More than 10,000 athletes from around 300 schools converged on Tauranga the past week to take part in the annual Anchor AIMS games. Each competitor collects not just medals and scorecards, but stories. So, too, do parents, including Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken as she tries to sample as many of the games' 21 sporting codes as possible.
Sunday - Opening Ceremonies
I bring my 13-year-old daughter, who played AIMS football the past two years, to opening ceremonies. Her 11-year-old brother is seated with his teammates, front row, centre. We watch the kapa haka group made up of intermediate-age performers from five local schools, followed by New Zealand Black Ferns rugby player Selica Winiata. She was part of the winning world cup team last month and urged athletes to look after their bodies, listen to their coaches and never ignore an injury. Rio 2016 Paralympic Games gold medallist Mary Fisher described her incredulity at not only winning the 100m backstroke event, but also setting a world record. "I had no idea what had happened, what my time was, all I knew was that I couldn't have gone a hundredth of a second faster. And that's a really incredible feeling." Fisher said it was a great joy to be at AIMS during its first year of offering para-events in cross-country and swimming.
It was my great joy to watch dance troupe J Geeks. Three shirtless, well-muscled adult men strutted, shimmied and flexed to the beat of hip-hop music. After cheering and applause dissipated, the emcee said he wasn't sure what to say, but he hoped all the mums and teachers appreciated the performance. Yes. Thank you. You can see J Geeks' routine on the AIMS website.
My son and his Mount Maunganui Intermediate football team have three games today - first at Blake Park, then Links Ave, then Macville. Weather alternates between torrential rain and grey skies. Fields are squishy; players are soaked and mud-splattered. Familiar sounds of parents and coaches punctuate soccer sidelines. "That's a great ball, you're there, mate; Whoa-oh!; Come on, talk about it; Clear it; Give him options." I mostly say, "Go! Oh! No!" I chuckle as a player from the opposing team throws the ball with a John McEnroe-like grunt. "Uuhh!" He does this twice. Mount wins, 2-1 over Bethlehem College before losing 6-0 to Rosmini College, followed by a 0-0 draw against St Peter's Auckland.
Fellow Mount parent Jake Crockford is putting in overtime, watching son Thomas play football and refereeing other games, too. He tells me he has two games today and possibly another four later this week. "Each team needs to provide a referee and I referee, so I said I can do it ... just to help out, it's a great event." Crockford says it's his first year ref-ing at AIMS. "My son did multisport last year, so this is different."
Whistles make up a big part of the AIMS soundtrack. Whistles on the soccer and rugby pitches, hockey fields, netball courts ... BEEP! BEEP! ... we'll hear them in our sleep.
We return home late afternoon to wash clothes and refuel. Rather than head out to watch evening games of basketball at ASB arena, I tune into the AIMS livestream, where the Tauranga Intermediate hip-hop team has just been awarded medals for their first-place finish. The team appears around 56 minutes into the video, wearing green sequined Coca-Cola shirts. The performance ends with a round-off/backflip.
I flick between four livestreams throughout the week and catch hockey, badminton, water polo and futsal. There's a daily highlights reel, too.
Mount Intermediate footballers have just one game today, against Whakatane. Sonya Burgraaf's son Jonty plays for Mount. She tells me all her children have competed at AIMS the past six years. "I've seen it grow and grow and grow. It's just so professionally well done now. And it's great to see for Tauranga as well. Just to see the vibe it gives is awesome." Her kids have played football and water polo and her eldest daughter tried a new code. "She knew she wouldn't get into the team for her chosen sport at the time, netball, so she looked around and decided she really, really wanted to go to AIMS games, so indoor bowls had some openings and away she went. And now it's very competitive to get in at the Mount. It's not an easy one anymore like it used to be." Each of Burgraaf's three kids spent two years in the games. "It seems to be the thing in our family is aim for the AIMS team. And even Jonty, who wasn't too sure he'd get into the football team tried out for the indoor bowls, as well," she laughs, recalling how the indoor bowls manager was "gutted" when Jonty made the football team.
We watch as a group of MMI students who aren't playing in AIMS stand on the sidelines to cheer their peers.
Trip from Northland
It's around 1.30pm when I visit ASB Arena where a man stands watching basketball while holding an iPhone. He wears earphones and speaks into a microphone. Eddie Evans from Kaitaia is a New Zealand police detective, and today, a sports commentator. "We're live streaming on Facebook to the Kaitaia AIMS Facebook so that those parents back in Kaitaia that couldn't get down are able to sit up there and watch the games."
It takes commitment from parents, players and coaches - Evans says the team has practised four months, a challenge as some students travel an hour to school each day. They've been fundraising and getting sponsorships for everything the 12-hour round-trip and five-night stay entail. "This is the second time I've come to this tournament and it's so well run and if you can get down here and watch, it's well worth doing. For the kids as well, even if they come down and don't win, it's just the experience of getting down here on such a big tournament and playing in such a well-organised event."
Evans says he there wasn't enough room at the motel where his son's team is staying, so he's sleeping in his truck. Tourism officials earlier this week told the Bay of Plenty Times the region's commercial accommodation supply will not be able to cope with growing demand from major events such as AIMS Games. A Tauranga City Council events manager said AIMS attracted more athletes than the Commonwealth Games and was one of Tauranga's biggest weeks of the year.
More Athletes, More Refs
Basketball referee manager Anne Clark's daughter played in the first AIMS games in 2004, when there were just four sporting codes, 750 athletes and only five or six basketball teams. Organisers say basketball has jumped from 75 teams last year to 97 this year, with 1164 athletes signed up to shoot hoops. Netball remains the tournament's largest code, with 1464 players registered on 122 teams. Clark helps round up around 40 basketball refs, most of whom are in Years 7 and 8, though some are Year 6. Coaching and managing basketball is something she and her husband continue to do, even though their three children are grown. "I want to see the kids play. I want to look after the referees and bring some of them through ... it's for the love of it."
