7 Apr 2021

Paddling in a pandemic: Pacific Olympians gear up for Tokyo

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:09 am on 7 April 2021

A couple of Pacific Olympians have taken the rough waters of the Covid-19 pandemic in their stride as they prepare for the Tokyo Games. 

Cook Island slalom canoeist Jane Nicholas and Samoan sprint kayaker Tuva'a Clifton were awaiting their Olympic debuts with a mixture of excitement and intrigue. 

Nicholas, who would be the third Nicholas sibling to take part in an Olympics after brother Bryden and sister Ella competed in Rio 2016, said she was approaching the 2021 event with optimism.  

"I'm trying to remain very positive when I think about whether it's going ahead or not. I think there'll definitely be a race, there will be a competition that's called the Olympics," she said. 

Samoan sprint kayaker Tuva'a Clifton and Cook Islands canoe slalom athlete Jane Nicholas spoke to Champions of the Pacific.

Samoan sprint kayaker Tuva'a Clifton and Cook Islands canoe slalom athlete Jane Nicholas spoke to Champions of the Pacific. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Talei Anderson

Although the 28-year-old former New Zealand representative admitted it was probably not going to look like any other Olympics.

"It will be quite different, it will be a lot more isolated and probably just socialising within your own sport, quite a different scenario in the village and in Japan. 

"But in saying that it also be a very unique experience, there's only going to be this group of athletes that experience this Covid games...so just remaining positive as if it is going ahead. Work is gonna be there for the rest of my life. I'm only going to be an athlete for this time of my life."

Nicholas put her medical career on hold to pursue her dream of taking part in the Olympics. The Tauranga Hospital doctor left her job to train in Auckland full-time. 

"When Covid started kicking off in New Zealand, I was training as a full time athlete. So I think I was on about seven months off work and in that time I qualified for the games at the World Champs and then I was training full time towards that living up here in Auckland." 

However when last year's nation-wide lockdown took place, Nicholas ended up returning to Tauranga after the games were postponed.

"I decided to go back to work at Tauranga hospital where I've just left again, to be a full time athlete again. So it was certainly not my plan." 

Jane Nicholas was fifth at the Oceania Champs

Jane Nicholas was fifth at the Oceania Champs Photo: supplied

The 23-year-old Tuva'a Clifton had a slightly different path through Covid.

"Covid was a little bit annoying, but I think it might have helped me [as] I kind of really just decided to go to the games in late 2019 so I had to get my passport sorted and things like that."

It was at a regional Oceania qualifier in February 2020 where Clifton qualified for Japan, just as the pandemic was emerging. 

"So that was over in Australia and Covid was kicking off there. And then pretty much as soon as I got back, the lockdowns happened, just a lot of training at home, which was boring at times but you know we got through, had a little home gym set-up was handy [and] having my sisters there because we could all train together," he said.

Tuva'a, Samululu and Aotea Clifton

Tuva'a, Samululu and Aotea Clifton Photo: supplied

The sisters who Clifton referred to were younger siblings Samululu and Aotea, gifted athletes in their own right with the former in New Zealand's national kayaking and surf-lifesaving programmes.

"I got two younger sisters who both do kayaking, same as me, and because we all live together, still at home, we are always hoping in the same car, going to training together, which is really cool. 

"It's really cool...that sort of family environment around training and we always discuss different paddling aspects and how we can improve our technique and what we're doing," Clifton said. 

Jane Nicholas obviously related to having talented whānau members who were like a support crew. 

"So both my siblings who have been to the Olympics before are older than me so when I was younger and getting into slalom I had their support so we would all go training together before school, go to school and then my brother, because he's the oldest with the licence would pick us up and take us over to Rotorua to go training." 

The Nicholas siblings, Ella, Bryden and Jane

The Nicholas siblings, Ella, Bryden and Jane Photo: supplied

She said their experience definitely helped her get to the point she was in her sporting career. 

"I was lucky enough to go and watch them both at Rio. I was able to be really involved in the village and at the venues and got to see a lot more than you would going as a non-family member supporter, which was an incredible experience for me and just really kind of helps cement my goals around what I wanted to do."

One of her goals included representing her heritage nation of the Cook Islands after initially wearing the black and white of New Zealand at World Cup level.  

"It is [an] honour really to be able to represent the Cook Islands growing up in New Zealand but with a strong Cook Island heritage." 

Nicholas said she was happy to have represented New Zealand but was very proud to part of what would be a vastly smaller Cook Island contingent for the Games. 

"I think there's something special to be representing a smaller nation and whenever I'm back there, back home, people will stop you in the street and congratulate you and they're so proud and always following your journey and that's something really special to have that nation behind you."

Tuva'a Clifton also relished the opportunity to represent the Pacific. 

"It means everything. It's so cool to see all my Samoan family really get behind me and support me through my journey. And also, it's good to just have a help put the Samoa out there on the world stage."

And despite the Covid-enforced delay of the Olympics, Clifton felt it might work out for him. 

"In the end, I think maybe Covid was probably quite good for me because I feel like each year I improved, so a delay in the Olympics means I could actually train an extra year to try and get better and better." 

Although he did admit to having an eerie feeling about the upcoming Games. 

"I've been maybe slightly comparing this year's Olympics could be a little bit like prison because they've been giving us some information of how it might play out," he said.

"It'll be pretty well, you stay in the village the whole time and then they just truck you to your venue and then you come straight back to the village. You're not allowed to go out and explore Tokyo or anything, but that's fine, because you know, we're there to do a job and represent our country."  

Tuva'a Clifton

Tuva'a Clifton Photo: supplied

Both athletes were aiming to make it out of the heats and into the final day of competition in Tokyo and with the perseverance, determination and family support they both have, you might just back them to do it.