborn, but in a good way. A lovely kid, she was a nice kid to deal with and never gave me any trouble." Everything about Anita Punt's international hockey career has involved an element of speed, either in relation to her relatively sudden rise to stardom or merely her dynamic on-field presence.

She's always been quick and it's her blistering pace that now earmarks her as a key member of the Black Sticks' attack. According to her mother, Adele, motivation has never been an issue and despite Anita's relative youth, she already has an impressive 96 test appearances behind her.

"She obviously just enjoyed hockey and she has always enjoyed it, because it was never a chore to go to training. Even at a young age, like eight, nine or 10, it was always, ‘come on Mum, I've got to go', so she was always ready to go to hockey."

Neither Adele nor her Dutch-born husband Nicolaas are from hockey backgrounds, although passing comments from friends and supporters frequently alerted them to Anita's undoubted hockey prowess. Significantly, it also eventually caught the attention of national selector Chris Leslie.

"Somebody [once] said ‘Oh, she reads the play very well. With her speed and good vision and being able to read the play, she could go a long way'," Adele says.

Her continuing development and eventual selection in Nelson and Capital age group and senior teams, eventually culminating in her New Zealand debut in 2009, prompted the inevitable question of relocating to Auckland.

"She said: ‘What do you think Mum', and I said: ‘Well, Anita, if you like playing hockey, just keep following your dream and just keep trailing along', and that's what she's done.

"[I said] you've given up so much of your life for hockey now, what's another year to go to Auckland and fulfil a dream."

Adele admits there have been moments of self-doubt as Anita tried to reconcile her often heady progress with what Anita, in hockey terms at least, occasionally perceived as her comparatively modest roots.

"She kept saying: ‘Do you think I'm good enough Mum?' I said: ‘Anita, I wouldn't have a clue. I never played hockey, but if they're picking you, you've got to be good enough'."

Having headed to Wellington at 18 to facilitate her increasing involvement with the Capital team, it was Anita's eventual association with Steve Symonds, the Hurricanes' professional development manager, that helped cultivate her mental processes.

"Steve sorted out the six inches at the top and Chris sorted out the rest. You still pinch yourself though," Adele says.

"She's done what she's had to do to get to where she wants to go for a dream that she's followed since she was seven or eight years old."

Amaka Gessler's parents, Wolfram and Johanna, credit her early association with water as a major factor in her gradual transition to Olympic selection.

"Her time in the pool at such an early age is probably why Amaka developed and never lost that special water-feeling," says Johanna.

Amaka's been on the move for much of her life, having lived variously in Wanaka, Nelson and Ngatimoti, when she attended Nelson College for Girls, before further moves to Christchurch and finally her selection to the High Performance Centre in Auckland, where she currently trains while at Massey University.

Johanna remembers Amaka's own Olympic dream materialising at an early age.

"When Amaka was 9, she came home from a competition in Dunedin with nine gold medals and several age group records. She was convinced that she would make it to the Olympics."

Despite eventually achieving her ultimate dream of Olympic selection, Amaka nevertheless revealed a rather unorthodox attitude to training.

"At that very competition, [former Olympic champion] Danyon Loader's coach, Duncan Laing, presented Amaka with some of her medals and Amaka actually told him that she wasn't very good at working hard during training and so Duncan jokingly hit her bottom.

"In fact, when she was younger, she was often told off by her coaches for not training as hard as she should. We as her parents, however, felt that it was more important for her to have a good childhood as well. We did not want to spoil the sport for her by over-training, which may be why she continued in the sport whilst many others stopped.

"She probably continued dreaming of going to big international swim events in secret and as she became older, she developed a sense of the realistic demands and challenges and started to focus on her goals one step at a time."

Like Anita Punt, Amaka occasionally needed reassurance about her ability.

"Amaka always loved racing and of course winning. That is what kept her going through the hard yards and the monotonous training which can be quite lonely and boring for swimmers. So we never really had to push Amaka. She always organised her swimming timetables from an early age.

"The main support Amaka needed from us as her parents was to believe in her and what she could achieve during times that she didn't. Especially between the age of 14 and 16, she doubted her abilities and was attracted to different sports, for example basketball. In the end though, she decided to commit fully to swimming as she really loved the feel of the water."

Jack Bauer's early years were anything but typical. Growing up in Parapara, it quickly became apparent that he was becoming constantly tired and fatigued with the slightest exertion.

So at just five years old, he underwent major surgery to repair a meningocele - a form of spina bifida and a congenital malformation that arises from an error in the normal development of the central nervous system, particularly the spinal cord and spine.

The operation was successful and according to father Hans, he "went from strength to strength".

"Jack was a joy to parent, a happy, diligent and highly motivated child. We chose to homeschool all of our children, to give them a Christian Education so they never entered a classroom until they went to University.

"The curriculum we chose, taught them to be goal-orientated, was individualistic and focused on their strengths."

Hans says he was always interested in sport and music and "dreamed of one day becoming a biker, a basketball player or a rockstar".

He also played bass in a four-member alternative-rock band called Dream Farm who frequented many of the night clubs in the Dunedin area. As a born-again Christian, Bauer also played bass for his church, Dunedin Elim Christian Centre, while studying in Dunedin.

His early competitive interest was in mountainbiking, although he's now come a long way from his winning ride in the 2007 Rainbow Rage event from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs. "He showed real determination and competed in a lot of the local recreational races, even though a lot were held on Sundays, which cut him out, because as a family we were involved in Church activities," says Hans.

"Having the latest and best gear was not an option for Jack as he was one of four children, each with their own dreams.

"We encouraged him to contribute financially as best he could so he worked in gardens and a local cafe.

"He came to a crossroads when he had to choose between sport and music and we encouraged him to study at Otago where he completed a Bachelor of PhysEd [degree]."

In November 2011, a year after he'd won the New Zealand road championship title, Bauer signed with professional team Garmin-Barracuda for the 2012 European cycling season, following the example of compatriot, Julian Dean.

He'd previously represented New Zealand at the 2006 world mountainbike champs in Rotorua but did not see a future in the largely self-funded discipline and, according to Hans, began to realise that if he wanted to pursue biking, he would need to make a change to road cycling.

"It was a difficult move as he was so passionate about mountainbiking, but it has proved to be a good one.

"We've always taught our children to have big dreams, to put the effort in that it requires, and to let God do the rest."