Until this week, 11-year-old Mana Taufa had never kayaked on a river or been on a fully-kitted mountain bike.
Rivers are a rarity on his home island in Tonga; Taufa’s training involves kayaking in the lagoon out the back of his home, riding the Kingdom’s flat roads on a basic bike borrowed from a friend and building his cardio fitness through swimming training in Nuku’alofa’s ocean pool.
It’s a far cry from the mud and off-road mayhem of the AIMS Games multisport competition in the back-blocks of Tauranga but if you thought Taufa was fazed, lining up against 239 other competitors, think again.
Taufa, whose full first name is Manava’ofa’ae’eiki, flew from Tonga with his father Foki for the annual six-day Intermediate-age sporting event.
“I’ve never done this [multisport] before,” he said, with a shy smile.
They hired a mountain bike after landing in Auckland but Taufa hadn’t had much practice time, focused instead on the tournament’s swimming competition – he swam for Tonga Side School in the 50m butterfly and 50m breaststroke, winning his heat in the butterfly.
Come race day, braced against a chilly southerly breeze, Taufa wore a full set of thermals under his shorts and t-shirt.
“I’m freezing!” he said. As the race started, it was 24deg in Nuku’alofa but just 11deg at McLaren Falls, about 15km from Tauranga.
The course featured steep hills, dense mud and a particularly technical descent near the end of the mountain biking leg, which Taufa had to navigate on the flashest bike he’d ever ridden.
“There’s no such thing as multisport in Tonga,” Foki Taufa said. “And no hills.”
He and his wife were nervous that Taufa might fall down a steep bank during the mountain biking leg. They have a small visa-processing business and Foki Taufa works as a mechanic. They save up to take their son to swimming competitions in New Zealand and Fiji a couple of times a year, and now multi-sport looks set to enter their lives.
Taufa finished 48th out of 61 Year 7 boys, in a time of 40.23. He walked straight up to his father, and rested his head on his Dad’s chest as he caught his breath. Foki Taufa wrapped his arms around his only child.
“I’m so proud of him, y’know,” Foki Taufa said. “He’s done it, first time. We’ll be back here next year, I guess.”
Taufa said the race was harder than he expected but he found kayaking on the smooth river surface much easier than battling the waves in the lagoon. “I’m like: Oh yes!”
The Year 7 boys’ race was won by Jai Julian of Whakatane Intermediate in a time of 29:25. Caoilinn Gray of Cambridge Middle School won the Year 7 girls’ event while the two Year 8 winners both collected their second individual gold medals, after earlier success in the cross country.
Elliot Graves of Hillview Christian School won the Year 8 boys’ race, while the Year 8 girls’ event was won by Renee Carey.