Aon celebrates another season of putting a boy and a girl in a boat.

 

The presentation table at Aon Maadi Regatta will be groaning under the weight of more than 50 trophies when Ruataniwha comes around very soon.

But the reward for winning either of the Under 17 Single Sculls titles is a bit different and won’t be taking a spot at the table.

Since 2018, Aon has underwritten the gifting of a brand-new Laszlo single to the school of the boys’ and girls’ champion.

The initiative is now in its sixth cycle.

"We're incredibly proud to partner with Laszlo Boats again in 2024 for what will be our 11th/12th skiff in seven years of this fantastic initiative" says Tom Tulloch, Aon's Marketing Executive - Sponsorships.

Mollie Gibson was the first ever girls’ winner in 2018.

“It was awesome being able to take it back to the school and with being quite a small [programme], it was cool to bring another good boat into the club,” says Mollie. “We didn't have that many singles. So yeah, I’d say it's definitely helped a lot of kids get into singles racing.”

She’s been a part of a run of Ashburton brilliance in a small boat that really kicked off with Veronica Wall’s sweep of the U16, U17, U18 Single Sculls titles in 2016.

Mollie’s little sister Sophie is one of the frontrunners in the U17 Single this year after winning the U16 title at Aon Maadi Regatta last year.

At the recent South Island Secondary Schools Championship, she opted to row the U18 Single, winning the A Final.

“It's cool that Sophie's continued it on, and [I] can kind of live through her a little bit at the moment with it,” says Mollie. “She always calls and asks for some motivational quotes.”

AH: What’s your go-to quote Mollie?

“Medals last longer than pain.”

Mollie’s coach in 2018 was Veronica’s dad, Justin. When RowingHub calls he’s enjoying a perfect day, finally, at Lake Ruataniwha for SISSC. He’d already seen the boat out racing that day.

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Mollie Gibson and Jack McLaughlan receiving the Aon Maadi Legacy skiffs at Maadi in 2018.

“It's actually named two things,” says Justin “The kids call it the ‘Mollie Gibson’ and they also refer to it as the ‘Aon’.

“The fact the boat became available as the prize was such a gob smacking opportunity. We just couldn't believe that we had won this boat because it was unheard of, that's new order experience.”

The boat’s still being rowed at the college.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Justin. “The thing with the boats these days, they’re very strong, they’re bulletproof. It's still a very good boat.”

Longevity has been one of the enduring factors about the boat Southland Girls’ College student Shakira Mirfin picked up the following year.

“It was the first backwards winged boat we had at my club,” says Shakira, from her apartment in Seattle, where she has been studying hard for exams before another rowing season with the University of Washington.

“It helped me develop confidence to row different types of boat.”

The reward of the boat can be significant for small rowing programmes away from the big boat centres in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton.

"By choosing the U17 races this opportunity is available to any school in Aotearoa, New Zealand and that is really important to both Aon & Laszlo," says Tom.

"I'm incredibly excited to see the 2024 Aon Maadi Regatta come to life and look forward to congratulating our new winners!"

Shakira never got the chance to contest the U18 Single the following year when Aon Maadi was cancelled by Covid.

She doesn’t dwell on that, now hoping to make the Huskies’ 1V Eight for the upcoming NCAAs in Bethel, Ohio at the end of May.

That comes off the back of a silver medal in the Women’s Coxed Four at the Under 23 World Championships in Bulgaria last July.

Southland Girls’ and Shakira gifted the boat to Invercargill and it’s still being used there to this day.

“Since leaving I know a lot of different people have rowed in the single,” says Shakira. “It’s awesome that it’s continuing to help and grow more people in the sport and that I was able to give something back to the club.”

Justin Wall knows all too well the allure of winning the U17 Single Sculls title.

“I think everyone would appreciate that it's a big capital item and it's a tremendous incentive for young people, particularly at that 17 age-group, which is an interesting age-group because they're making decisions about whether or not they want to carry on as 18s. And to be able to have a boat that will give them that additional incentive is tremendous.”

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Shakira Mirfin racing in the U17 Girl's Single Sculls for Southland Girls’ College at 2019 Aon Maadi Regatta.

Riley Wills and former Wakatipu High School sculler Marley King-Smith are the only two scullers to back up their Under 17 win with the title in the Under 18 event since the award began.

The incentive was right there from day one of Riley’s U17 season.

“That's sort of the main thing I was going for was trying to get my own boat. I didn't use a boat from my own club. I think my mum gave [Waikato coach] Nick Barton a box of beer and he gave me one of their boats to use.”

It wasn’t a bad boat to flex in, a green RPC single named the ‘Rob Waddell’.

Riley remembers the race being one out of the box, after some earlier frustrations.

“I knew I could do it, deep down, but all the regattas beforehand just never worked out, and I'd never been able to race how I wanted to, and then it all just came together.”

He was presented with the boat at a big school assembly and that helped him launch into his Under 18 year in a brand new boat and with a whole new set of results.

“I didn't get beaten in it a single time. It was just a clean sweep.”

AH: So how did the school celebrate you winning the 18 single Riley?

“Uh, I think they had another assembly.”

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RILEY WILLS FROM ST PAUL’S COLLEGIATE WITH COACH AXEL DICKINSON AFTER WINNING THE 2021 AON MAADI REGATTA BOY'S U17 SINGLE SCULLS.

The winners of the Aon Under 17 Single Sculls titles

2018 Mollie Gibson/Ashburton College - Jack McLaughlan/John McGlashan College.

2019 Shakira Mirfin/Southland Girls’ High School – Jason Nel/St Peter’s Cambridge.

2020 Aon Maadi Regatta cancelled - no boats awarded.

2021 Sophia Hodson/Sacred Heart Girls New Plymouth – Riley Wills/St Paul’s Collegiate.

2022 Pipi Horan/Dunstan High School – Marley King-Smith/Wakatipu High School.

2023 Tegan O’Dwyer/Cambridge High School – Jameson McConnochie/Tauranga Boys’ College.

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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.