The selfless bravery of Rachael de Jong has been honoured by Herald readers who picked her as the New Zealander of Year 2018 People's Choice.

Rachael de Jong always put others first.

On a hot summer's day, a selfless decision to save her friends was the reason she lost her life.

The 21-year-old's bravery was recognised by a Coroner earlier this year and now thousands of people who voted her as the Herald's New Zealander of Year 2018 People's Choice winner.

"That's a beautiful tribute to Rachael," said her father Kevin de Jong. "I'd rather she wasn't honoured in this way, as it would mean she'd still be here with us. But it's a lovely for so many people to remember her this way."

Advertisement

Read more: Swept Away, the wonderful life and tragic death of Rachael de Jong

Rachael was swimming with six friends about 200m below the Aratiatia Dam, just north of Taupo, on Waitangi Day last year when the floodgates opened.

Within minutes, the tranquil water turned into a torrent.

The Aratiatia Rapids are tranquil before the dam gates are opened. Rachael de Jong was swimming with friends in the waterhole to the right. Photo / Mike Scott.
The Aratiatia Rapids are tranquil before the dam gates are opened. Rachael de Jong was swimming with friends in the waterhole to the right. Photo / Mike Scott.

Horrified tourists could do nothing but watch as the physiotherapy student and her friends were trapped on a rock and dived to safety, one by one, as the water rose around them.

Rachael was one of the first to cross the raging water and could have easily moved to higher ground, out of harm's way.

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

Arms outstretched, the young woman dives into the water towards her Rachael.

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

Advertisement

Both young women - who had been friends since birth - disappear from view down the rapids, described by the survivors as like a "washing machine".

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."

Coroner Bain made a number of recommendations to stop another tragedy happening at the same spot, and Kevin de Jong hopes Mercury Energy, the Taupo District Council, the Waikato Regional Council and the Department of Conservation heed the warning.

Growing up smart and successful as an athlete and student at Long Bay College on the North Shore of Auckland, Rachael was in her final year of studying physiotherapy at university.

She planned to specialise in the rehabilitation of patients who suffered life-changing spinal injuries.

Kevin de Jong is proud of his daughter's bravery in helping save her friends at the Aratiatia Rapids. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Kevin de Jong is proud of his daughter's bravery in helping save her friends at the Aratiatia Rapids. Photo / Alan Gibson.

Kevin de Jong said Rachael always put the needs of other before her own.

"She would do everything she could to keep others safe and happy.

Her positive and caring attitude along with her infectious smile was always there for others when needed.

His daughter would have been humbled by her recognition as the New Zealander of the Year, he said.

"But also very proud that she made a difference through her life and that she stepped up when it mattered the most

"Our family love Rachael dearly, we are very proud of her and we miss her heaps. It is fantastic that she has been honoured in this way, but we would much rather her be here with us today."

Read more: Swept Away, the wonderful life and tragic death of Rachael de Jong