Four days before the National Waka Ama Champs in 2016, singles paddler Hiria Rolleston, from Papamoa, tore her archilles tendon during a gym session. She faced weeks in plaster and hobbling around on crutches, but Hiria had trained hard for the event – she was in the running for a gold – so the possibility of not racing didn’t even feature on her radar.
With her leg in a caste up to the knee and wrapped in a black rubbish bag, and with her husband’s help, she carefully eased into her boat on race day, and paddled to the start, determined.
She claimed the bronze, even with the Mount beach surf raging – the biggest she’d ever seen. Had she been able to push harder with her legs for the home straight, she may have placed higher, but she knew overexertion risked further damage to her archilles.
The experience taught her that mindset is a critical part of training and, if she was going to continue to climb the elite ladder, she had better look after herself. Leading into the race she had been training “really hard and really stupid” and the pressure on her was enormous. It’s no wonder her body faltered, she says.
“After the race I slowed down so I could sort out my recovery. I started eating really well, stopped drinking coffee, and started getting rid of some things that weren’t helping me in life. The more you associate with negative energy – from people or beliefs – the more it’s going to bring you down.”
Hiria already had a social media following with her Soulwaterblog, and this led to the launch of her business, Mindset Coaching for Paddlers, where she works with other paddlers to help them move on from habits that hold them back. If you want to be your best on the water, you must be your best off the water, she says, and that begins with being true to yourself.
It was something that took Hiria years to learn for herself. She had lived with depression since she was a teenager and throughout her adult life had also continued a confusing internal dialogue questioning her identity; she was raised in two cultures – her mum, who died when Hiria was 11, was Māori and her dad Pakeha.
“I used to try and identify with one or the other, but where I sit now, I can see how it fits together and instead of trying to be this certain person in all these different areas of my life, I can just be myself, and life is so much easier.
“For many people I think the missing link is always identity. That’s where everyone gets drawn back to – ‘who am I and what’s my purpose in life?’ I was always looking for answers outwards, instead of inwards. Now I’m doing things because I want to do them, and because they sit right with me. I’m making choices about what works for me and my family.”
Back in 2012 Hiria was involved in a Māori TV documentary, I Know a Sheila Like That, where she shared her story of depression, her love for the ocean and her business (at the time she ran a stand-up paddle boarding business called East Coast Paddler). Many women saw the programme and reached out to her, however, it was another few years before she went looking for more insight around her ongoing depression. Through reading books on psychology and listening to the wisdom of others – including Oprah when the celebrity visited Auckland in 2015 – Hiria began to realise that “everyone has a purpose in life” and there is more to each of us than what we see.
Managing the mind
Since starting Mindset Training for Paddlers last year, clients from around the world have flocked to work with her, mostly through her 8-week online Outrigger Bootcamp course, and more recently through one-to-one coaching. Hiria’s had challenges and that’s why clients relate to her so well – she’s done the hard yards herself.
“You can train as hard as you want but if you’re still not making it over the line, there’s obviously something else going on. They relate to me because they recognise there are things holding them back from reaching their goals – just like it was for me. Even elite paddlers have their demons but it’s how they deal with it on race day that makes the difference.
“Connection to the water is a big thing and I am very specific in how I help people and relate it to exactly where they are now. I help them to stop the overthinking, overwhelm and anxiety and start prioritising themselves so they can work on their holistic health and wellbeing.”
As a mum of four children aged 21, 7, 5 and 2, she knows it’s not easy to make yourself a priority and she’s had to teach herself this wisdom. She trains before the kids are up and has support in place to allow her to train later in the day and manage her growing business.
While mindset is a big part of her coaching sessions, she also covers fitness, nutrition and technique, and can work individually with paddlers who have particular issues they want to deal with, be it increasing speed or just learning to be present in the race.
Many years of paddling successes attest to her experience and she also has the credentials to back it up, including a Bachelor of Sport and Recreation, Graduate Diploma in Secondary School Teaching and a Post Graduate Diploma in Public Health.
Challenges and goals
Next month Hiria will compete in the waka ama world sprint champs in Tahiti. She is a member of local waka ama club Hoe Aroha in Pilot Bay, The Mount, but for the Worlds she is part of a Gisborne crew (she was raised in Gisborne, Ngāti Porou) that will contest the club competition with clubs from all over the world. Last year she represented New Zealand in the world distance championships but just missed out on the national team for this year’s sprint champs.
Following the worlds, Hiria will stay on in Tahiti to once again tackle Te Aito– at 15km (for women) it’s the most prestigious one-person, rudderless canoe race in the world. Last year she came 9thout of hundreds of paddlers and this year she’s aiming for a podium finish.
“That’s my goal. I want to prove to myself that I can do it and that’s why I try to do well as a single paddler. I love that connection with the water, and being out there on the ocean, sometimes in really big surf, or on long paddles, completely present in what I’m doing.”
Hiria’s business and sporting success is attracting interest beyond paddling circles. She has spoken at Māori leadership hui, is mentoring Māori women who want to start businesses, and last year was MC for a NZ Chamber of Commerce event. She says the opportunities opening up both in New Zealand and overseas are “amazing” and she’s excited to see what unfolds as she shares her story and knowledge while continuing to climb the elite sporting ladder at the same time.
“As she says, “the quality of your doing comes from the quality of your being; that’s what it’s all about.”