It didn't matter whether taekwondo exponent Rahera Heke was going to win a medal because, in the eyes of her Flaxmere community, she was always going to be a winner.
As it turned out, the energetic 11-year-old Irongate Primary School pupil struck gold in the 11-and-under division, at the week-long ITF World Championship in Brighton, England, late last month.
While she may be oblivious to the magnitude of the impact her martial arts success is having on the community, the incentives and benefits gleaned from the mat of contention aren't lost on a girl whose flailing fists, raking kicks and grizzly grapples have earned many male peers' respect.
"It was fun. It was good to win gold. I'd like to go [overseas] again," says Heke, who before the worlds had never boarded an aeroplane before. Her mother, Hinemihi Allen, also was in the same situation before boarding the international flight.
Fourth dan black-belt instructor Ben Evans, of Hawke's Bay ITF Taekwondo School, says Heke's success will become a catalyst for Flaxmere's spiritual and physical development.
"I told her to hold her head high because win or lose, she'll still be our champion," says Evans, who returned with Heke and some of the Bay contingent on Sunday.
Heke's mother says the family is immensely proud of her daughter's achievement and it's overwhelming.
"To win the world championship [gold] was even more awesome," says Allen who admits she harboured some doubts on whether the youngster was going to go all the way. The first of 2 x 1.5-minute round bouts was easy but the second was "medium-hard" and third and fourth "harder" as her opponents pushed her into sudden-death territory in the latter two.
"But she knew what she was doing. She knew when and how to control her fights and stuff," says the mother with a laugh.
Her school conducted a powhiri at 9am yesterday before a special assembly where Hasting mayor Lawrence Yule made a speech.
"She got a taonga [gift, pounamu or greenstone] as a gift and they put all this chocolate around her, you know, how the islanders do it," says Allen. Heke also had support from Sport Hawke's Bay, which came to the party with a bag of goods for the young fighter.
Heke also receives sponsorship from Te Puni Kokiri, a state services department charged with advising the Government on policies and issues affecting Maori and seeking to harness Maori talent.
"The school also did a welcome for us at Napier airport so it was pretty big buzz," Allen says of Heke, who appeared on Maori TV on Sunday.
Heke beat her English opponent by points although Evans said the judges had warned the silver medallist.
"Rahera punched her and she fell to the floor and they warned her for falling," he says. However, boys who have faced the Bay youngster have labelled her "vicious" and not someone who "punches like a girl" at all.
"All the competitors [at the worlds] couldn't hold her strength," says Evans who feels Heke's achievements should be put in greater perspective as she was fighting in England, the host country also providing the the officials. He believes Heke came up against some parochialism.
Evans returned with a silver medal for power breaking (smashing boards with hands and feet) in the 18-35 category of a division where a country had to nominate someone.
But he almost gave the competition a miss after turning up in the afternoon to find it had started in the morning.
"I lacked motivation but my partner, [team manager] Emily Harris, got angry with me and told me to put on my uniform and go talk to the organisers," he says.
Evans listened and was surprised to accumulate 29 points to finish behind the gold medallist from Argentina who scored 42.
Nursing a recurring heel injury from 2013, the Bay man bit his bottom lip to soldier on in an event where no competitor was able to break five boards in any of the five categories. He put his reverse turning kick down to "mind over matter".
The club scooped three medals, as well as two each of gold, silver and bronze from the special needs division, which was incorporated into the worlds for the first time, thanks to a scheme instigated at Havelock North High School to help 10 Down Syndrome, autistic and cerebral palsy pupils as part of their PE assessment in 2006.
That concept mushroomed and became the basis of the inclusion of special needs taekwondo as a division of the worlds for the first time.
Tupuna Rangi, 21, of Napier, who attends Fairhaven School (Bridge Pa), claimed gold in patterns to keep his impressive run going, following on from a rash of national titles.
Aidan Pellet, 21, emulated Rangi's worlds feat with gold in patterns while fellow Napier exponent Nester Rei, 17, was runnerup to him with silver.
Johann Landkroon, 23, of Hastings, claimed a silver in patterns and in tandem with Evans clinched bronze in a mainstream combination event. Aaron Garnham-Pitcher, 21, of Hastings, won bronze in patterns.