Koha-Alofa Vitolio has fast established herself as one of the country’s top junior female waka ama paddlers.
The 16-year-old Year 12 student at McAuley High School has her sights set on next year’s inaugural waka ama long distance world champs in Tahiti, where she will likely represent New Zealand at both junior (under-19) and senior levels.
Vitolio’s progress has been rapid since she started paddling competitively five years ago in this growing sport.
Already she has competed at two worlds and four club nationals, and her latest national Under-19 ranking was No4, though she competes in several canoes from W1 or W2 to W6 and W12.
Earlier this year in Australia she won two world champs golds, one with the New Zealand Under-19 elite team and one with the Kiwi elite W12 team. That is the clear highlight of a busy waka ama year for the quietly spoken Vitolio.
“That was the top paddlers in New Zealand coming together to compete against other countries. The racing was pretty cool, because we know we are not just champions of New Zealand, but champions of the world,” she says.
Vitolio clearly loves the competition and has got plenty of top experience under her belt, having first paddled for New Zealand at the 2012 worlds in Canada as a 12-year-old. It didn’t faze her or her team, who returned with three gold medals.
She has no problems fitting into a much older senior elite team, but it is challenging to get a berth in, say, the W6 canoe.
“It was scary, because there are 18 ladies and you are all fighting for six spots. We all want those seats.”
Vitolio says she doesn’t mind whether she is racing solo or in a W6 or W12.
“Sometimes it depends what team you are in, but if you are in with a bunch of elite paddlers, it always feels good. It’s a bit harder if you are in a team of novices and you are racing.”
Vitolio competes for the Cook Islands Outrigger Canoe Club, which trains on the Tamaki Estuary off Panmure.
Leading into competition, she will often train six times a week, perhaps two hours at a time on the water, searching for that fluency that comes with a top waka ama crew.
McAuley has a solid waka ama culture, and they also enter mixed crews with brother school De La Salle at regattas. This year they made the teams semifinals of the senior regatta on Orakei Basin, but opted not to send a team to the schools nationals in Rotorua.
However, next year, with Vitolio spearheading the team and a good crop of youngsters coming through – from 12 teams – they are hopeful they can push on to the nationals. Old girl Deirdre Hill is the schools coach.
Vitolio has already achieved much and travelled the world in her sport. Now she narrows her focus to the 2017 club nationals, which will lead in to the long distance worlds in Tahiti.
At 18km, the elite race is a test of the paddler’s mettle, let along fitness. But she has already performed in Tahiti and Samoa in the Te Aito and Le Aito races, meaning she can handle herself with some of the best. The standard is, unsurprisingly, top notch.
“It’s different. You don’t know how other countries train. They have different strategies, but it all comes down to the day.”
Vitolio is also a waka ama finalist in the November 26 Young Sportsperson of the Year awards at Eden Park.
By Campbell Burnes