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Olympic Top Town: Number four - Taumarunui

As part of our comprehensive build-up to Rio 2016, the Herald, in association with ANZ, is counting down New Zealand's top Olympic towns. Today, number four - Taumarunui. Find out how the list was compiled below.

It wasn't No.8 wire, but New Zealand's only quadruple Olympic gold medallist Ian Ferguson thanks Taumarunui's corrugated iron and tar as the catalyst for his kayaking success.

Growing up about 100m from the banks of the Whanganui River until he was nine, Ferguson was drawn to the water. That involved channelling his inner Macgyver to build a maiden voyager.

"We couldn't afford a kayak, so I made one out of old corrugated iron and used tar off the road to putty up the holes. I bent it into shape ... but it sank to the bottom in the end."

It's not exactly Peter Snell's elusive singlet, but the budding Kelly Tarltons among you might fancy diving for a sporting treasure.

Ferguson was also a boy for all seasons.

"I'd swim in the river during the middle of winter, chase goats along the bank and - without the local farmers' knowledge - my brother and I would 'borrow' their horses to ride around bareback. It was a bit scary because I was only young. Kids can't do that these days.

"My mother worried a few times that I might've drowned. One time most of the town was out looking for me, but I'd disappeared with my uncle in his truck. We'd shot off to get some sheep."

Ferguson learned to swim in the local primary school baths and years later became a national surf lifesaving champion. He believes the talent was in his genes.

"Both my boys were also champion swimmers and surf lifesavers."

His family moved to Palmerston North, before Ferguson went to university in Wellington and, once his paddling got serious, Auckland.

"Lake Pupuke had good water and was a lot warmer for winter training."

The 64-year-old first created a stir when he, along with fellow paddlers Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker and pentathlete Brian Newth, ignored the National government's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. They believed the stance was hypocritical.

"We weren't being funded, and the government recommended we didn't go. They didn't support us, but we went anyway.

"Sport and politics shouldn't mix. They kept trading with Russia too. Some big deals were signed around that time.

"We had to be self-motivated to raise the money to get there, much like at Montreal. It blows your mind being at the Games. It inspires you."

New Zealand kayaking came to the fore at the next Olympics on California's Lake Casitas. Ferguson, Thompson, Paul MacDonald and Grant Bramwell delivered four gold medals.

"It was a life-changer," Ferguson said. "We thought 'we can do this, it's ours'. We were stronger than anyone and wanted it more, even though we weren't supported as much as other countries."

Ferguson said the Soviet-led boycott from the 1984 Los Angeles Games had little impact on their feats. He and MacDonald backed up the following year with a K-2 500m world championship in Belgium against the Eastern bloc.

Ferguson won a gold and silver with MacDonald in Seoul and returned for a then New Zealand-record fifth Games at Barcelona in 1992.

His retirement allowed him concentrate on his Ferg's Kayaks business which he ran for 25 years on Auckland's waterfront. He is now operations manager at Manukau's Wero Whitewater Park, a $37 million project he organised after being inspired by the canoe slalom course at the Sydney Olympics. The park opened in April.

How the trunk line town was put on the Olympic map

Taumarunui was once celebrated as the perfect place to jump off the train on the main trunk line, use your 'King Country elbows' to negotiate the queue for a pie and a cup of tea, and sprint for your carriage when the conductor blew his whistle.

Homegrown Olympic medallists Ben Fouhy and Ian Ferguson proved the town, via the Whanganui River winding through it, was also ideal as a breeding ground to earn Olympic medals.

Taumarunui finished fourth on our list of top Olympic towns.

"The water generally didn't get too big and it was a good place to learn to swim at the various swimming holes," Ferguson said.

Ron Hawkless runs Taumarunui Canoe Hire and Jet Boat Tours and has lived his entire 50 years on the river. He recounts Fouhy's dedication.

"He used to practice on the top end and we often passed him in a jet boat. He'd go downstream and come back against the current.

"He'd head from Taumarunui to Ohinepane, which would take a normal person about three-and-a-half hours, then turn around and go against the current through a number of rapids.

Hawkless said his business got into full flow in 2008, as tourism grew as an industry.

"Early last century there was no road through National Park, so people would come from Auckland to Taumarunui by train, hop on a river boat, and carry on to Wellington from the other end. A century later the river's coming back to life with people kayaking, tubing, fishing and jet boating.

"It was mainly a farming community when I was young. We saw everyone on a Friday night downtown. That's where it all happened."

When Hawkless' wife injured herself on the farm, the woman from the Accident Compensation Corporation helping her said she was selling her [part-time] adventure business. They were advised to get into the canoeing trade.

"Tourism is the answer in Taumarunui," Hawkless said.

"They did an upgrade on the sewerage system in town a few years back and the river started getting cleaner, it must've been leaching out before that. You can catch a fish in half an hour these days.

"At the top end, the river effectively starts at Taumarunui with cafes on the way. Last year our numbers must have been up 20 per cent compared to around 5 per cent in previous years."

However, it took Fouhy and Ferguson to put the town on New Zealand's Olympic map.

How we did it

We analysed information about every summer Games medallist to come up with the 10 towns that have made the biggest contribution to Olympic glory.

The final position is the result of combining two rankings. The gold rank is based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population.

The Olympic rank is based on the number of medal-winning Olympians born in each town and city, divided by current population. We averaged the rankings to come up with the final position.

Today's town, Taumarunui, is fourth on the ladder. It's the birthplace of two Olympians who have won six medals, including four golds. Its gold rank is one and its Olympic rank six, giving an average of 3.5.

The method isn't scientific and we expect it to prompt debate. We know some athletes might identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born.

But our ranking gives a strong indication of the places that have given us greatest cause to celebrate Olympic success since Harry Kerr won New Zealand's first medal - a bronze in the 3500m walk at the 1908 Games in London.

- NZ Herald

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