Whitewater stars: rafters win gold in Tibet


The NZ Women’s R4 Rafting team brought home gold medals from the Yushu World Rafting Plateau Championships held in Tibet in August.


Three of the group – Nikki Whitehead, Geni Walters and Denise Martin – won the Nationals in April with teammate Kelly Wood. When Kelly moved away from Rotorua, Marnie Fornusek, joined the crew and they placed 2nd overall at the Ziyuan Rafting Festival in China, held in June. Following their success in Tibet, focus caught up with the team to find out what’s involved in this sport and what drives them.

You’ve all won a lot of gold medals over the years, starting back in the 90s when Denise first started competing – what makes Kiwis so good at this sport?

We have lots of water to play in. In the Bay of Plenty we have plenty of whitewater options and there’s a community of people to train and play with.

How do you fit competing and training around your work? (Nikki is a Tour Operations Manager, Geni a Firefighter, Denise a Naturopath and Marnie a Civil/ Environmental Engineer)

We train after work 2-3 times a week, often in the dark, so flatwater training on the lake has been a good option over winter. We’ll either be in the raft or sometimes in a waka ama. In the weekends we use the Kaituna River for slalom practice or sprinting, and we do our own fitness or weight training. We do our best to fit training and competing around our working commitments and are really grateful to our employers for supporting us with that.

What do you all love about rafting and racing?

Anything can happen when it comes to rafting! Getting out on whitewater is exciting and fun and you get to be out in some amazing places in NZ and overseas.

Do you feel scared at any time during a race, or is it more a feeling of excitement?

Depending on the river, raft racing can be a cocktail of emotions! We have all been scared at different times raft racing, but haven’t had any scary times as an R4 team; just the pressure of wanting to do well for NZ.

How much experience is necessary to get involved in competitive rafting?

You need to be able to read water and understand what the boat does in different features or gradients. You also need to know how to rescue yourself, your team and possibly the raft as well. Like us, a lot of the raft racers come from a rafting and/or kayaking background; others come from waka ama. Starting in the middle positions of R6 (six person raft) is a good way to learn about whitewater from more experienced paddlers.

For those who want to try raft racing, there are some social rafting races held at the annual Buller Festival (Feb/March) and the Seriously Social Rafting races held on the Tarawera River, Kawerau.

As a group, which event do you enjoy the most – sprint, head to head, slalom or downriver?

H2H (two rafts racing together) is exciting; you need a fast start to get to the rapids first. Each team has to go around buoys on the river so there’s quite of bit of strategy involved, and likely to be boat to boat contact.

How different are the four events?

Sprint is a short, hard, fast event. H2H requires some good tactical moves, mental strength and a bit of mongrel. Slalom is the most technical race as it’s the most mentally challenging; the gates determine where you need to position the boat and you need to be ‘pole aware’ to not get time penalties. Downriver is an endurance event; you completely empty your tank and usually fight other teams all the way down. Your overall ranking after each race determines start order/position in the next race.

How do you make decisions as a group during a race, about the line you will take?

We discuss lines as a team. For the Sprint, H2H and slalom there are opportunities to view the river section from the bank. We also get training time to practise on the courses prior to racing. Communication in the boat determines the line above the rapids and the stroke rate is controlled at the front. In the R4 events everyone steers.

What is most important in a race?

You need to have a good calm approach to everything. Speed and strength are important as well as putting the raft in the fastest whitewater. The most important factor is working as a team and communication.

How technical were the Batang and Yangtze rivers in Tibet, and the river in Argentina? Had you raced there before?

Nikki and Denise raced in Tibet in 2016. The rivers were Grade 3 shallow, fast flowing continuous rapids. The slalom was the largest rapid – it was unforgiving; there were no opportunities to attempt gates a second time if you made a mistake.

We haven’t raced in Argentina before so we will arrive earlier than the official training so we can get some extra time to learn the river, the Alumine, which is Grade 3. We’ve heard it could be cold – last year it was snowing at Pre-Worlds!

How important was the Tibet race as a build-up to the World Champs and how many countries competed?

The Ziyuan and Tibet races have been invaluable. We don’t normally get to compete on an international level before a world championship, so we were able to make some improvements between the races in Ziyuan and Tibet.

Seven teams competed in Yushu, Tibet: Australia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Great Britain, Hungary,
Russia and NZ. GBR are the current R4 European Champions and 2016 R4 World Champions. We finished first in Sprint, Head to Head and Slalom and second in Downriver which put us first overall. Racing in Tibet has shown us further things to work on as we build to the World Champs in Argentina

How do you fundraise?

Other years have involved raffles, quiz nights etc. Leading up to the World Champs in Argentina we will be fundraising and looking for a sponsor(s).