The 2019 Waka Ama Sprint Nationals was an event packed with supreme athletes, but it was a group of Rotorua elders who captured the hearts of most.
Last week, members of Rotorua's Instinctive Fitness Pakaru Tinana programme including Joy Pearson, Huia Carlson, Rose Rangi, Mahora Wishard, Shirley Kundsen, Pare Aratema, Eileen Jones, Kay Eccles, Maureen Baker, Yvonne Morehu, Wiki Flavell and Keren Harris taught a valuable lesson about shooting for the stars regardless of age during the event at Lake Karapiro.
Paddling under the Hei Matau Paddlers banner, they were the oldest group at nationals, ranging from 70-84 years old, and not only did they compete but they came home with an impressive medal haul.
Split into two teams of six, they took first and second overall in the Masters (70+) and Women's W6 500m and 250m races.
Instinctive Fitness owner Calvin "Mitch" Mitchell said he was proud of the group's efforts and seeing the way they were received by the other competitors was "a massive highlight".
"They were pretty much celebrities at the event, everything they did. As soon as they finished their first race the other paddlers did a big haka and powhiri for them," Mitchell said.
"The second race they did, all the paddlers put their oars up for them - it was very emotional for a lot of them.
"I was really proud and it was great seeing how independent this group has become. From being very shy to very outspoken and confident, that's the most rewarding thing," he said.
The team spent just six weeks training for the event with Rotorua's Hei Matau Paddlers waka ama club and were coached and guided by Kelley Korau.
"It was definitely outstanding, the way they performed, when you see the comparison from where they were six weeks ago to where they are now. It's overwhelming, especially for an elderly group who had never paddled before.
"Kelly is a well known coach and we went under their umbrella for this event. They definitely thoroughly enjoyed it, just the whole atmosphere of waka ama.
"One of the ladies was saying how much she enjoyed the camaraderie with the other Hei Matau Paddlers. Especially doing the waka ama training. You're relying not just on yourself, but on each other, so you turn up for training because you don't want to let your teammates down."
Mitchell said there were plenty of nerves as well as excitement for the first-time paddlers leading up to the event.
"We spent last year gearing up for Iron Māori, that was the first challenge. Instead of being dormant with your goals it's always good to look forward to other things and keep challenging yourself.
"As I've explained to them, that doesn't change as you get older, you should keep challenging yourself.
"Even though they are national champs, they were still a little bit disappointed with how they performed because they want to do better. From now they will keep training for nationals again next year, how they work as a team and the technical aspects of waka ama, and then worlds after that."
It was a successful week for Rotorua paddlers overall.
Hei Matau also picked up a win in the J19 Women's W12 500m.
Te Au Rere Waka Ama Club took gold in the Intermediate Women's W6 500m, Intermediate Women's W6 500m with turn and Senior Masters Women's W1 500m (Maylene Papuni).
Ruamata Waka Ama Club picked up first placings in the Masters Women's W1 500m (Nicky Kingi), Senior Masters Women's W12 500m, Masters Women's W12 500m, Senior Masters Women's W6 1000m, Senior Masters Men's M6 1000m and Senior Masters Women's W6 500m.
The Tarawera Outrigger Canoe Club achieved two wins, in the Masters Women's W6 1000m and Masters Women's W6 500m.
The Taupō Waka Ama Club won the Senior Masters Women's W6 500m.
For full results go to wakaama.co.nz