Across the hall, I catch 10 minutes of girls' futsal before driving to the Queen Elizabeth Youth Centre. One side hosts table tennis, the other, badminton. I watch two girls, one from Otumoetai Intermediate, the other from Mount Intermediate, bat the white plastic ball back and forth.
Shuttlecocks fly in the large gymnasium of QEYC, where 10 courts are set for badminton. This is where Danniel Daniel from the Cook Islands is in process of winning his singles match, 31-23. Daniel clinches five of six games, making the quarter-finals. His partner made the finals. Daniel says his AIMS experience has been exciting for him and his grandfather, who came along for the trip. "It's a bit cold, but nice." It's easy to spot Cook Island supporter Jacqui Hosea, who wears a crown of plastic flowers. Hosea is supporting little sister Hannah. She says raising money to get six athletes to AIMS has been the group's biggest challenge. "Some ... this will be their second year here. Some of us has never touched a racquet before, so it's really exciting to see how far they've come."
Hosea says the tournament atmosphere is fabulous. "Starting from the opening ceremony to this moment. It's just been exciting, seeing all the kids encourage each other and even our kids encouraging other teams who've never met or made friends with but still supporting each and every one." Other international competitors have travelled from Indonesia, Tonga and Australia.
The final Tuesday stop is Baywave, to watch an AIMS first, as paraswimmers compete in the 50-metre backstroke and 50-metre freestyle. Parents Heidi and Chris Janes wait near the hydroslide for son Calais' race. The 12-year-old attends Tauranga Special School and also ran in the 800m para cross-country event Sunday, representing Tauranga Intermediate. Heidi says her son has an intellectual disability so being able to process information, communicate and compete in a noisy environment is challenging. "It's quite a new experience for him, because it's such a big event. We do a lot of talking every day, preparing him ... Even in the heats yesterday, he kept putting his head up because he could see how deep the bottom was, so that freaked him out a little bit ... it's all just a really big learning curve. For us, as well. He's our first child ever in AIMS, so it's a big deal." Dad Chris Janes says the games could open new opportunities. "If we can do more events like this, we will."
Calais swims a personal best in backstroke. Teammate Alice Sampson, aged 12, is still swimming after other competitors have finished. The crowd cheers even louder as she nears the pool's edge. Spectators erupt in "Yay!"s and "Whoo-hoo!" as she touches the wall. The last place finisher is a winner in the eyes of spectators.
Alice's mum Kerry Sampson says her daughter is paralysed on her right side and has cerebral palsy. Though she's been swimming for four years, this is the first time Alice has competed in a big event. "It's a really good opportunity for her to test herself and to see if she can cope. She's done really, really well, actually." Sampson says Alice's twin, Lilly, is playing football and hockey during the tournament and she's grateful both girls can enjoy the AIMS experience. "This year is a chance to be included, to be like her sister, to be like her peers at school ... you can't ask for anything more than that, can you?"
A total of four swimmers and seven cross-country para-athletes are taking part in AIMS for the first time. Because of the small number of competitors, boys and girls with disabilities race together. Their times are compared to the world record set at the Paralympics.
I'm working in the morning, so miss my son's early football game. Mount won 2-0 over Raroa Normal Intermediate. I decide not to nip out at midday to catch another game, figuring Master 11 might be sitting out as a sub. Of course this means he's a starter and plays the whole first half. Mount loses to Orewa College, 2-0. I make the final game that day which we win 2-0 over Mission Heights Junior College.
One of my son's friends who has recently taken up canoe slalom has turned up to Macville Park to watch soccer. Mount Intermediate Year 8 student Noah Hargreaves tells me he's enjoying his new sport. "The rolling's kind of hard, but I like it." He'll race tomorrow at McLaren Falls Park.
The armada of large white vans patrolling the Bay has become a familiar sight. Many today have their windows open and I can hear kids singing along with the radio as they pass.
The Mount football team's first game against Hutt International Boys' School ends in defeat, 2-1. Two of our players leave the field in tears, one from pain of injury, the other, from pain of loss. My heart hurts, too.
The afternoon's game, against Waiheke High School, is a 2-2 draw. The game will be decided by penalty shoot-out, best of five. One of our usual mid-fielders, Jonty Burgraaf, has offered to be goalie. My heart races much as it did during the J Geeks performance: thumpa, thumpa, thumpa ... Jonty blocks the opposition goals; four of our players bang the ball into the net. Jubilation, high-fives, hugs. The game was hard-fought and hard-won.
I check in by phone with the canoe racer's mum, Sarah Cook. She tells me Noah came seventh out of 20. "He had a really good day." Cook says her son took advantage of free pre-AIMS training from Canoe and Slalom Bay of Plenty. "He thoroughly enjoyed learning a new sport and had an awesome time out there and is thrilled with his results."
MMI boys have one more football game tomorrow. I remember what Jonty's mum, Sonya, told me several games ago when we discussed AIMS: "We need to keep this here in Tauranga. So many other successful events start in the regions and end up in the big cities. AIMS has got to stay here." Parent Brad Tong adds, "You're never more than 15 minutes away from an event. You couldn't do that in Auckland."
An economic impact study found last year's tournament injected more than $3 million into the Western Bay of Plenty and expanded the region's Gross Domestic Product by $1.98m.
Tourism officials say AIMS generated 37,500 visitor nights in both 2014 and 2015.
That number rose to 47,500 visitor nights in 2016.