Family rush to side of ill athlete

The family of Southland athlete Lesley Cantwell will leave for Tahiti today with the nationally-ranked race walker in a critical condition after falling ill following her event at the Oceania Championships on Tuesday.

Cantwell, 26, had just won the 5000m track walk event ahead of a small field of competitors at Papeete, Tahiti, and was on her way to the medal presentation when she collapsed and was taken to hospital where she was described as being in a critical condition.

Athletics New Zealand chief executive Scott Newman said the organisation had tried to move quickly, with the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to provide support for the Cantwell family, as well as the 50-strong New Zealand team.

The athletes had been informed of what had happened and were in shock, Newman said.

"There's a range of ages there and it's one of those challenges. You are not at home, there is a large team away and we've got them to consider, as well as the best interests of [Lesley]."

Newman said team members had been given the option of coming home.

"As far as I'm aware, they have all resolved to continue. The organisers of the championship of Oceania athletics are obviously very concerned as well and have asked us the question of what we thought was appropriate in the circumstances, and they have been very caring in their approach as well."

Cantwell's father and coach Shaun Cantwell, the deputy principal at Fiordland College, said Lesley, who has a 3-year-old daughter, had prepared for the heat in Tahiti by training with extra layers, as well as using an ice vest at the championships.

Although getting information from doctors in Tahiti had not been straightforward because of language differences, her condition did not appear to have been caused by the heat or dehydration, he said.

Athletics Southland manager Lance Smith said Cantwell was a popular member of the Southland athletics community.

At the New Zealand track and field championships in March, she finished third in the 3000m track walk and second in the 20km road walk, breaking her own Southland records in the process.

She had targeted a World Cup meet in China and possibly the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow for the future.

Cantwell's mother, Jude, was the New Zealand women's 1500m champion in 1989.

Her dedication to training and competing, despite being relatively isolated by living in Te Anau, was impressive, Smith said.

"To do it all by yourself, the one positive that she had was that Rosie Robinson, the top ranked walker in the country, lives in Dunedin and they are good friends, so she would go to Dunedin to compete against Rosie.

"They are really the only two nationally ranked walkers in the country, and to have the best reasonably close was a help."

Members of the New Zealand team in Tahiti will wear Cantwell's race number during the last day of the championships today.

The Southland Times