A moment of incredible bravery that cost a young woman her life, a man who rebuilt homes and lives in the earthquake aftermath and a sports star who stood up to defend others — who has captured your imagination this year?

We want to know so we can recognise those who have made a remarkable difference.
For more than 25 years, the New Zealand Herald has honoured those who make our country a better place, with our annual New Zealander of the Year award.

This year, for the third time, we are running a People's Choice Award to allow us to pay tribute to the inspiring stories in our communities — and give you the chance to vote for your favourite.

Today we reveal our 10 nominees and tell their stories. They include a woman who has dedicated herself to helping others, an iwi leader who took on the corridors of power, and a policeman who went above and beyond the call of duty to save others.


Last year's winner was Steve Askin, an ex-SAS soldier who lost his life battling an unprecedented blaze in Christchurch's Port Hills. More than 5600 people voted and Steve's proud widow Elizabeth admitted he would probably be the only one mortified by the recognition.

The year before Nina Griffiths — only 18 at the time — was the winner after she led her town on a crusade against youth suicide and mental health.

It is precisely those ideals of selflessness, humility, bravery and dedication to this country and its people that make this award what it is.

The Weekend Herald is proud and privileged to tell these stories — and now it's up to you. Voting is open for one week only, so get your vote in before midnight next Saturday, December 15.

The winner will be announced when we unveil our New Zealander of the Year in the Weekend Herald on December 29.

The survivors of recidivist rapist Colin Jack Mitchell

In May Colin Mitchell was jailed indefinitely for kidnapping a woman and assaulting her at a West Auckland quarry - and for the previously unsolved rape of a young mother making her way home from a music gig in 1992.

After he was sentenced the Herald revealed the stories of two other women Mitchell had viciously raped in the 70s and 80s.

Without the bravery of these four women speaking up, going through the court process and telling their stories, Mitchell may have remained free to continue his offending - described as disturbing and horrendous.


The first woman to survive Mitchell is now helping to guide some of the others through the daunting and often dark process of justice - and healing.

"As survivors, we spend our lives distancing ourselves from what happened," she said.

"It's not as though we chose this direction in life.

"The direction our lives took was imposed by a man who is an opportunistic predator.

"However we chose survival in whatever form that takes".

She said the nomination belonged to "all women" who have survived predators like Mitchell.


"We're not statistics; we're daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and grandmothers," she said.

"The sad fact is we're not the first women in this position and we won't be the last; that is both a tragedy and travesty."

Rachael de Jong

Rachael De Jong drowned in the Waikato River after helping save her friends. Photo / Supplied.
Rachael De Jong drowned in the Waikato River after helping save her friends. Photo / Supplied.

Rachael de Jong was safe.

She dived across the Aratiatia Rapids to escape the water, which turned from tranquil to torrential as the dam 200 metres upstream opened wide.

Horrified tourists could do nothing but watch as the physiotherapy student and her friends leaped for their lives, one by one, as the water rose around them

Once across, the 21-year-old could have moved out of harm's way.


But Rachael stayed to help her friends until only one remained; trapped on a rock in the middle of the raging current.

Arms outstretched, the young woman dives into the water.

Video footage shows Rachael grab hold of her, slip, then turn to grab the rock.

Both friends disappear from view down the rapids, described by the survivors as like a "washing machine".

But Rachael didn't make it to the surface.

"It is clear that Rachael jumped into the water to try to help one of her party but tragically got swept away," Coroner Wallace Bain wrote in his findings first reported by the Weekend Herald in September.


"It is likely that but for this brave act, she might still be with us."

Her father Kevin de Jong was hopeful Mercury Energy, the Taupo District Council, the Waikato Regional Council and the Department of Conservation would heed the Coroner's recommendations following Rachael's death.

The memory of his daughter's selflessness and bravery brought mixed emotions of pain and pride.

"I've got tears in my eyes."

