Paparangi Hipango is the embodiment of the saying of the people of the Whanganui River, "Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au - I am the river and the river is me", on which she learned to row while a student at Wanganui Collegiate.
Miss Hipango is an athlete in every sense: focused, disciplined, quick to smile, and a thoroughly nice young woman.
The 22-year-old left New Zealand in 2010 and is in her third year at the University of California Berkeley on a full rowing and education scholarship, majoring in media studies.
As such she is a long way from home and her close-knit whanau, but says the team of 60 young women in the university rowing squad is "like having 60 sisters".
"I have a lot of amazing friends ... something I cherish every day."
Miss Hipango was glad to be home with her parents, Harete and Dean, and younger sister Roimata, to celebrate her CalBear squad's win of the prized NCAA 2013 US College Rowing National Championship in Indianapolis at the weekend.
It was a 2am live online feed for the whanau, and younger brother Keepa who was also awake in Wellington to watch the race.
But there were so many people watching throughout America, that the feed crashed. The Whanganui whanau did not find out who won until later that morning, New Zealand time.
What made the win even more of a bonus was the CalBears were not highly rated. "We weren't expected to win. We were sixth seed, but we had a game plan."
The CalBears crossed the line first with a time of 6.21.43 ahead of Princeton 6.22.60 and Ohio State 6.23.20.
But back to the beginning, and to where this young woman of the awa started her stellar career.
"I did not know anything about rowing. Mum and Dad suggested I give it a go when I got to Wanganui Collegiate. I went down to the sheds and one of the coaches said to me: 'You are a big girl. You could do well'.
"At first it was really new to me, so I was kind of excited."
Miss Hipango was in Year 9. By the time she was in Year 10, aged 14, she had won two national championships at the 2006 secondary school's rowing pinnacle, the Maadi Cup: Collegiate's under-17 four won the Hauraki Shield on Lake Ruataniwha near Twizel, and in the under-18 eight, the Levin Jubilee Girls.
She was also the youngest in the team.
"That kicked off my career. Having a record like that helped me to where I am today in terms of rowing."
But there was more to come for the 1.8m, lithe student.
When she was 15 Miss Hipango made the under-19 national junior squad.
"There were a lot of early mornings and they are still going on nine years later, and not getting any easier. But the rewards make it worth it. Some people talk about rewards at the end of the season if you do well."
Here she gives insight into the sacrifices she and her parents have made to get her to this place.
"The rewards come for me daily ... living a healthy life, still.
"I am at one of the most prestigious universities in the world which is opening up a lot of doors for me."
Among those rewards are her "amazing friends".
The hard work of training weighs against those daily rewards. The burn-out that rowers go through is the ongoing challenge ... they feel it during and at the finish of the race.
"The whole reason you train so much is not to get used to that burn. You learn to be disciplined enough to push through it. You have no other option."
"It's fun to go fast," she says, "giving everything you can, and in essence, matched by the same amount of burn."
The CalBears train twice a day and they're up every morning at 5.30am to travel in one of the six crews' vans to Briones Reservoir, just outside Berkeley.
The crews train for 2 hours every morning. There's a lot of technique and skill training for an hour and 45 minutes just rowing.
Long-distance rowing works their cardiovascular fitness.
"With every stroke you just get better. Something you like to instill in your team is to make the most of every single stroke."
It's the difference between winning and losing.
Winning a full scholarship to Berkeley came after success as a national rower when Miss Hipango rowed for two years in the New Zealand junior national teams that competed at the world championships.
A coach came to New Zealand from Clemson University in North Carolina to explain scholarships and the worlds also provided opportunities.
"I was bombarded by a whole lot of coaches who came with the US national team. I thought, 'Wow, this must be a pretty good thing'."
Miss Hipango said she did a lot of research into the different universities.
"This seemed really cool. I might want to go through with it," she told herself.
She emailed the coaches and filled out recruitment forms and got advice from the States.
"That's when I really narrowed it down." Miss Hipango is thought to be the only New Zealander at Berkeley.
Life at the American university is different, but she loves the culture and the camaraderie, and its "amazingly incredible history".
"It is really an honour to go to a prestigious university."
Miss Hipango looks back to her early schooling at Wanganui Collegiate - its culture and home life where everything was structured.
"You have to keep on your toes."
At Berkeley it's just school and rowing. There's no boyfriend - no time, she says with a smile.
"You have to put a lot of things into perspective and what is going to help you in the future."
With her busy training schedule and media studies major, Miss Hipango says she can't skip any classes.
Yes, she does get tired, but she eats well and if there's an hour between lectures, she will power nap for an hour out on the grass, and set her alarm.
Being in a sports team is a job and you have a standard to uphold as collegiate athletes, she says.
She is happy, and she loves it at Berkeley.
Now home for two weeks, she looks out to the awa and has a yearning to get back out for a row.
She acknowledges the specialness of the awa when she started rowing; those early mornings in the dark and rowing into the low mist where they did not know where they were.
"I now reflect on how special that was. Coming back to the awa I really appreciate it."
She also acknowledges her first coach, Fiona Symes. "She is a huge part of where I am today."
And there's the Morikaunui and Atihau Whanganui Incorporations that have supported her endeavours to reach athletic excellence.
Miss Hipango is relaxed when she says she has no big plans yet for her future.
"I'm taking small steps toward it."