Taking waka ama from Waikato to the world

At just 20 years old, Manawa Irwin is one of Aotearoa’s best waka ama paddlers.

He’s been selected for the NZ Men’s Elite team to compete in the 2022 IVF Va’a World Sprint Championships which is being held in England for the first time. 

Manawa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-a-Apanui) has been involved in waka ama since he was just five-years-old. 

He’s trained hard for this opportunity and can’t wait to get out on the water at the world champs. 

“I’m so excited and happy that I’ve made it to the top level of this sport,” he told Re:’s reo Māori series Ohinga during a training session on the Waikato River in Kirikiriroa. 

“The best paddlers from around the world will all come together to race and we’ll see who comes out on top. My biggest goal is to come home with a gold medal around my neck.” 

As a sport that is deeply rooted in the Pacific, Manawa highlights the special connection teams from this part of the world have with waka ama. 

“It’s a spiritual connection, an ancestral connection, a connection to our ancestors who voyaged the Pacific and arrived to Aotearoa and all the other islands of the Pacific,” he says. 

This year's world champs could not be any further away from the birthplace of waka ama, which is more globally known and recognised as Va’a. Manawa says the fact the world championships is being held in England shows the rise in the sport’s popularity around the world. 

“It’s awesome for the sport to grow its interest in places like England and Europe,” he says. “It’ll strengthen the sport and increase the competition.”

It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to stay at the top level of waka ama but Manawa’s passion for the sport is what keeps him invested. 

“When I’m on the water it’s always energising and makes me feel happy to come out onto the river and train at something I’m so passionate about.”

This is part of our reo Māori series, Ohinga, created by Mahi Tahi Media, with funding from Te Māngai Pāho and the NZ on Air Public Interest Journalism Fund.

Stay tuned for a new episode every week.

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