Read more: Swept Away - The wonderful life and tragic death of Rachael de Jong

Angelo Brown

Angelo Brown said he didn't feel like a hero after leaping to the rescue. Photo / Supplied
Angelo Brown said he didn't feel like a hero after leaping to the rescue. Photo / Supplied

When a young woman fainted on to the railway tracks as a train approached in Upper Hutt, Angelo Brown didn't think twice before leaping to the rescue.


Brown noticed the woman swaying on the spot before passing out and falling on to the tracks at Upper Hutt Station in October.

"My initial thought was 'just get in there and move her before the trains hits'," he told the Herald.

Brown gave no thought to the potential danger as he jumped into the rail corridor to pull the woman out of harm's way.

He tried to pull her back on to the platform but, running out of time, moved her to the side of the tracks instead, not knowing how fast the train was going or when it would stop.

Fortunately, the train was able to stop about 20m short of the spot where the woman fell.

The woman regained consciousness a short time after the incident and was able to laugh and joke with Brown and other rescuers.

He stayed in touch with her afterwards and received grateful messages from her family members.

"I've got a lot of people calling me a hero but to be quite honest I wouldn't call myself a hero," he said.


The Rocket Lab team

The Rocket Lab team, pictured at their newly opened production facility in Mt Wellington, Auckland, has had a stellar year. Photo / Supplied
The Rocket Lab team, pictured at their newly opened production facility in Mt Wellington, Auckland, has had a stellar year. Photo / Supplied

Twelve years ago, Rocket Lab was a fledgling little firm founded by a starry-eyed young innovator many dismissed as overly fanciful.

Two years later, Peter Beck's firm became the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space, having shot a prototype from Great Mercury Island.

But 2018 has proven the most stellar year yet for Rocket Lab – now a globally-recognised player domiciled in the United States, backed by major investors including Lockheed Martin.

As Beck recently pointed out, the company's success story was a reflection of the hard work and innovation of his 350-strong team, most of it based in Auckland.

"Generally it's countries that go to space - not companies."

Rocket Lab has already reached its goal of putting small commercial satellites into orbit for a fraction of the cost of established operations.


Last month, Rocket Lab's Electron rocket reached orbit for the second time this year, deploying seven satellites in its first fully commercial launch.

The Electron itself was the jewel in the company's crown – and every detail of it had been designed to provide small satellites with rapid, reliable and affordable access to space.

The world's first fully carbon composite orbital launch vehicle, it was powered by 3D printed, electric pump-fed engines.

The two-stage vehicle capable of delivering payloads of 150kg to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit – and its success this year was met with adulation from the world's space community.

The year also saw the opening of Rocket Lab's new factory in Mt Wellington - a 7500sq m space housing a Mission Control Centre, which would oversee future flights.

Sixteen flights were planned for next year and, by 2020, the company aimed to launch a rocket each week.


Sergeant Rob Pierce

Sergeant Rob Pierce. Photo / Alan Gibson
Sergeant Rob Pierce. Photo / Alan Gibson

Coming up behind a truck travelling at 60km/h on a 100km/h stretch of Te Awamutu road, local Sergeant Rob Pierce knew something was amiss.

Deciding to overtake the truck he saw the car. Pulling up alongside, he could see the driver was gazing straight ahead, oblivious to his surroundings.

The car then veers across the road.

Pierce knew he had to do something, a manoeuvre he'd never tried before, but it was the option he could come up with that he knew might just work.

He overtook the car, positioned his patrol car in front of it and eventually managed to slow it down, veering it to the left-hand side of the road.

He pulled the keys out of the ignition and discovered the 62-year-old Waikato man behind the wheel was suffering a seizure.


Speaking to the Herald this week, Pierce said he'd caught up with the man after the incident and said he was now doing well.

"He's doing really well and they've got on top of his medical thing so he's all good now. It was a good result, really."

As for pulling off the manoeuvre, Pierce said it wasn't something they normally performed or were trained to perform.

