Gisborne is an area long recognized for its beautiful beaches, amazing coastline and great weather. This weekend it will play host to some of the best triathlon talent in this part of the world with the hosting of the Sovereign Oceania Triathlon Championships, with New Zealand and Australia set to go head to head in all elite divisions of racing.
New Zealand will have over 50 athletes wearing the silver fern across the Junior (U19), U23 and Elite categories, with all elite racing taking place on the Saturday at Churchill Park, headquarters for the entire weekend of racing including age group and fun events on the Sunday.
Leading the way in the elite men will be Sam Ward (Auckland) and 2015 Oceania Sprint Triathlon Champion Sam Osborne (Rotorua), while former multi-sport champion Braden Currie (Wanaka) will enjoy the longer standard distance and surf swim as he continues his efforts to make inroads in ITU racing. Ward is still in the U23 category but will be looking to mix it at the front of the field in a race that combines U23 and elites on the same start line.
In the elite women look for Simone Ackermann (Auckland) and Deb Lynch (Porirua) to feature for the Kiwis. Ackermann ended 2015 ranked 50 in the world in her first full campaign amongst the elite ranks, highlighted by a career best 10th place at the Auckland World Series race and a 26th place finish at the season ending Grand Final in Chicago and a silver in the 2015 Oceania Championships, her battle with leading Aussie Emma Moffatt will be a feature of the women's event.
Triathlon New Zealand High Performance Manager Graeme Maw anticipates a great weekend of racing.
"We're delighted to be hosting the Sovereign Oceania Championships this year, and to welcome our friends from Australia in what is a big year with Rio on the horizon. We know the rivalry is good for all of us at all levels of the pathway. This particularly is a great opportunity tailored to some of our emerging Squad to benchmark the progress they have undoubtedly made during summer. While it can help cement our Olympic spots, the focus is on stretching them to their best individual ability."
The New Zealand team will be missing Sophie Corbidge (Auckland) and Tayler Reid (Gisborne) this weekend however, with illness and injury respectively robbing them of their chances to chase Oceania glory.
Fynn Thompson (Queenstown), Cooper Rand (Auckland), Zac Barber (Christchurch) and Jay Wallwork (Auckland) join Sam Ward in the U23 men's race, with Thompson a former member of the Tri NZ National Talent Squad. Ward's battle with leading Australian Jacob Birtwhistle will be a feature of the race, the two have been banging heads throughout their careers in Juniors and U23's and Saturday will add yet another chapter in that story. Again all will relish the chance to mix it on the same start line as the elite men.
The Juniors will provide some great highlights in their stand-alone races on the Saturday morning. Large fields racing under ITU draft legal conditions will make for a fascinating spectacle over the sprint distance. Leading the way for the Kiwis against a strong Australian contingent will be all the medalists from the New Zealand Junior championships earlier this summer, headlined by winners Liam Ward (Auckland) and Katherine Badham (North Harbour). Watch also for Dan Hoy (Auckland) and Lizzie Stannard (Palmerston North), as they look to build on good recent form, all are in the Tri NZ National Talent Squad and will relish the chance to go up against each other on such a race day, as well as the strong Australian team.
The young Aussies and Kiwis will then return on Sunday for the Mixed Junior Team Relay races in the afternoon, with multiple teams racing flat out over a super sprint distance in a tag team relay format to the finish line, a format that is hugely popular with the athletes, but will also be a highlight for the spectators.
The hosting of the event on New Zealand shores was only made possible thanks to the support of Tri NZ partner Sovereign in conjunction with TMS Sport and Eastland Tri Club, with CEO Craig Waugh acknowledging that contribution.
"It is vital for Triathlon to host pinnacle events here in New Zealand, giving leading athletes the chance to race on home soil but also to inspire others either into the sport or into healthier lifestyles through that firsthand example. It is thanks to the commitment of event organizer Terry Sheldrake and the support of Sovereign that Gisborne will get to host this event, and in doing so give our leading athletes that race at home but also for the sport to have an impact on our communities, in particular the Gisborne and wider East Coast region in this case."
Adding to the interest in the elite races is the prospect of earning Oceania Wildcard spots at the Rio Olympic Games. While a complicated formula, essentially an athlete can book his or her country's third quota spot in Rio with victory on Saturday (note that this does not earn the individual athlete a spot on the start line). However, the athlete must not already have qualified for Rio by virtue of meeting ITU criteria, and must also meet their National Association standards, therefore eliminating athletes such as the already qualified Andrea Hewitt from the picture.
"Of course it will be good to win the elite men's or women's races and with it Olympic spots," said Maw. "But we will only fill these if athletes themselves then meet the high bar through World Triathlon Series racing, Saturday is just one part of that picture."