Fabulous fleece flinger loving the work

ROB TIPA
Last updated 07:37 05/02/2014
Tia Potae

Tia Potae throws a fleece in a South Otago shearing shed last week. She says every job in the shearing shed requires a good level of physical fitness.

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Tia Potae, 30, has a family tradition to uphold when she defends her title as the reigning national champion at the New Zealand Woolhandling Championships in Balclutha this weekend.

She first won the title at 21 in 2005 in her first year in senior ranks and her first attempt at a national final.

She was "a bit overwhelmed" by her success as a rookie in the competition, but followed that up with her second national title last year.

"It was another shock, really," she says. "There was a bit of a mixup in points so I didn't realise I'd won until a couple of days later, which was pretty exciting."

While she competes every year to support the local event hosted by South Otago, she admits there is a bit more pressure defending a national title.

"You want to at least make the top four," she says. "I still get nervous every time but I think that's good. If you get a bit too confident, your performance tends to fall off a bit."

The Potae family name is synonymous with shearing in South Otago. Tia's great- grandfather was a shearer and her grandfather Mack came south to join his brother George, who set up a shearing gang in Milton in the early 1960s.

Tia grew up around shearing sheds and started working for her uncle Bill Potae, a former Maori All Black, during her school holidays.

She says a good woolhandler needs to balance speed and quality, know the difference between wool oddments and be able to separate them precisely and quickly.

"Good teachers is the main thing, being a good learner and just having the focus and determination to want to be the best," she says.

"I'm definitely not fast," she says. "Probably my best skill is my focus on quality and that's been taught to me by some of the best world-class woolhandlers.

"Joanne Kumeroa, Gina Nathan and Sharon Lawton were probably my biggest influences in terms of competition and my mum and a lot of older ladies have taught me a lot in terms of work ethic."

Competitive by nature, she enjoys the friendly rivalry of competition against fellow New Zealand representatives, including Keryn Herbert and current world champion Joel Henare, 22, of Gisborne, who will compete at Balclutha this weekend.

Whether working as a shearer, wool presser or wool handler, she says every job in the shearing shed requires a good level of physical fitness. In her spare time she plays netball, touch rugby and does kick-boxing to keep fit.

"You have to take care of your body or you are not going to last very long."

The industry has been good to her with opportunities to work all year round, mostly as a qualified wool classer these days, and to compete and work overseas.

"There's still plenty of work all year round in Australia and New Zealand if you want to chase it," she says. "Sometimes we'll work seven days a week at busy times of the year but we try to have Sundays off for the family."

"In Milton we'll work nine or 10 months of the year, then work in Central Otago or the Mackenzie country in winter and a couple of weeks here and there in the North Island if friends need a hand now and again."

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"It's definitely a good job to get into if you want to see the world and make good coin on top of it."

"It's one of those jobs that you have to love, otherwise you're not going to last too long because it really takes its toll with long hours, hard work and being away from your family, so you really have to love it."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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