Family focus sees waka ama popularity grow

Sweat, Pacific tradition and passion will be on show at Lake Karapiro for the 25th Waka Ama Sprint Nationals at Lake Karapiro next week.

Te Toki Voyaging Trust head coach Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr competed at the 1990 competition at Lake Karapiro and said the sport had been transformed since those early days.

"We were able to do the whole of the championships in a day and a half but now it takes a whole week to do it," Mr Barclay-Kerr said.

"If people looked at it 25 years ago, I reckon they will be surprised that it has got to the way it is now."

The small group that organised the first competition tried their best, Mr Barclay-Kerr said, and it was their dedication that helped grow the sport to be included in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

There are now more than 80 waka ama clubs in the country and Mr Barclay-Kerr's Hamilton- club has more boats and members than participants at the first national champs but the community feel remained.

"This whole 25 years has been good but the ability to hold on and to feel the passion of everyone who is in there administering, running and all of the paddlers, and also not losing that whanau buzz and atmosphere."

Waka ama's connection to the Pacific was one of the reasons many people gravitated to the sport and they encouraged family members to join in.

"I think there is an underlying or deep-seated connection to the fact that it is a traditional sport from a long time ago. I think that is what brings a lot of people into the sport and fires the passion in a lot of people," he said.

"It's actually a sport that is not imported from anywhere else but the Pacific and if you run a club according to a Pacific feel, you have a solid participation from all age groups."

Karapiro will host more than 2800 paddlers and 1461 crews from 54 clubs and the grassed bank alongside the lake was expected to swell with more than 10,000 spectators.

The championship moved around the country during the 1990s but has been at Karapiro's world-class facilities since 1999 and national chief executive Lara Collins said membership had grown another 30 per cent in the last year.

"It's just growing from strength to strength," she said. "In that first year in 1990 there were 14 clubs and in this one there are 54."

Junior paddlers will ply the water in the first three days of competition before the senior competitors get their chance providing a unique aspect to the championship.

"It's competitive but there is also a social aspect as well and it's really family oriented," she said. "There are not many sports where you can go to a national championship and have grandparents, parents and kids all racing in the same week."

Waikato Times