Voyage of discovery

Vesna Radonich has had a long journey to becoming a champion paddler and she shares her story before heading to Tahiti.

Vesna Radonich has had a long journey to becoming a champion paddler and she shares her story before heading to Tahiti.

THE ‘BONUS’: Vesna Radonich with the medals she won in waka ama at the World Masters Games in Auckland this year. She hopes to add a medal from the world distance championships in Tahiti to her collection. Picture by Liam Clayton
SUPREME CREW: Vesna Radonich (second from right) has won national and world titles as a member of the Kaiarahi Toa crew who she was invited to join in 2012. Picture by Liam Clayton

GISBORNE waka ama paddler Vesna Radonich will compete for New Zealand at the IVF Va’a World Distance Championships in Tahiti this month.

These will be the inaugural world distance championships – the world sprint champs will be held in Tahiti next year – and the distance and sprint world events will thereafter be run in alternate years.

Radonich will compete in an open women’s six-place team over 27 kilometres in the waters off Pirae, near the capital city, Pape’ete.

At 41, Radonich is eligible to compete in the master women’s division, but says her paddling mentor — former Australian Olympic sprint canoeist Shelley Oates-Wilding — urged her to compete in the open, or elite, ranks for as long as she could.

Radonich’s latest selection milestone could hardly have been foreseen when she was growing up in Auckland, the eldest of a family of two girls and a boy.

With a Croatian father, Mladen, and a Maori (Maniapoto) mother, Daphne, she grew up thinking she had little aptitude for sport.

“Mum used to swim and my sister did gymnastics but I was never really good at sport,” she said.

“I didn’t wear my hearing aid when I played, so I couldn’t hear. I felt clumsy and had low self-esteem.”

As she grew, her lack of self-confidence manifested in depression and poor choices. But she says going through that made her stronger.

“I’m an ex-smoker. I used to be overweight. I had drug and alcohol addictions, and mental health problems. I have no fear about anyone knowing my past, because I know getting past those experiences made me a better person.”

All part of the journey

They were part of her journey towards her achievements, and she had learned never to be ashamed of what happened in the past, she said.

Her mother, her greatest supporter, died four years ago last month.

“She always encouraged me to do things and to never let my hearing disability stop me.

“I was so grateful to be a world champion (in 2012) — and make her proud — before she passed away. And I was able to tell her I was going to be a mum.” (Radonich has a three-year-old son, Rawera.)

For her, waka ama is more than just paddling. On the water, she feels a connection with her tipuna.

“That’s what made me fall in love with the sport. The medals are a bonus.”

Radonich’s path to waka ama started with her trip to Australia in 2000. She was there five years and raced in dragon boats (single-hull, with no outrigger).

A friend in the gym where she trained suggested they try outrigger canoeing, and Radonich immediately knew it was the sport for her.

“I said to the coach (Shelley Oates-Wilding) that I couldn’t hear when I was on the water because I can’t wear my hearing aid. She said, ‘Nah, sweet. We’ll put you in as the caller.’

“She didn’t look at it as a disadvantage. She made it work. I fell in love with the sport and she was my role model.

No one made her put that time into me. She gave it to you in black and white: you train hard, you get the results.

“I was living in Manly and our normal morning training session was a paddle in outriggers from Manly to the Opera House and back. She had got into outriggers as another discipline to train for her kayaking.

“I’m still in touch with her a lot. She moved to Hawaii, and the week after I won the world championship in 2012 I went to see her there to say thank you.”

One of the top Australian clubs

The club Radonich paddled with was among the top few in Australia.

“We had Olympic and national-class kayakers, surf boat rowers, top surf lifesavers ... I got to be around what it takes to be the best.”

A spell in Tahiti – in 2010, ’11 and ’12 – exposed Radonich to the techniques of the world’s top paddlers. Among those who influenced her was Wilfred Ahmin, coach of elite professional team Paddling Connection.

She ran crossfit classes in a gym called Xtrem, and was brought in by a crew of paddlers to help them with jiu-jitsu training as part of their preparation for competition.

The crew’s success — they came back champions — and Radonich’s own paddling efforts in top-class company encouraged other paddlers to seek her help. At first they went to her for crossfit training to build strength and stamina. Then some asked her to be their paddling coach.

