19 Jan 2023

From age 5 to 81, crowds dive in to return of waka ama championship

6:51 pm on 19 January 2023
Waka Ama sprints at Lake Karapiro

The waka ama races have returned after a pandemic delay. Photo: RNZ / Ashleigh McCaull

The national waka ama sprint champs returned to Lake Karapiro this week after a one-year gap caused by Covid-19.

Marquees blanket the shoreline and more than 8000 people cheer on the competitors.

Whānau of all ages have travelled from all over the country to give it everything on the lake just south of Cambridge.

"We love it, it's all about being competitive at our age and also the whānau whānui buzz I suppose," said Yvonne Aranui.

"You see the colour, the faces, the competition, it's not just a social event but it's actually competition which is damn good for our kids," said Luther Toloa.

"Yes, it's grown huge. Now the whole place is covered and it's just the kids!" said Kim Tipene.

It is the 33rd time the competition has been held, and it has become one of the biggest events on the Māori calendar.

Waka Ama sprints at Lake Karapiro

Whānau turned out to cheer on the waka ama action. Photo: RNZ / Ashleigh McCaull

Many come as entire whānau and they said they are there for more than just the racing.

Some of the rangatahi competing said the sport has helped them form life-long connections with things like "making new friends" and "being out on the water."

Waka ama is massive among Māori and Pasifika - a way to connect with roto, awa and moana.

Waka Ama sprints at Lake Karapiro

Competitors range from age 5 to 81. Photo: RNZ / Ashleigh McCaull

Competitors are as young as five.

The oldest - Whanganui's Peter Wilson - is 81. And he only got into the highly physical sport five years ago.

"A person asked me to join their team but I went to the wrong club rooms and ended up in another team.

"I refereed rugby for probably 55 years and I only gave up because I had to have a second hip replacement, I couldn't run.

"Waka ama happened to be something that suited me."

There are 700 fewer competitors this year, compared to the last nationals held in 2021.

Waka Ama sprints at Lake Karapiro

Photo: RNZ / Ashleigh McCaull

Waka Ama New Zealand Chief Executive Lara Collins puts this down to the disruption from Covid-19.

"Last year the event got cancelled, for some it was their first summer that they had off for awhile and I think some adults who have been coaching kids teams and have been really involved with their club have just taken a break, which means that it will probably take a minute to be able to come back from that and build those numbers up again."

But she is certain it's just a blip.

"It could probably get to maybe 4500 before we're at max capacity so we're already doing some planning to see what does nationals look like in three to five years time."

Sixty-three clubs are competing in categories that range from singles to teams of six or 12, covering distances from 250 to 1500 metres.

They have already contested more than 200 races, with the main finals over the next three days.

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