Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Andrew Alderson: The Kiwi athletes who can do it all

Kate McIlroy will be competing in both triathlon and athletics events. Photo / Getty Images
Kate McIlroy will be competing in both triathlon and athletics events. Photo / Getty Images

The 'transitionalists' were easy to identify at school. You know the ones: the natural sportspeople who could punt a rugby ball or time a netball pass as easily as they could dash 100m or heave a shot put.

But taking those skills beyond secondary school to representative level requires special talent. Jacks (and Jills) of all trades inevitably master none. Dedicated experts are required.

It is rare to make a successful transition between sports at elite level. Yet some 2012 New Zealand Olympians have transferred their skills to another discipline within a few years to make their respective London starting lines.

Of the current crop, Steven Ferguson's story is perhaps most familiar. After representing New Zealand in breaststroke at the Sydney Games he has been a kayaking finalist in Athens and Beijing. He'll line up in the K2 1000 in London. He is the only athlete to represent New Zealand in two summer Olympic sports. Madonna Harris (cycling, cross-country skiing) and Chris Nicholson (cycling, speed skating) have crossed the summer/winter Olympic divide.

Team pursuit cyclist Jaime Nielsen has also made a significant switch, moving from rowing in 2009. Now 26, Nielsen travelled as a reserve with the rowing team in 2007, filling a spot in the eight to cover an injury at a World Cup regatta. She won gold in the quadruple sculls at under-23 world championships in 2004.

Nielsen seized on BikeNZ's Power to the Podium programme to produce women cyclists who will challenge for Olympic medals. Nielsen, Alison Shanks and Lauren Ellis get a chance to prove that mantra when the women's team pursuit debuts in London. They were ranked third in the world last season but finished fourth at April's world championships.

Nielsen says she found it tough going after her first world championships in 2009 when the team secured silver.

"On returning home and winding down, I faced this foreign, 'training as a cyclist' mentality, which was challenging. In rowing, I would turn up at the lake at given times, train with a squad of athletes and with a coach. The word 'with' was used frequently. In cycling I was sent a training programme to follow. It was difficult out training by myself."

Over time Nielsen found similarities between the sports.

"There is not too much difference mentally between powering a boat and bike. Rowing definitely helped develop my training and racing ethic. Rowing differs in that it requires more focus on technique in training and racing. However, I found myself getting more efficient as I put in the hours on the bike. Spinning at high cadence is something I've had to work on."

* * *

Karen Hanlen, a Whakatane mother-of-two, will represent New Zealand on the mountain bike. Like Nielsen and Ferguson she's shown natural sporting aptitude, once part of the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic netball development programme. In Kiwi 'can do' fashion, the 32-year-old bought her first mountain bike on Trade Me two years ago. The Whakatane Hospital physiotherapist has since risen to a world ranking of 22. Hanlen first proved adept at mountain running but one event required her to ride a bike. She liked the experience and by summer's end had won the women's division of the 72km Colville Connection race on the Coromandel Peninsula.

"I loved it and thought I would get a bit serious."

At her first attempt, Hanlen won the overall honours in the national series and finished second at the national championships behind Beijing Olympian Rosara Joseph. The result convinced Hanlen to venture overseas for four starts on the World Cup circuit.

"It was exciting but pretty daunting. I still did not know how to ride my bike properly. In the national series the tracks were quite hard but they were nothing like the World Cup tracks in Europe.

"I had to learn to go downhill over steep rocky drops. With no World Cup points I started at the back and it was difficult to make progress. But I learned quickly. I had to."

With the help of sponsors and local fundraising support she ventured back to Europe for six weeks this year and secured the Olympic berth when Joseph crashed and broke her wrist practising for the deciding World Cup race in France.

AIMING FOR THE TOP IN TWO DISCIPLINES

1. Steven Ferguson
* Swimming to canoeing
* Event: K2 1000

Came to prominence as a breaststroker at the Sydney Games before switching his speedos for a kayaking skirt.

