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Waka ama nationals: Pacific paddlers encourage others to take up the fast-growing sport

Natasha Hill

Competitors from the Pacific Islands are making it known waka ama isn’t just a Māori sport and can be enjoyed by everyone, especially Pasifika.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Toni Po-Ching (Samoan, Chinese, Fiji Indian) is one of the many Pasifika females competing in this year’s Waka Ama Sprint Nationals at Lake Karāpiro.

Po-Ching says she feels a deep connection to the waka and that the Pacific Islands’ inhabitants were the first people to voyage.

“Pacific Islands did it first. They did all of their voyaging and all of their adventuring trying to find places.

“You feel really connected like being a Pacific person and particularly a woman because this was a big men’s thing [sport] for a very long time.”

Waka ama was a lot different to other sports because physique, age, weight and height didn’t matter, she said.

This isn’t Po-Ching’s first time paddling, and she has a track record of winning third place at Rarotanga’s Vaka Eiva race festival last year.

Her team was part of the 12km open mix team made up of five women and one man, up against 12 crews who had three men in each team.

“It was absolutely amazing and that just proved to everyone in our waka and everybody else that was at the race that women can do it, if not better than men.”

It came down to giving everything they had and not letting up, she said.

“Proving to be a strong Pacific woman in a race like this and do speeds that we do and do the distances that we do. It makes you feel real good.”

Waka ama isn’t only a sport to Po-Ching, but a reconnection to her culture, whakapapa and ancestors.

“It feels like you’re standing on top of your ancestors and being able to achieve something that they did years and years before you.”

Nela Kata is another Pacific Islander from the village of Niuafo’ou in Tonga.

Kata said he saw the sport as a healthy lifestyle he wished more of his people would take up.

“They don’t see a lot of us and think it’s not for me. But I just want to sort of market the sport.

”If they see me they can go ‘oh there is someone [who is Tongan]’. We can do it.”

He says there aren’t enough Tongans paddling and thinks it comes down to cultural barriers.

“Tonga has a connection to two established waka ama Tongan clubs, but there’s still not enough of us paddling.

“I think that’s a barrier to getting them to join waka ama. They come to New Zealand, a cold country, and then you get told to go back to the ocean.”

Even though he is part of the Pineula club founded by Samoans, he wears Tonga proudly with his country’s design etched on his race paddle.

Hero Image: Toni Po-Ching took her two daughters, Azlyn Poching-Heather (left) and Harpa Poching-Heather, to the waka ama nationals to encourage them to take up the sport.

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