"It's not something they really train us for, it's not something they really want us doing to be fair. We were quite lucky to get away with so little damage to either of the cars really so it was good."

Pierce, a police officer of 25 years, was humbled by his nomination but insisted it was just part of the job and he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Edward Ashby

Edward Ashby, who, as executive manager of Te Kawerau ā Maki, led the iwi's brave move to impose a rahui over Auckland's Waitakere Ranges to fight kauri dieback disease. Photo / Supplied
Edward Ashby, who, as executive manager of Te Kawerau ā Maki, led the iwi's brave move to impose a rahui over Auckland's Waitakere Ranges to fight kauri dieback disease. Photo / Supplied

When rates of a kauri-killing disease in Auckland's Waitākere Ranges jumped dramatically, one iwi decided it had to take a stand.


"As mana whenua, we felt an obligation to act," said Edward Ashby, who, as executive manager of Te Kawerau ā Maki, led the iwi's brave step to impose a rahui over the popular regional park.

The iwi had grown increasingly anxious over the spread of kauri dieback – and moved to act when a report to Auckland Council showed the rate of infected trees in the 16,000ha park had soared from 8 per cent five years ago to 19 per cent now.

With infection rates concentrated around where people walked, its rahui aimed to keep visitors from dispersing the disease with their muddy boots, just as the busy summer season was entering full-swing.

"At the time, we didn't know we'd do it, or how it would work – but we knew we had to do this for the forest, and for the community, so this taonga would still be there when the next generation came along."

Because the ban couldn't be enforced, Ashby, along with the Tree Council, the Waitākere Ranges Protection Society and Forest & Bird, appealed to Auckland Council for a Controlled Area Notice.

Initially, councillors opted against a park-wide closure in favour of shutting specific tracks and areas that were affected.


A few months later, as pressure mounted, the council voted to close much of the park, with some exceptions outside the forested area and away from kauri ecosystems.

Ashby said the push had been a grassroots effort – and that his iwi hadn't been alone in its fight.

"I think the council's response has been the right one. Things could have been done better, but they've done a stellar job in the end… although it took them a while."

TJ Perenara

TJ Perenara. Photo / Getty Images
TJ Perenara. Photo / Getty Images

The All Black halfback achieved many great acts in the heat of battle for the All Blacks in 2018 – but the biggest difference he made this year was tackling Wallabies star Israel Folau off the field.

In April, the veteran of 55 tests led the way in high-profile condemnation of Folau's increasingly inflammatory comments on homosexuality; including a post on social media that God's plan for gay people was "Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God".

Perenara wasted little time in hitting out at Folau's stance which he described as "harmful".


"Let it go on record that I am 100 per cent against the comments that were made by Israel," he wrote in a well-shared social media post.

"It was not okay to say that. It's not an attitude I want to see in the game I love. There is no justification for such harmful comments.

"To anyone, young Māori/Pasifika people especially, who may be struggling with their identity – please know that it is ok to be you. You are perfect as you are. Do not let these comments keep you from being yourself."

Perenara did what few leading New Zealand rugby players have done – taking a leading role in speaking out on an issue which could lead to a backlash from some for his own comments.

But, talking from the heart, he said it was something he had to do as professional rugby players were role models for young people "whether we like it or not".

The 26-year-old was widely praised for his comments, including by All Black coach Steve Hansen who said: "What he did tweet was on the money, that you are a good human being regardless of whether you are a gay person or a straight person."


Perenara later backed up his comments by taking part in collections for the Rainbow Youth and InsideOUT organisations, and joining several Hurricanes teammates in wearing rainbow boot laces to support diversity in rugby when his team played the Blues in a Super Rugby clash.

John Pullar

John Pullar helped uninsured families repair their homes after the 2017 Edgecumbe floods. Photograph / Lisa Castle-Tauroa
John Pullar helped uninsured families repair their homes after the 2017 Edgecumbe floods. Photograph / Lisa Castle-Tauroa

Two years ago, John Pullar was enjoying retired life after a 30-year career as a builder.

