A handful of athletes and no boats of their own. Taupo-nui-a-Tia College recognised for its rowing revival

Think of the places on the mighty Waikato River where rowing is a stronghold, its legacy so embedded, you almost take it for granted:

The stretch of the river in Hamilton under the Victoria Bridge where so many crews have earned Red Coats and Maadi medals; the rowers who’ve spent summer training camps at Epworth and Finlay Park; the stunning bluffs that overlook Whakamaru; the slogs into the current to finally find the soft sand landing at Mercer and yes; the opportunity to race on the ultimate testing ground, the 2000m course at Lake Karapiro.

But let’s go back to the source, where the Waikato emerges from Lake Taupo. Head a little way downstream and barely 200m from the riverbank you’ll find yourself at the edge of the playing fields of Taupo-nui-a-Tia College.

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A school re-starting its rowing journey and the inaugural recipient of the Aon Emerging Schools Rowing Scholarship.

Rowing NZ was impressed with the schools application.

“Taupo-nui-a-Tia College has a robust strategic plan that looks achievable” says Kate Adams, Rowing NZ Community & Schools Co-ordinator. “They have realistic growth numbers and have the potential to send athletes to Aon Maadi Regatta at Lake Ruataniwha next year.”

The panel had taken longer than planned to make a decision.

“It was a tough decision” says Kate. “But we were very thorough.” “I personally can’t wait to follow Taupo-nui-a-Tia College’s journey through to Maadi 2024 and beyond.”

Erica Strik cracks up when you ask her who’s got the rowing bug at the college. There’s nowhere to hide on a Zoom call and it’s written all over the Sports Coordinator’s face before she can answer. It’s her. She spent hours and hours thinking about and writing the submission.

She laid out where the school is at and where it wants to be. Here are just a few of their aims.

  • Gather at least 6 new rowers each year.
  • Badge system for premier team selection.
  • 2024 – Enter a quad at NISS.
  • 2025 - Enter an 8 at Maadi Regatta.

These are targets many schools wouldn’t even blink an eye at, but this is a programme that doesn’t have that ingrained rowing culture behind it in the school or wider community; has to work for every rowing dollar it gets, and has no boats of its own, let alone an eight to get to the start line in two years’ time.

Erica had noticed a big drop-off in students’ participation through the pandemic.

“We talk about Covid having hit us all pretty hard. I don't like to use it as an excuse, but we look at rangatahi surveys and things through the Bay of Plenty and it's very, very clear that has dropped our numbers.

“But what we're seeing this year is a real surge. With our new students, particularly our year nines and our juniors coming through and just the level of interest they have in sport. So we're just trying to harness it really to give them as many opportunities as we can.”

One of those Covid trends involved senior students who previously were playing multiple sports now doing only one.

“They're all out working,” says Erica. “Since Covid there's so much work in Taupo because there's not the transient population coming through from overseas. There's so much opportunity out there for our youngsters to work and that's what they want to do.”

The simple act of being recognised by the scholarship sends a positive signal about trying to make rowing more accessible for students, says Erica.

“Equity is a big word in schools and it's very hard to offer that equity with rowing. So I guess, we would hope that we can find a way to do a little bit of that. There's a real opportunity for us, there's so many people on the water with waka ama and our active cultural life here at the school. I feel like we could engage a wider breadth of our community.”

Ask Erica her reaction to winning the $5,000 scholarship and again, there’s no hiding on Zoom. She breaks out into a huge smile.

“Oh, over the moon, absolutely over the moon. I just thought these students are just going to be so excited because they're so proud of what they're doing and I thought, ‘Oh, we can do a lot with this’.

Part of the money was targeted towards training camps, assisting novice rowers into the programme and purchasing safety equipment to cater for rising numbers.

“This will be an amazing platform to spring forward from,” says Erica. “Somewhere to start from and put us on the journeys with those things.”

Papillon Poynter, one of the rowers from the school, won the Under 16 Single Sculls at the Aon NISS regatta and was 7th in the A-Final at Aon Maadi Regatta. She’s just been selected in the Bay of Plenty Interprovincial Eight.

“She's a bit of a shining beacon,” says Erica. “She works hard. She's the one that pushes Mark [Freeman, Taupo RC coach] ‘When are we doing this? When can we go rowing? What do I need to do?’ Always at the gym. She's a real motivator for the team, they are finding her very inspirational.”

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Taupo-nui-a-Tia student Paillon Poynter has emerged as a leader in the school’s rowing programme; always looking for ways to improve her rowing and motivate her mates.

Aon New Zealand Deputy Managing Director, Russell Bailey is passionate about school rowing and shares Erica and Kate’s excitement about Taupo-Nui-a-Tia College being the recipient.

“I have been involved in rowing – both in a professional and personal capacity – for over 40 years, and I have seen first-hand the impact that funding can have on a school’s rowing programme. Whether social or competitive, the physical and psychological benefits of sport are long-lasting and that’s why this scholarship is so important - to help schools grow their wider sporting capability alongside opening new opportunities for students of all levels in rowing. I wish Taupo-Nui-a-Tia College every success and look forward to seeing them next year at the Aon Maadi Regatta.”

To close off our chat I asked Erica what her dream would be for the school in five years.

“....an awesome vision would be if we could have our very own Taupo-nui-a-Tia College boats and boatshed on our glorious lakeshore.  How amazing would that be?”

Nothing taken for granted here.

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Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.