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On a hot summer afternoon beside the Waikato River at Tuakau, a dozen young kids are playing in the water before being called ashore and formed into a circle.

Lifejackets on and paddles in hand, they do a few quick warm-up exercises, perform a karakia then help carry two waka - Rehumoana and Rehutai - down the gentle slope and into the water.

Within minutes, they’re away, paddlng in unison downstream before turning around a river marker and heading back upstream against the current.

It’s one of their last training sessions before the Te Wānanga o Aotearoa National Waka Ama Sprint Champs, that concludes tomorrow.

That the youngsters are able to compete this week is remarkable, given their club was the victim of an arson attack last year.

The club, Waka Tangata o Te Awhinamai Te Toki ki Tuakau, lost its three waka to a suspicious fire in early November – a key period when the paddlers were beginning their training for the national champs.

Club president Rosalie Ellis says thanks to two waka Te Wānanga o Aotearoa loaned the club - along with two others from parent club Te Toki Voyaging Trust - paddlers were able to maintain their training schedule largely uninterrupted.

“There was no break in training, they were able to continue on through so they’ve got no excuses,” she says.

However, the attack on the treasured waka “hit the club hard”.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve, but one thing is for sure, they have really hurt our kids.”

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa chief executive Dr Jim Mather says it was an easy decision to provide the waka to the club in its time of need.

“Waka ama provides massive benefits for paddlers and helps bring communities together so anything we can do to support that is well worthwhile,” he says.

“This would have been a devastating experience for everyone in the community but it’s great the club members have been able to keep training and we’re looking forward to seeing them where they should be - on the water - during the week.”

The club is fielding about a dozen teams at the national champs, from midgets through to masters and while Rosalie says it’s about taking part and supporting each other rather than winning, she’s hopeful of some good results.

Following the arson attack, a Givealittle page raised more than $7000 for the club and a Waikato District Council staff fundraiser boosted this by a further $1600. But with a new waka costing about $15,000, fundraising continues.

But not this week, where the focus will be on the racing and the whānaungatanga that comes at one of the biggest sporting events being held in the region, with more than 3000 paddlers taking part.

The Te Wānanga o Aotearoa National Waka Ama Sprint Champs finish on January 20.

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