His mother wanted him to learn how to swim but Ben Stephenson didn't "really like it" when he was 5 years old.

Two years later all that changed and early this month the 11-year-old from Napier picked up two gold medals and a bronze in swimming and canoe slalom in his first entry to the annual NZCT Aims Games International Sporting Championship in Tauranga.

So what did it for the first-year Taradale Intermediate School pupil who graduated from the Learn to Swim classes to a competitive squad?

It wasn't the swim manual rituals of wet your face, blow bubbles under water or any other such technical tidbits that did it.


For Stephenson it was simply an act of affection.

"I had a swim instructor who would cuddle me so I learned to swim properly," says the youngster who returned from the week-long games with a gold medal in the 200m backstroke in Mt Maunganui, a similar denomination in the canoe slalom team event and a bronze in the individual category at the McLaren Falls Park along the Kaimais.

The Greendale Swimming Club member, who retired Noel Hardgrave-Booth coached for three years, also is partial to butterfly over 100m but he had to settle for fourth place.

Stephenson has been competing at the New Zealand Age Group Championship (Nags) since he was 9 and his best finish at the nationals came last year in Wellington where he finished sixth in the backstroke 100m race.

"It's quite hard for me because I've moved up to a higher grade with older and taller kids."

The swimming protege of Gary Knight took to canoe slalom early this year when school canoe polo coach Kirstin Demanser-Wilson remarked he was a good paddler.

Stephenson only took up canoe slalom in June after NZ under-21 development squad member Casey Hales started coaching him.

"It's really fun. I like the water so it's a good sport for me.


"You're in a boat so you don't use your legs. You just use your arms and your upper body strength," he says, describing his upper torso as "pretty muscly" due to his swimming.

His mother, Tracy, a Mr Apple employee, doesn't swim and father Rob, a factory manager, did a little but not competitively.

Stephenson's sister Danielle, 15, of Taradale High School, did swim from the time she was 7 but got bored and quit.

He is looking forward to next year's Aims Games, the marquee sport gathering for intermediate schools in the country, because it's an Oceania event that lures competitors from Cook Islands, Fiji and, hopefully next year, from Australia.

Next year the Bay under-13 hockey representative hopes to qualify for the Youth Olympics based on listening to his coaches and training hard.

Jake Stephens, 11, won two Aims gold medals in 200m breaststroke and 200m individual medley (IM) events.

The first-year Lindisfarne College pupil claimed silver in 200m freestyle.

Tamatea Intermediate second-year pupil Joe Avison returned with five medals.

The 13-year-old won gold in 200m freestyle, bronze in 100m freestyle, silver in 100m IM, the same denomination in 50m breastroke and bronze in 200m breastroke.

Te-Ahu Lee, 13, a second-year at Taradale Intermediate, collected bronze in the 100m breaststroke.

Mahina Ross, a second-year pupil at Tamatea Intermediate, claimed silver in the girls' 200m IM and two bronze medals in the 100m and 200m freestyle events.
Ross, in her second Aims Games, didn't like swimming either.

"Last year I didn't care but this year I wanted to do better," she says, revealing she didn't succeed last year because she didn't race much.

However, joining Westshore Surf Lifesaving Club and two golds at ocean swims in Tauranga in the national under-12 grade prompted a revival.

"I was increasing my swimming this year for surf lifesaving next year but now I want to go to Nags early next year," says the youngster whose teacher parents Greg (Karamu High) and Kaye (Hukarere School) are triathletes.

"I just want to keep on getting better and see where it takes me," says the Napier Aquahawk member who receives coaching from Karen Kamper with Hardgrave-Booth helping out.