National kayak coach Joshua Utanga, who was once upon a time the lone Cook Islands athlete racing in the discipline, says the two young paddlers put in big efforts for impressive results considering their relative lack of experience in the kayak class.
Before competing in the Oceania Championships in New Zealand, which doubled as the New Zealand nationals, the local kayaking duo spent four days training with the Bay of Plenty Canoe Club where they rubbed shoulders with New Zealand’s best kayak athletes.
Both kayakers raced in the under 18 500m sprint race and both came sixth in their heats to progress to the semi-finals of their respective races.
In the semi-finals the pair missed out on reaching the top 9, but both still posted credible times with Ioana Puna clocking 2.28 minutes in the under 18 girls race while Otea Tommy set a respectable time of 2.13 minutes.
“I was really impressed with their performances and development, considering they have only been paddling since last October and they have only really been paddling a proper K1 canoe for four weeks,” says Utanga.
“They had no right to post the times they did and they exceeded expectations!”
However Utanga says that they must be realistic in assessing their performances and the times posted by the race winners show the pair have miles of training and learning to reach similar times.
“You can't expect to spend four weeks in a K1 and be competitive and the winners would have most probably spent four years in their boats.”
In fact, Utanga says, the duo got through their races on raw ability as they had not spent any time on fitness and strength training, with most of training dedicated to learning techniques to master the K1 canoe.
Utanga adds that through their participation in the Oceania Championships the two young Cook Islands paddlers can now see the opportunities that can come from the sport and will be able to help share this with more young paddlers back at home.
“I believe the sport is now established here and the young people are starting to realise the opportunities the sport can deliver if they are willing to put in the hard work,” says Utanga.
“Last weekend’s event has definitely switched these kids on when it comes to competition and training. They now realise that if they don't put the work in, they are going to get found out. In kayaking, there is nowhere to hide. It’s just you, your boat and the lane on race day.”
As a pioneer in the sport Utanga, who went through tough times being a solo Cook Islands K1 athlete, says his motivations are to give future athletes a stronger foothold in the game and to avoid many of the challenges he faced as an athlete.
He is doing this through the national development programme for the K1 class being delivered by the Cook Islands Canoeing Association.
“The programme’s model is to produce home-grown elite athletes.
Utanga adds that he also wants to get rid of the saying often heard, ‘we are just a little island nation doing our best’.
“Sure we are! But realistically this is a weak excuse. There is no reason why we can't mix with the likes of Australia and New Zealand – the talent is here.”
Utanga says that the experience of competiting in a top level kayak sprint competition has made the two local athletes more hungry to excel in the Olympic sport.
“Both Ioana and Otea will continue training with this year’s main goal being the under 18 world champs in Portugal later in the year.”
“We will start to add physical conditioning to their training routine as kayaking requires big cardiovascular base and massive power to weight ratio – you want to weigh a feather but hit like a sledge hammer,” says Utanga
He says that there is a possibility the young paddling duo will race in a few weeks at the Australian national champions held at Sydney.
“For me, my main goal is to build a sustainable national development programme and have a 5 year plan in place.”