NZ Olympic medallists cheered home

2:08 pm on 24 August 2016

New Zealand's returning Olympic athletes have had an ecstatic welcome home.

Friends and family were among fans at Auckland International Airport when the Olympic team members arrived from Rio early this morning, and more than 1000 people at The Cloud carried on the celebration.

Amid spontaneous outbreaks of flag-waving, and school children mobbing gold medallists, illustrator Toby Morris frantically captured the scene at The Cloud:

Look back at RNZ's live coverage of the celebrations here.

While signing autographs at The Cloud, gold-winning kayaker Lisa Carrington told RNZ it was great to see the reaction from the crowd.

"You don't really know how you are going to inspire people or kids, so to get an inkling of that is pretty cool, it was pretty humbling."

Sailor Blair Tuke, a fellow gold medallist, said he was just trying to soak it all up.

"It's amazing, it's so much hard work to get this around the neck, and then to bring it back and share it with the country is a super proud moment."

Earlier this morning, more than 200 people gathered at the arrivals area at the airport with flags, balloons and signs to greet the athletes.

The team's flight from Buenos Aires was delayed by around an hour, but the hold-up did not dampen fans' spirits.

There was plenty of cheering from the crowd when gold medallists and flag-bearers Peter Burling and Blair Tuke led the 170-strong team through the arrivals gate just before 6am.

The 49er sailing team wore the Māori cloaks they had worn at the Rio opening ceremony, as well as their gold medals.

They said they were overwhelmed by the response: "It's pretty early, we thought there would be a few, but that was awesome."

New Zealand's Chef de Mission Rob Waddell told the crowd he was incredibly proud of the team, saying they "left everything behind" in Rio.

"I can, hand on heart, say that nearly every member of team would love to make New Zealand proud and that's why they train so hard and try and deliver at the highest level, so to come back to a reception like this is very meaningful and it sticks with you forever."

An impromptu haka was performed for the women's sevens team by family members of player Portia Woodman, who said it was an "awesome" welcome.

Sam Webster, who won a silver medal in the sprint cycling, was greeted by his grandmother who said she hadn't seen him since June.

"We'll be very pleased to see him home."

'Work hard and the world's your oyster'

Nine-year-old Olly had travelled with his family from Cambridge for the welcome.

"I'm coming to see my dad. He's mechanic-ing the bikes for the triathlon team ... I've been watching a lot of the track cycling and a lot of the rowing."

After touching down, the athletes were taken on buses to The Cloud on Auckland's waterfront, where the celebrations continued.

The team were presented to the public, with speeches from Rob Waddell and Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, with long lines for autographs from the sporting stars.

St Heliers School teacher Jonathan Nevalagi, who was there with 40 students, said it was great for the children who had been watching, sometimes in the classroom.

"I think the mood at the Olympics has been really positive, not only, just because of the result - it's the best we've had - but for our kids I think this sets a really good example. Work hard and the world's your oyster and I think that's the result which we've seen today."

For one of his students, Brooklyn, it was an exciting morning.

"Today I enjoyed getting everyone's signatures, it was really fun and I got to meet a whole bunch of people that I'd seen on the screen and now I could see in real life which was pretty amazing."

Fourths, fifths, and sixths 'equally amazing'

Former Olympian triathlete Hamish Carter, who won gold at the Athens Olympics, was also there to support.

"I think every kid in New Zealand's grown up having watched the Olympics and been inspired by someone who's either won a medal or done an extraordinary performance. And the beauty is that these kids get to touch a medal and talk to an Olympian and get right up close to it. The closer we get these medals to kids the better. "

He said, for the athletes, being back was going to be a big change, after living in the Olympic Village for two weeks.

"It just takes a wee bit of time to settle back into normal life. I mean you've got friends and family who probably bring you back to earth which is probably what you need; just a bit of a reset.

"Some of the athletes were saying on the way from the airport and they were like 'Oh what's wrong, why are we in a traffic jam? Where's the Olympic lane?' So you kind of have to go 'well, that's not the real world is it'."

He said the hype and success of New Zealand athletes was enduring and he was hopeful for Tokyo 2020.

"What's equally amazing is the number of fourths, fifths, and sixths we had. So a lot of other athletes were very close to medalling, which bodes pretty well for the next Games. So New Zealand is on a real high as far as winning on the world stage, so long may it continue.

There were a few notable absences from the arrivals, with medallists Lydia Ko, Valerie Adams, Natalie Rooney, Eliza McCartney and Tom Walsh not on the flight due to ongoing competition, or other commitments.