What impressed Radonich was the Tahitians’ openness to new ideas. Their reputation as masters of outrigger canoe paddling had not gone to their heads.

In her hunger to improve, Radonich had taken up training for boxing. She never went in the ring but recommends boxing training for anyone serious about waka ama paddling.

Her trainer was the Tahitian national boxing coach. The regime he put her through improved her co-ordination, focus, breathing, strength and discipline.

The period between her stays in Sydney and Tahiti — when she was based in New Zealand — included a year in which Radonich almost left the sport she loved. Her coach when she moved back to New Zealand had an “unusual” style.

“I felt I didn’t know how to paddle any more, and I gave up paddling for about a year,” she said.

But a 2006 holiday in Gisborne and a talk with some of the women from the Mareikura Canoe Club put her straight.

“They asked me why I had stopped training, and when I told them about my coach they said, ‘Who is she? Has she got any medals?’ And they got me back on track.”

Approached by Kiwi Campbell

In 2011, while Radonich was still living in Tahiti, Gisborne waka ama coach Kiwi Campbell Facebooked her, inviting her to join the team she was preparing for the 2012 world sprint championships in Canada.

Radonich was already a world champion. In 2006 she had won the individual 500-metre race in the adaptive class.

She joined the 2012 world championship campaign (she won team and individual gold medals), and it was the catalyst for her shift to Gisborne.

“I didn’t have any expectations and I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

“I wanted to come here and help others, have a family and buy a house, and I’ve done all that.”

Most recently, she has been a “tooth fairy”, encouraging dental health among children, and this year she took up a manager’s job at Jetts Fitness.

GISBORNE waka ama paddler Vesna Radonich will compete for New Zealand at the IVF Va’a World Distance Championships in Tahiti this month.

These will be the inaugural world distance championships – the world sprint champs will be held in Tahiti next year – and the distance and sprint world events will thereafter be run in alternate years.

Radonich will compete in an open women’s six-place team over 27 kilometres in the waters off Pirae, near the capital city, Pape’ete.

At 41, Radonich is eligible to compete in the master women’s division, but says her paddling mentor — former Australian Olympic sprint canoeist Shelley Oates-Wilding — urged her to compete in the open, or elite, ranks for as long as she could.

Radonich’s latest selection milestone could hardly have been foreseen when she was growing up in Auckland, the eldest of a family of two girls and a boy.

With a Croatian father, Mladen, and a Maori (Maniapoto) mother, Daphne, she grew up thinking she had little aptitude for sport.

“Mum used to swim and my sister did gymnastics but I was never really good at sport,” she said.

“I didn’t wear my hearing aid when I played, so I couldn’t hear. I felt clumsy and had low self-esteem.”

As she grew, her lack of self-confidence manifested in depression and poor choices. But she says going through that made her stronger.

“I’m an ex-smoker. I used to be overweight. I had drug and alcohol addictions, and mental health problems. I have no fear about anyone knowing my past, because I know getting past those experiences made me a better person.”

All part of the journey

They were part of her journey towards her achievements, and she had learned never to be ashamed of what happened in the past, she said.

Her mother, her greatest supporter, died four years ago last month.

“She always encouraged me to do things and to never let my hearing disability stop me.

“I was so grateful to be a world champion (in 2012) — and make her proud — before she passed away. And I was able to tell her I was going to be a mum.” (Radonich has a three-year-old son, Rawera.)

For her, waka ama is more than just paddling. On the water, she feels a connection with her tipuna.

“That’s what made me fall in love with the sport. The medals are a bonus.”

Radonich’s path to waka ama started with her trip to Australia in 2000. She was there five years and raced in dragon boats (single-hull, with no outrigger).

A friend in the gym where she trained suggested they try outrigger canoeing, and Radonich immediately knew it was the sport for her.

“I said to the coach (Shelley Oates-Wilding) that I couldn’t hear when I was on the water because I can’t wear my hearing aid. She said, ‘Nah, sweet. We’ll put you in as the caller.’

“She didn’t look at it as a disadvantage. She made it work. I fell in love with the sport and she was my role model.

