It started as a way of getting time to herself, but Rotorua Girls' High School assistant principal Tui McCaull is now a national waka ama representative.

McCaull, 39, is part of the six-strong women's masters team selected to represent New Zealand at the World Distance Championships in Tahiti next month.

She was introduced to the sport through her daughter, Te Mihiroa Tangira, and niece, Atawhai Pukepuke.

"When she was 7 my daughter, who's now 14, started paddling with my niece and I'd go and watch and be a supportive parent.


"Then, when she was getting to the age where she needed a single, I bought a single - a W1 waka - and I thought I might give it a go by myself because I was too embarrassed to jump in with other people when I didn't know what I was doing."

A chance encounter on that first paddle set her on a course to being a national rep.

"I was really lucky. My very first time taking the single out, I ran into Anthony Smallman, who's a coach, and he said he'd take me on board and coach me so he taught me what to do right from the outset and it was really good and I loved it. I loved the time by myself.

"What drew me to the sport initially was the enjoyment of the physicality of it, and there's always different conditions. Some people think it's quite repetitive and you're doing the same thing over and over again, but you're always looking at the different conditions and how to get stronger, fitter, faster. A lot of the time you're pushing against yourself, you're not really racing anyone else except yourself."

Tui McCaull got into waka ama after supporting her daughter and niece. Now she's in the NZ Masters Waka Ama team heading to Tahiti. Photo / Ben Fraser
Tui McCaull got into waka ama after supporting her daughter and niece. Now she's in the NZ Masters Waka Ama team heading to Tahiti. Photo / Ben Fraser

The New Zealand Women's Masters team members will compete at Te Aito - a world renowned outrigger canoe event being held in Tahiti just before the inaugural world distance championships.

McCaull said it was exciting to be involved in the very first event.

"To be honest, I'm relatively new to waka ama, this is only my third year paddling and I've never really done a whole lot of distance paddling before - so for me it's really exciting.''

The team's Wellington-based coach has sent each team member an individual training programme and the team has been getting together roughly once a month.

"I am new to this crew, but what I am learning is you definitely need to have the fitness and endurance for the actual distance, but within that distance you have lots of differing conditions so there are times when you need to have a bit of a sprint pace going on and parts where you can relax a little bit more and other parts where you need to mongrel your way through it."

McCaull was part of crews who won gold medals at the World Masters Games earlier this year in the W6 500m sprints (40+ Women), W6 1000m (40+ Mixed). She was also in the women's crew that won silver in the W6 22km marathon (40+ Women) and she won individual silver in the W1 15km marathon.

The games also gave the paddlers the chance to catch up with - and quiz about conditions - the Tahitian paddlers.

"They were really lovely but I'm pretty sure they were trying to suss us out as well.

"Paddling to them is how rugby is to us and we are taking them on on their own turf. I just want to see how we get on as a team against some of the most experienced and most amazing paddlers in the world really."

McCaull is a member of both the Whakatane-based Tarawera Outrigger Canoe and Rotorua's Ruamata Waka Ama clubs. This is her first year in the master's division, and said the team was made up of paddlers from around the North Island.

"I'm paddling with women who are just amazing. Sharing and learning from them has been awesome."

Te Aito takes place between June 23-25 with the world distance championships starting on June 27.