In 1996, Tauranga Boys’ College teacher and rowing coach Rob Sperling noticed there were no school-aged paddlers training on our world-famous rivers.
So he teamed up with Waimarino Adventure Park founder Barry Anderson to establish a Tauranga Boys’ kayaking team.
They won their first national NZ Secondary Schools Kayaking trophy within three years, and this month they are favourites to win their 20th national schools title.
Only in 2011 and 2012, when Dunstan High School knocked them into second place on the podium, have Tauranga Boys’ College not returned to their Hillsdene campus with the trophy and a handful of gold medals.
What is even more remarkable is that they’re up against co-ed schools who get double points from the boys and girls in their squads.
The reasons for such continued success over two decades are many and varied, but the Tauranga Boys’ programme is built on fundamentals common in every great sporting institution.
Rob Sperling says it is like a jigsaw puzzle.
“I might be one of the bigger pieces, but the jigsaw puzzle will never be complete without all of the other pieces, including parents and sponsors,” he says.
“I learnt my trade from the great rowing coach Bill Eady when I started at Tauranga Boys’ 32 years ago. There is a formula to do things that work in any sport, but the most important one is your juniors are your VIPs.”
Rob is immensely proud of the continued international success of the boys he first encountered trying out the sport on the Waimarino River.
The Senior and Under-23 teams, announced by Canoe Slalom New Zealand last month, included school old boys Ben Gibb, Patrick Washer, Callum Gilbert, Stewart Bloor and Jack Dangen.
“Every time I see those teams it reminds me of their first day on the water,” says Rob. “I seem to remember most of them on their first day, and there are awesome stories about each guy.
“I have done it so many times that I can see a kid who I think will be a star. Have they got balance and the right attitude? Do they listen to whoever is out there helping them and what are the parents like?
“A lot of them have never been in a fast boat like a canoe slalom boat, so it is a new language for them to learn in just an hour on a Have A Go Day. You see them come through to represent New Zealand and I say to myself ‘I knew that guy had it in him right from day one’.”
Slalom stars do not come any brighter than Mike Dawson, who has been the inspiration for so many athletes at Tauranga Boys’.
Mike is regarded as New Zealand’s greatest male canoe slalom exponent, and last month retired from international competition after a 15-year career that included two Olympics and 11 World Championships.
“He has the charisma,” says Rob. “He is the guy all of the kids look up to and he is really approachable.
“He is an all-rounder, not just in slalom. He is the Richard Hadlee of kayaking. He did everything really well and New Zealand should have paid a lot more to fund him internationally.”
*The NZ Secondary Schools Canoe Slalom Champs 2019, take place on the Tarawera River, Kawerau, from April 12-16. For more information visit: www.slalomnz.org.nz