But after the devastating floods in Edgecumbe, near Whakatane, in April 2017, the council's chief executive called him and said "I've got a job for you".

Pullar, a former district councillor, was tasked with helping to repair the damaged homes of families who could not afford it - regardless of whether they were insured or not.

"We were there to help those who were not in a position to help themselves," he said.

"They were people who were uninsured or daunted by the whole process. Which you can imagine - your house has been flooded out and you think 'Where are we going? What do we do and where to we start?'"


The Liveable Homes initiative was successful because everyone chipped in, Pullar said. Stores supplied building materials at a huge discount and builders worked at "mate's rates". The local energy trust provided insulation for free. The homeowners were also expected to help out.

"From the outset it was a hand-up not a hand-out project."

In all, Pullar helped around 30 families get back into their homes, and supplied materials to other homeowners to rebuild their properties. The council says that just 12 out of 300 damaged homes are still unoccupied.

Pullar, 68, isn't putting his feet up. He now heads a conservation trust which has helped boost kiwi numbers in the region from four breeding pairs to 300 birds. And he leads a community group which is helping to clean up the Kopeopeo Canal, which was polluted by industrial waste.

"I do this because I enjoy it," he said. "And it's good to help people."

Erika Kihau

Erika Kihau's community pantries have taken off in the Far North.
Erika Kihau's community pantries have taken off in the Far North.

When Erika Kihau moved from the Deep South to the Far North she was shocked by the poverty she saw.


The self-confessed hoarder, who is originally from Invercargill, began giving away everything she owned at a stall outside her home in Kawakawa.

"We sort of a bit got addicted to it, and after that it just took off," she said.

She decided to set up food bank in her bedroom, but realised that hard-up families were too shy to ask for the food. So after doing some research on Pinterest she set up a community pantry in some plastic shelves outside the house. With the help of a few tradies it was later upgraded to a wooden pantry.

And since then, the pātaka kai - or food storehouses - have spread to Kaitaia, Kaikohe, Kerikeri, Rawene, and Waimate North. People with surplus food or produce from their gardens can leave it in the pantry. Those in need can help themselves to free kai.

What makes her generosity more remarkable is her own hardship. A mother of three, she often "walks past the meat section" because she can't afford basic items.

"We're struggling like anyone else. But it just needs people like me to tell everyone to get off their butts and help."


Kihau has also set up a group called All for Heart, which provides breakfasts and lunches to kids at Kawakawa Primary School, to families in Kawakawa and Moerewa, and distributes Christmas presents to struggling families.

Nico Porteous and Zoi Sadowski-Synott

Olympic Winter Games bronze medal winners Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous. Photograph / Michael Craig
Olympic Winter Games bronze medal winners Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous. Photograph / Michael Craig

Until this year, New Zealand had only won a single medal at the Winter Olympics.

In February, this country's tally jumped to three in the space of a few hours.

Nico Porteous and Zoi Sadowski-Synott's bronze medals in South Korea were the first time Kiwis had been on the podium at the event since Annelise Coberger in 1992. They were both just 16 at the time.

Their success made New Zealanders fall in love with the Winter Olympics, which has never captured the same attention as its summer equivalent.

Porteous, a student at Rosehill College, later admitted to vomiting from nerves before his successful run in the freeski halfpipe final. "I'm actually quite surprised I didn't pass out," he said when his score of 94.8 flashed up on the big screen.


Later in the year he showed the medal was no fluke - he won the freeski halfpipe world championship in Queenstown in September. He has also been speaking at schools about leadership.

Snowboarder Sadowski-Synott, from Wanaka, has been tipped by international stars as one to watch. She followed up her Big Air success at the Olympics with fourth place at the Snowboard Big Air World Cup in Beijing last month - showing that her medal may not be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.