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Why Barbara Kendall can’t let go of the Olympics

One of our greatest Olympians, Barbara Kendall, may have quit boardsailing a decade ago, but she still can't shake the Olympics. She tells Suzanne McFadden why.

Barbara Kendall has never been one to sit still.

New Zealand’s ‘Rainbow Girl’- with her haul of Olympic gold, silver and bronze - may have ended her boardsailing career a decade ago, but the 51-year-old is still dashing around the globe, switching between her many different hats.

Last week, Kendall was in Japan, for the World Surfing Games, where she was re-elected as vice president of the International Surfing Association. She’s played an integral part in ensuring surfing makes its sporting debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

This week, she’s in Argentina, leading the New Zealand team into the Youth Olympic Games.

Although her 12-year stint on the International Olympic Committee has come to an end, she’s still chair of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Athletes' Commission until the end of the year, and remains on the IOC commission for Women in Sport.

Far removed from the sporting realm, Kendall has also established herself as a ‘champion’ in the business world – running workshops in leadership training and development for some of the country’s big corporates. Forever curious, and intrigued by technology, she’s also on the board of an artificial intelligence company about to list on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.

Despite her myriad roles pulling her in different directions, Kendall reckons she doesn’t travel quite as often as she once did. And that’s been a blessing for her family, she says, as a mum to two teenage daughters, Samantha and Aimee.

That role has probably given her the ideal background for her job as chef de mission of the New Zealand Youth Olympic team in Buenos Aires.

This will be Kendall’s fifth Youth Olympics. She’s been to every edition of the Games, summer and winter, since the first in Singapore in 2010.

In the past, she’s been an “athlete role model” – the four-time world champion there to answer any questions young athletes had about her Olympic journey.

“I love the Youth Olympics, because you get a totally different vibe from the young athletes - they’re really spirited and eager just to play sport,” she says. “The whole ego and money side of it hasn’t filtered into their consciousness, so they’re really raw and genuine. It’s really enjoyable watching the sport, because it’s just pure.”

Kendall moves into the athletes’ village Monday, ready to set up the New Zealand headquarters before the 61-athlete team arrives later this week. The opening ceremony is this weekend.

“There’s not such a big lead-in to these games as there is with an Olympic Games, so you’ve got to hit the ground running,” she says. “A lot of the people going to these games are new to the Olympics – some have never been to a multi-sport event before.”

She’s enjoyed “tuning in” the team’s coaches and support staff to the five pillars of the team’s manaakitanga (or culture): integrity, respect, excellence, leadership and pride. “There’s a lot more communication and awareness around wellness these days. And when you’re dealing with young athletes, it’s even more essential we get all of that right,” she says.

Kendall, of course, never got the chance to go a Youth Olympics as a competitor during her outstanding 24-year career. “It would have been an amazing opportunity, but I got it later on anyway,” she says of her five Olympics as an athlete.

“The closest I got to it was a youth world championships for sailing. It was across all classes, and there were around 10 guys and me in the New Zealand team. There was not one female coach, not one female anything. It was quite a wake-up call for me,” she says.

She’s proud to say that in this New Zealand team, female athletes outnumber the males, and there’s a “good ratio” of women in the support team. She’s also delighted that over a third of the New Zealand athletes are of Māori descent.

New Zealand can also lay claim to having the youngest athlete at the Youth Olympics; Otago swimmer Erika Fairweather was born on the cut-off date for competitors (31 December, 2003), making her just 14 at these Games.

For athletes like sport climber Sarah Tetzlaff, it’s the first time her sport has been included in the Olympic fold.

“The great thing about these young athletes getting the opportunity of an Olympic experience now is that the whole principle behind the Youth Olympic Games is to spread the values that sport can bring, and help them to recognise the leadership skills and competencies you learn from sport,” Kendall says.

“It’s not just a sports event, either. It’s a trade show of education. At every single venue and all through the village there are booths where athletes can take part in all kinds of learning: media training, nutrition, anti-doping education, life after sport, virtual reality analysis, the latest in sports science.

“The focus, of course, is to perform. But with everyone having to stay at the village for the full two weeks, once you’ve competed, you can go around all the education booths, and watch all of the other sports too.”  

Athletes can also try their hand at other codes. Among the 30 sports to dabble in are urban table tennis, roller freestyle, slackline (a form of tightrope walking) and bossaball – a combination of volleyball, soccer and gymnastics, set to music and played on a bouncy, inflatable court. Apparently, it's taking Europe by storm.

The Youth Olympics will also be a kind of family reunion for Kendall. Her brother, Bruce – a two-time Olympic medallist himself – is a sailing coach for the New Zealand team. “It will be fun having him around – he’s always entertaining, and challenging at the same time,” she laughs.

Kendall revels in a good challenge. She’s been running her Champions IQ leadership workshops and development programmes around the country for the last 25 years, and has recently become a non executive director for Arria NLG, an artificial intelligence company that turns heavy financial data into natural language.

“I like staying on top of what’s happening in the world of technology,” she says. “I love learning, so I’ve got to keep going outside my comfort zone and seeing what pops up.”

She misses her time with the IOC: “I didn’t want to leave, because I became so entrenched in it, and I was good at it. But your time runs out.”

And she’ll be sad when she finishes up with the Athletes’ Commission – as its first and only chair. Under her leadership, athletes in every continent now have their voices heard at forums every two years.

“But I know I’ll still be involved in the Olympics in one way or another," she says, "because sport is my life”.

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