No one made her put that time into me. She gave it to you in black and white: you train hard, you get the results.

“I was living in Manly and our normal morning training session was a paddle in outriggers from Manly to the Opera House and back. She had got into outriggers as another discipline to train for her kayaking.

“I’m still in touch with her a lot. She moved to Hawaii, and the week after I won the world championship in 2012 I went to see her there to say thank you.”

One of the top Australian clubs

The club Radonich paddled with was among the top few in Australia.

“We had Olympic and national-class kayakers, surf boat rowers, top surf lifesavers ... I got to be around what it takes to be the best.”

A spell in Tahiti – in 2010, ’11 and ’12 – exposed Radonich to the techniques of the world’s top paddlers. Among those who influenced her was Wilfred Ahmin, coach of elite professional team Paddling Connection.

She ran crossfit classes in a gym called Xtrem, and was brought in by a crew of paddlers to help them with jiu-jitsu training as part of their preparation for competition.

The crew’s success — they came back champions — and Radonich’s own paddling efforts in top-class company encouraged other paddlers to seek her help. At first they went to her for crossfit training to build strength and stamina. Then some asked her to be their paddling coach.

What impressed Radonich was the Tahitians’ openness to new ideas. Their reputation as masters of outrigger canoe paddling had not gone to their heads.

In her hunger to improve, Radonich had taken up training for boxing. She never went in the ring but recommends boxing training for anyone serious about waka ama paddling.

Her trainer was the Tahitian national boxing coach. The regime he put her through improved her co-ordination, focus, breathing, strength and discipline.

The period between her stays in Sydney and Tahiti — when she was based in New Zealand — included a year in which Radonich almost left the sport she loved. Her coach when she moved back to New Zealand had an “unusual” style.

“I felt I didn’t know how to paddle any more, and I gave up paddling for about a year,” she said.

But a 2006 holiday in Gisborne and a talk with some of the women from the Mareikura Canoe Club put her straight.

“They asked me why I had stopped training, and when I told them about my coach they said, ‘Who is she? Has she got any medals?’ And they got me back on track.”

Approached by Kiwi Campbell

In 2011, while Radonich was still living in Tahiti, Gisborne waka ama coach Kiwi Campbell Facebooked her, inviting her to join the team she was preparing for the 2012 world sprint championships in Canada.

Radonich was already a world champion. In 2006 she had won the individual 500-metre race in the adaptive class.

She joined the 2012 world championship campaign (she won team and individual gold medals), and it was the catalyst for her shift to Gisborne.

“I didn’t have any expectations and I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

“I wanted to come here and help others, have a family and buy a house, and I’ve done all that.”

Most recently, she has been a “tooth fairy”, encouraging dental health among children, and this year she took up a manager’s job at Jetts Fitness.

The selection process for the open women’s team for the world distance championships started with a request for expressions of interest from paddlers.

After the sprint nationals in January, trials were held on Lake Karapiro. Those still in the running took part in another trial — the 30km James Bhutty Moore memorial race, off Tauranga, for individual paddlers. The squad was trimmed again and those remaining went into a training camp and, in early March, another trial – the Aotearoa Aito in Auckland.

Further training camps followed, and on May 21 the six paddlers for the open women’s team to Tahiti were named, and Gisborne’s Vesna Radonich was one of them.

Training did not let up. Radonich recalled one 32km paddle in Wellington Harbour during a storm that kept the Cook Strait ferries tied up. They had a phone, lifejackets, spare paddles, all the safety gear, but it was still a challenge.

“The purpose of a training camp at this level is to put you into dark places to see how you pull together and support each other,” Radonich said.

The fruits of that training will be put to the test soon enough. Radonich leaves for Tahiti on Friday (June 16) and on June 23 will take part in Te Aito, the world’s largest race for rudderless waka ama — over 900 paddlers are expected to take part.

It is all preparation for the main event, the world distance championships from June 27 to 30.

Each country is allowed to enter one six-person team in each of the J19 (junior) men’s and women’s divisions, open men’s and women’s divisions, and master men’s and women’s divisions; and one individual paddler for each of those divisions.

Gisborne twins Kodi and Cory Campbell are in the J19 women’s team.

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