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A family of kayakers

Friday 11 June 2021 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Features, Weekend

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A family of kayakers
Ella, Sue and Jane Nicholas. 21060824

Cook Islands 2020 Sportswoman of the Year Jane Nicholas was back on Rarotonga this week for a brief break in a busy schedule before the upcoming Olympic Games. Al Williams caught up with Nicholas and her family.

Jane Nicholas is in high spirits.

She is back on Rarotonga for a couple of days and surrounded by family.

A family with common interests and goals – a tight knit family.

Nicholas, who qualified in 2019 to represent the Cook Islands at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics joins her sister and double Olympian Ella Nicholas, and her Olympian brother Bryden Nicholas in having the honour of representing the nation at top level in canoe slalom.

The trio also have medicine in common.

Nicholas is an orthopedic surgeon in training, as is her brother, while Ella is focusing on general practice.

Their mum Sue, who is managing Jane, is a pharmacist and their dad Rob, a retired doctor who has returned to the Cook Islands from New Zealand and continues to share his experience with medical staff here. 

“For my family, our culture is Cook Islands, families, uncles and aunties,” Jane says.  

“My father was born here, we came here every year as I was growing up, this is where I spent so much time in the water.”

Jane, 28, says she made her way into the sport while watching her brother paddle.

“I picked up kayaking in New Zealand when I was about 12, my older brother started, my sister and I went along to his races and we got on the water as well.”

The family lived five minutes from a river in Tauranga where they would paddle.

Jane represented New Zealand aged 15 to 27, then the opportunity to represent the Cook Islands came about when Ella started her medical career.

“It meant there was a place available.

“I am a Cook Islands citizen, I am a Cook Islander, it is my home.”

Jane says she has been in full time training since February.

Her stop on Rarotonga is a “whirlwind tour”.

“There’s no better place to go for a break than here,” she says.


Ella, Bryden and Jane on the water together at the Oceania Championships in Auckland in 2019. 21061004

It was back to Auckland on Wednesday and more training at Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau.  

“In this sport you move through different timing blocks.

“I have built up my strength and fitness, now it’s more about delivery.

“It’s on a white water river with rapids, a 300 metre stretch, 24 slalom gates, it’s about being fastest through the gates in marked order.”

Jane says her employer, Tauranga Hospital, has been understanding and supportive of her sporting commitment and there will be a job waiting for her when she returns from the Olympics.

“There are so many aspects you need to deliver, physical, mental and technical in this sport.

“You have to put it all together and deliver on the day with a river that is always changing.

“It’s a controlled risk environment.” 

Sue, who has been heavily involved in canoe slalom in numerous roles, says 2021 is a landmark year for the sport.

“This is the first time it is gender equal, we now have two male and two female classes.

“It’s the first time women have been in C1 (closed canoe) class, it took a long time to get there.

“Jane will be making history.”

Sue will be in Tokyo to support her daughter.

They are fundraising, it’s an expensive exercise, while Jane has had some assistance via an Olympic Solidarity scholarship.

“It’s been pretty amazing having our third child go to the Olympics,” Sue says.

She can’t specifically pinpoint their success.

“I don’t know, a good work ethic maybe, close family, they all support each other.

“When overseas, the kids are always ambassadors for the Cook Islands.”

Sue says she always encouraged her children to get involved in sport.

“It keeps them off the street, we wanted to keep our kids busy.”


Jane holds the flag at the Canoe Slalom World Championships in 2019 where she qualified for the 2020 Olympics . 21061003

Jane agrees.

“All sport provides an incredible opportunity, not only to be fit and healthy, but also enjoy it alongside the friends you make.

“There is also the opportunity to travel, I have met people from all over the world.

“Sport also teaches you a lot about self-discipline and self-motivation.”

Ella, also on Rarotonga with Jane and Sue, struggles to find a secret to their success.  

“I have no idea,” says Ella.

“I think we were all close growing up, we all looked up to our dad, we took part in similar activities.

“Maybe it’s in our blood, voyaging across the Pacific.”

Rob says: “We brought them home to the Cook Islands whenever we could so they almost learned to snorkel before they could swim, so have always been very comfortable around water.

“I guess that helped when it came to learning to kayak.

“They all played heaps of different sports growing up but I always said education was more important and sport is for fun,” he says.


Jane at the Oceania Championships in Auckland, 2019. 21061002

“The kids always quote me when they talk about work ethics and jobs around home, ‘this ain’t no holiday camp’, and whenever they have a hard day at work, I tell them that it’s character building. 

“We are very proud of what our children have achieved both in sport and education, they have worked very hard at both.”