Has threatened but never medalled with three Olympic finals appearances (two in the K2 1000 and one in the K1 500). The Piha Surf Club head coach works to the mantra "feel-technique- fitness"; 6 x 60 chin-up routines help.

2. Jaime Nielsen
* Rowing to cycling
* Event: 3000m team pursuit

Swapped the oars for the pedals in 2009. Travelled as a reserve with the New Zealand rowing team in 2007, filling a spot in the eight to cover a World Cup injury.

Had success at age group level, winning gold in the under-23 world championships quadruple sculls in 2004, aged 18.

Poster woman for BikeNZ's Power to the Podium programme to produce Olympic female cyclists.

3. Alison Shanks
* Netball and basketball to cycling
* Event: 3000m team pursuit

Represented Otago throwing balls around a court before transitioning to the bike seven years ago.

Spearheads the women's team pursuit after finishing fourth in the now Olympic-defunct individual pursuit in Beijing. Shanks is defending world champion in the individual race, having also won in 2009. The New Zealand team finished fourth at April's world championships but have medalled before.

4. Karen Hanlen
* Netball to mountain-biking
* Event: Mountain bike cross-country

Bought a mountain bike on Trade Me two years ago because she fancied a crack at multisport.

Now ranked 22 in the world.

Was once a member of the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic netball development programme.

The bumps and bruises of her sporting trade are no problem; Hanlen works as a physiotherapist at Whakatane hospital.

5. Kate McIlroy
* Athletics to triathlon
* Event: Triathlon

Transferred from the steeplechase at the end of 2008 after missing the Beijing Olympics with an Achilles tendon injury. Joined a triathlon swim squad to keep fit and got sponsored a bike by a bloke called Nigel at On Yer Bike. Result? McIlroy's now the world's 24th-ranked athlete about to compete for a medal in Hyde Park. Has monitored a tight left calf muscle in the lead-up.

6. Richie Patterson
* Rugby to weightlifting
* Event: 85kg class

Flies to London on July 22 for the first time since playing halfback for the Auckland Grammar first XV on a rugby tour to Britain 12 years ago.

Flicking a ball from the base of a scrum contrasts sharply with striding onto a platform, dusting the hands with chalk and staring down a disc-laden barbell.

However, his watchwords don't change: rhythm and speed.

7. Erin Taylor
* Surf lifesaving to kayaking
* Event: K2 500

Became New Zealand's first female Olympic kayaker at Beijing. Joins Carrington in the K2 boat at London.

Had a watersport background - swam competitively until age 13, followed that with surf lifesaving at the Red Beach club.

Vaughan Skiffington, who used to coach her at Red Beach, says Taylor's modest and shy exterior masks a steely self-belief and determination.

8. Andrea Hewitt
* Surf lifesaving and swimming to triathlon
* Event: Triathlon

Congratulate former coach John Hellemans if Hewitt is the first New Zealand triathlete to win an Olympic medal. Hellemans was recruited to train Hewitt for the 2005 Coast-to-Coast. The deal? Race a triathlon as payment. Later that year Hewitt became the under-23 world champion in Japan. She's now the world's top-ranked triathlete.

9. Lisa Carrington
* Surf lifesaving to kayaking
* Event: K1 200, K2 500

Attended a canoe racing development camp in 2007 following encouragement from her dad. Became the first NZ female world champion in the sport with victory last year in Hungary. Grew up in the Bay of Plenty surf. Still attends a couple of carnivals each summer and has been the national surf ski champion.

10. Rebecca Rolls
* Cricket to football
* Event: Football

Returned to the Football Ferns more than 16 years after collecting the last of her 11 caps as a goalkeeper. Debuting in 1994, the 36-year-old had a 10-year career as wicketkeeper for the White Ferns including 104 one-day internationals, a test and two T20s.

Played in three World Cups.

At London she will play back-up to Jenny Bindon.

- Herald on Sunday

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