"We are changing the perception of what multisporters look like," Frank Haimona roars with laughter. "Some of our guys are 150kg - these are ex-Blues and Chiefs props - they are not your typical athletic types."
Haimona is working with health education provider Toi Tangata to help a group of predominantly Maori athletes get to the South Island Coast-to-Coast held in February each year. Among the 70-strong group are 12 parents, students and teachers from Te Kura Kaupapa O Kaikohe (Kaikohe School) - led by their enigmatic 60-year-old-plus principal Marea Timoko, returning to Coast-to-Coast for her second year.
The athletes will participate in a number of milestone events in the lead-up to the gruelling two-day multisport race.
Haimona believes multisport is a natural avenue for Maori to engage with the environment. "Maori used to do what is essentially multisport back in the day. It wasn't a sport, but if they wanted to go anywhere, they had to jump in a waka, run up a hill. We have a particular affiliation with the Coast-to-Coast course because it pretty much follows an old route Maori used to collect pounamu [jade] from the Arahura River, but in reverse. Last year, some of our people paused at the top of the mountain and performed karakia [prayer] in the middle of the race."
With almost two decades of multisport association, both as a fierce competitor and facilitating the experience through his company, Time2Train, Haimona is passionate about introducing people to the sport.
"We started working with Richard Ussher to bring more international athletes to the event. We rented equipment and gear to them, organised logistics, ran them over the course in the week before and provided support crews on event day - it's pretty hard to check a 6m kayak on a flight from Los Angeles!
"We also offered training camps with the likes of triathlete Cameron Brown, paddler Dave Oosterdijk and cyclist Blair Cox. Pretty quickly we realised that North Islanders were keen to use our service, and it's grown from there - we are looking at capping numbers for the 2017 event."
Toi Tangata programme manager Callie Corrigan is equally excited about the journey her athletes are undertaking. "For Maori, the mountain bike, the run or the kayak are just a modality. Exercise is a by-product of what we are trying to achieve. We speak with pride about our connection to the land, but we have lost that connection. I ask people: have you been to your mountain? Your river? Your forest? Exercise is a good reason to get outside, but it's not the key reason. The key reason is to reconnect with our environment and our genealogy."
The Nugget Multisport Festival in Waihi on May 7 is the first event the Time2Train athletes will participate in as they prepare for Coast-to-Coast. Around 40 athletes will converge at a local marae for the weekend. For some, this will be their first competitive experience and Haimona is encouraging: "It's about giving it a go. The great thing with multisport is you don't have to do it all yourself - you can be part of a team. I tell my guys to have a really solid mindset and show themselves what they can do."
With a cadre of athletes from beginners to elite, Haimona says keep a lookout for young Kona Hippolite: "At 17 she is an outstanding athlete and I think we could see great things from her on the multisport circuit."
The Nugget Multisport Festival Waihi
What: Multisport; Duathlon; 21km, 10km, 5km run or walk
When: Saturday, May 7
For more information: www.thenugget.co.nz