It’s been a series of unexpected highs and lows for Holly Chaafe.

 

This time last year Holly Chaafe was getting constant pings on her phone.

She was at Lake Ruataniwha for NZ Championships and the alerts were coming in scary frequency from the Karekare Volunteer Fire Brigade at the height of Cyclone Gabrielle.

She’d been a volunteer with the brigade for a couple of years and was in a state of anxiety worrying about her parents’ home as well as the destruction of her community. The next-door neighbours’ house slid down the hill, and two firefighters from Muriwai, just a few kilometres north, had been killed in a landslide.

It’s a year since one of the most devastating natural disasters in New Zealand history.

Once again Holly finds herself at NZ Champs and on the first morning of finals she rowed herself into another bit of history, winning the Women’s Under 22 Single Sculls in 7.52.92.

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Holly Chaafe form West End Rowing Club after winning the U22 single sculls at 2024 NZ Rowing Championships. Photo: Picture Show Ltd. 

“I didn't see this happening at the start of the season,” she says. “I'm the only senior girl at West End, and we don't even have that many senior boys at all so I didn't really have much confidence in my season.”

Holly had an exceptional row, holding off a couple of concerted moves from Star’s Mackenzie Tuffin to win by just under three seconds. Freddy Todhunter, the Under 18 champion from last year’s Aon Maadi Regatta also had a massive race to finish third (7.56.93).

Getting to this point's been a big test of resilience for Holly.

“A couple of weeks after Nationals [in 2020], I crashed my car and broke my arm, then lockdown happened so I came out of my cast, and they just let me go. [When] I came back five weeks later my bone had collapsed.”

She had to wait nine months for surgery.
In the meantime, the pain was okay but her “arm was just stuck, I couldn’t rotate it so I couldn’t hold onto an oar”.

She had the operation that November then got busy.

“Four weeks after surgery, I was like, ‘I'm gonna row now’, because if I wanted to do Nationals I had to start rowing. I didn't really want to miss, I'd never missed a season, so I just made myself row.”

That December, she got a great incentive to keep going. Her parents and grandparents chipped in to buy her a brand new Laszlo single. Holly was also supposed to put in some money but hasn’t been able to repay that portion yet.

The boat arrived on Christmas Day. She named it Waikarekare, christened with seawater from the beach made famous by Jane Campion’s Academy Award winning film ‘The Piano’.

Now she’s national champion in the Under 22s. But she won’t be off to U23 trials next week.

“I wasn't really sure how I was gonna go, so I didn't nominate myself. I don't mind too much. I’m happy. Being picked for the Prem Draft Quad and winning the single race is more than I thought would happen at the start of the season.”

 

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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.