As tickertape rained down on Invercargill's city centre, the region's returning Olympians were given a grand homecoming from family, friends and proud Southlanders who filled the streets to welcome their sports heroes home yesterday.
Crowds armed with tickertape began gathering well before the parade began in the city centre in the late afternoon, with many employees pouring out of shops and leaning out of buildings to get a glimpse of Nathan Cohen, Storm Uru, Louise Ayling, Natalie Wiegersma, Eddie Dawkins and Natasha Hansen. Jade Uru is still overseas.
Shops in Dee St passed out the tickertape before closing their doors and allowing staff to join in celebrating Southland's Olympic success.
Workers given a short break, mums, dads and kids lined the street and covered the athletes in a stream of colourful glory.
Three generations of the Gibson family were on hand to be part of history.
"This is awesome and it makes us proud to be from Southland," dad Craig said.
Ashleigh Moyles from A La Turka and her friend Sheree Hackett borrowed some chairs and set themselves up in the sunshine for a front row seat.
"This is great for Invercargill and Southland and the efforts of the Olympians have put us on the map," Ms Moyles said.
Annie Mead, a nanny from Winton, brought her young charges down for the parade. "The kids were really excited to come and see the athletes in person."
As one woman with a head full of silver foils came out from the upstairs window of a beauty shop to sit on the street awning in Kelvin St and watch the parade while her new colour set, H&J Smith staff member Lyn Knewstubb-Jones squealed with delight as a bunch of balloons was released.
Helen Goodall went all out with her costume - consisting of pom poms, balloons and crepe streamers and a fake gold medal - which took about two hours to make.
"I accosted a guy in the carpark, and I said to him ‘can you help me please, can you stick some balloons on my costume please', because I couldn't drive with them on [on the way to the parade]. It took him about 20 minutes," she said.
Her two children, Hamish and Michelle Fox, grew up rowing with some of those who stood on the balcony as Olympic athletes, she said.
"It's pretty awe-inspiring to see them here like this. Nathan always had the makings of a gold medallist. You could just see it, right from when he first hopped in the boats," she said.
Following a welcome from Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt, Southland District mayor Frana Cardno told the Olympians how proud everyone was. "You lifted our spirits in the winter time and inspired our young generation."
Nathan Cohen, on behalf of the Olympians, said they had wondered if anyone would even show up for the parade.
"How wrong were we? The support we get from everyone . . . coming out today shows how awesome it is.
"It is something we know no other athlete in the country gets and we are very privileged to be from Southland, " he said.
Cohen said it was "an absolute honour" representing Southland on the international stage.
"I can honestly say we know we come from the best region in the country."
BIG TURNOUT HUMBLES GOLDEN BOY
Nathan Cohen says yesterday was when his Olympic gold-medal win really sank in.
At this month's Olympic Games in London, the rower became the first Southlander to win an Olympic gold. He has spent the past two weeks celebrating - firstly in London then, in recent days, on his return to New Zealand.
Yesterday, the dots all joined for Cohen when he took part in a ticker-tape parade in Invercargill.
He and fellow Southland rower Storm Uru had talked over breakfast about the possible embarrassment of no-one turning up at the parade. That was far from the case as thousands lined the street to honour the sporting heroes.
"It's so humbling for everyone in the community to come out and support us. It really starts sinking in what effect it really has. Like I say, it's an absolute privilege to represent everyone from down here, seeing the response is overwhelming. It's something you never expect for you," Cohen said.
The Invercargill Rowing Club member said it was nice to celebrate with those he started out with in his early days in the sport.
"The best thing about coming back to where you grew up is seeing all the people that helped you get to where you are and start sharing the moment with them. Because they're really important, they're the ones that got you to where you are."
Last night Cohen ventured out to Oreti River and Invercargill Rowing Club, where he took his baby steps into the sport, for the first time since he achieved Olympic glory.
"I still remember every bend and corner and sandbank on the Oreti River. Sometimes when things haven't been going that well and especially with the international pressure that sometimes you're under, I just go back to the Oreti River and just remember what it's about. For me I love the sport and the people involved, I quite often think back to the Oreti River and those memories."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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