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New Zealand Women’s Rafting Team Competing at the World Championships in Costa Rica

Nikki Kelly and the New Zealand women's rafting team at the World Championships in Costa Rica wearing their Girls4Sport UV sun-protective rash guards

BY NIKKI KELLY

On September 27th, we began our campaign for the World Championship.  After six months of preparation, we were finally on our way.  Leaving the comforts of New Zealand, we arrived in Costa Rica, excited to be traveling as a team again and exploring a place so different from home.  Luscious is one world to describe the country side, green thick rainforest as far as the eye can see.

After more than two days of aeroplanes and airports, we arrived at camp, the place they called the Eco Village, later renamed camp bleak.   After experiencing 24 hours living in camp bleak, we all agreed that staying there for two weeks would mean certain sickness.  We hitched a ride with the Slovenian and the USA men’s team to their pre-arranged accommodations of Buena Vista, a small organic farm tucked up high in the rain forest, overlooking a smoking volcano.  It was an absolute paradise, and all for less money than what it cost to stay at camp bleak.  We never left Buena Vista, agreeing to pay out of our own pockets so as to have the best chance of performing with good rest and food.

Training days were long and exhausting.   A typical day went like this: on the road driving by 7:30 a.m., walking by 8:30 a.m. to reach the river by 9:30 a.m.   A dirt road was built so this competition could be held on the challenging rapids of the Upper Pacuare gorge, but their transport could not drive down it, so we had to walk downhill for an hour every day for two weeks.  It was beautiful and we love being fit, but combined with all the training and heat, it felt like we had had a full day before we even got on the water.   Once we reached the river, we zip lined our boat across to the other side and then pulled and pushed and lifted our raft another kilometre up stream to the starting line.  Eco challenge here we come. We finally put our paddles into the water by 11 a.m.   The sprint head-to-head and slalom were all there for us to train on in the first kilometre before we paddled the down river section.   Because of the difficulty of getting boats back up stream, we tried really hard to nail the rapids perfectly, otherwise we would have to push and pull the raft through the rain forest.  We had a quick lunch break, to give the brain a rest, recoup and prepare for the challenge of the class five rapids below – an hour to hour-and-a-half section.  This was where all the hard work of the day was forgotten, because these rapids were so fun, bouncy, challenging… It was a continuous roller coaster ride and we loved it.  This type of white water is where the kiwis shine. We are white water girls, and class five is where we feel most at home.

Nikki Kelly and the other kiwis waiting for Head-to-Head start to be decided

After six days training and two days off, the competition started.  Day one was the sprint race:  a two minute race to win our first points and seed teams for the head-to-head race.   We came in third, a respectable position since we didn’t have a completely perfect race.   Happy with that, we prepared for day two and the head-to-head race.  This is typically the most exciting spectator event as two teams battle it out at once—a knock out event—with the last ones standing winning the full 200 points.  This was one of our strongest races as we are the fastest and most powerful off the mark.  Unfortunately they chose the starting place the morning of the event, and what they decided on did not play into our favour.  The race was won or lost in the first five paddle strokes.  With no real length of run to make up ground, the pole position meant a sure win.   This is always a hard race for organisers to get a fair start in, but one that in the past we often win no matter which side we start on.  We made good in our first head-to-head, but our second run was against the Japanese women, and they had pole position, so we faced the unrealistic challenge of beating them from the slower lane.  We might have had the power to beat them, but we came into contact with their boat too soon, and we needed to keep a straighter line for longer to have a chance.   It was disappointing on our behalf, but we still came in fifth, which gave us good points to go forward with.                               .

Day three, slalom.  We have worked hard back in New Zealand to improve our slalom racing and it paid off.  We had one of our best slalom runs in our history on a course that challenges the best in the world.  We likened it to being on a thoroughbred horse, lightning fast and without a paddle stroke wrong.   What a feeling at the finish line! We were hugging each other and just so elated.  What a run! We knew for sure we would be placed second, maybe even first if the Czech Republic ladies made a mistake.  We were so, so happy with the full team effort.  This is where our world championships fell apart.  Not expecting any problems, the results were posted and we discovered we got third place.  We had been given 50 second penalty at gate 13. We protested but it fell on deaf ears.  So many things could have changed our fate, one of them being if only the Italian judge on gate 13 would have let us looked at his clip board.  We would have seen right then and there that a misprint was what caused the 50 second extra points, they would have had to listened to us.   A five second penalty was what the judge gave us, but it was written by somebody else as a 50, and with the organiser failing to check their work, we were powerless.  It was not a nice feeling; horrible in fact.  And from there, we lost the points of second place as well as the pole position for the start of the down river race.

Day four was the down river, the race that is worth the most points.  We were up against the Czech Republic woman, who had our pole position.  Again, the organiser put little effort into finding a starting line that would be close to fair.  No teams were able to contest the start, so who ever had pole had the lead all the way to the end.  We almost passed the Czech Republic twice, coming down on them in the class five rapids, almost landing on top of them, but just not able to get through.  Then the race exited the tight walls of the gorge into a long, 30 minutes of class-two flat water, where passing proved unrealistic.  As we watched the Czech Republic woman move from within our grasp – the world title drifted from our reach, and with a less than desirable run through the easy rapids we dropped our time to fourth place by two seconds.  That two seconds cost us third place overall, another disappointment, this time on our own performance.   We were there to win, not get third.   If we had had the pole position then it would have been the Czech girls unable to pass us and things again could have been different.   So that was us: deflated, gutted and sad that we had let our sponsor and our country down.

Moving forward, there is fire in our belly, and wherever the next worlds are held – possibly New Zealand if the bid is accepted – we will be at the starting line again, ready to paddle our hearts out.  We have things we can work on to improve our performance, and that is what keeps us interested, not to mention that elusive gold medal!

We cannot thank our sponsors enough.   Their belief in us is what gives us that extra something.  We take our responsibility seriously and will endeavour to bring home the World Championship title.

Big shout out to all those in Costa Rica that made our trip so memorable, and to the girls for all the laughter and banter.  While staying at Buena Vista, we made great friends with the Slovenian men and were able to shock the USA men on numerous occasions. Big thanks to Annabel and Mark, our host, taking such good care of us, lovely food and hospitality; we will always remember them for giving us such a special Costa Rican experience.  Also to Gustavo, our driver who was with us every day making smooth transitions from river to home, and who kindly lowered his price so we could afford his much needed service.   The locals are awesome!

Nikki Kelly is a world-class white water rafter and kayaker.  She holds several World Championship titles and has completed several first descents.  She lives in Rotorua, New Zealand with her partner and young son. 

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