After what felt like eight days of survival mode, a Rotorua team of rafters out-raced fierce competition and avoided potentially life-threatening wildife to prove they are the best of the best.
A team of seven Rotorua paddlers including Sarah Uhl, Kelly Wood, Nikki Whitehead (captain), Denise Martin, Nicola Kelly, Raanj Rapana, Marnie Fornusek have returned from tropical North Queensland as gold medallists after winning the open women's competition at the 2019 World Rafting Championships.
Competing as the Friedlanders, the New Zealand Open Women's Whitewater rafting team were among more than 300 of the world's best rafters at the champs and were able to prove they were the best of the best after eight days of competition on the world-renowned Tully River between May 13-20.
Not only were they able to beat the competition, they did it while staying alert for Australia's wildflife.
"We had to keep an eye out for snake-eating spiders, crocodiles, leeches, ticks, fish that bite, and of course Australians."
Teams from 30 countries competed through a combination of disciplines that included sprints, head to head, slalom and downriver, on a section of iconic Grade IV water.
Martin, who has been competing for 20 years, says the event was tough, describing competition as "fierce".
"We had a combination of experience and great physical strength in the boat.
"We have a really nice blend," she says.
That combination worked well, with her team winning three out of four races - one of which was a head-to-head knock-out race which meant they had to keep winning every race to move forward to the next race.
"We had to race three times to win the gold for this race, this was a tough race," Martin says.
"We won the time trial, head-to head ... then we won the slalom and for the final race, the downriver, we got second, which placed us overall in first place," she says.
At the final medal presentation, Martin says the New Zealand Under-23 Women's team performed a haka, which was a highlight of the trip, Martin says.
"We're so proud and moved to watch these brave, beautiful young ladies who had competed so well and placed second overall perform for our women's team, it was a highlight."
New Zealand's campaign at the rafting world champs was a successful one. On top of the success of both Martin's teams and the Under-23 team, the Open Men's team placed third overall and the Junior Men were second.
"The overall campaign was a huge success for the New Zealand teams, who once again were very dominant. The location was spectacular, Tully river located in the heart of the most ancient rainforest in the world," Martin says.