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Lifesaver Lucy stays true to her Niuean roots

Had Ray Makaea not been washed out to sea off Auckland’s wild west coast, his daughter Lucy would not be telling this story.

As a young man, Niuean-born Ray was caught in a rip current while swimming at Bethells Beach. He was strong, a rugby player, but didn’t know what to do in the churning waters. Fortunately surf lifesavers came to his rescue, hauling him out of the sea.

He then made a pledge that his children would learn to swim in New Zealand's surf so they would know exactly what to do should they ever get in trouble.

“Dad really wanted to make sure we didn’t make the same mistake; that we learned from what he did,” Lucy Makaea says.

Lucy and her younger brother Noah took their dad’s advice a step further, and became surf lifesavers.

Lucy Makaea has become one of the best young surf lifesavers in New Zealand – a world youth champion, no less.

And, you could argue, the 18-year-old is Niue’s No.1 surf lifesaver too - even though the island in the middle of the Pacific doesn't have a single surf beach.

Makaea's father first left his Niuean village of Mutalau at the age of five, coming to New Zealand with his brothers and grandparents. And Makaea, although born here, has held on tightly to her Niuean roots.

“All of my surf lifesaving gear has Polynesian designs, like tapa cloth,” she says. “I try to stay true to my roots through my equipment. I want to expose it to everyone because I’m so proud of it.

“The Niuean community is just so tight. Everyone supports me - people from my village, and other villages. They keep up-to-date with what I’m doing and congratulate me.

“There aren’t many athletes of Polynesian descent in surf lifesaving, which is a real shame. But there’s so much support for what I’m doing, which gives me an extra lift.”

Makaea was eight when she was first introduced to surf lifesaving at Auckland’s Muriwai Beach: “I was good at it; I just loved being in the ocean and catching waves.”

She joined the Orewa Surf Life Saving Club – a 45 minute drive for mum Gillian from their home in Henderson – and immediately started hauling in medals and records, both in the surf and the pool. She's stood out in her age groups right through to national level.

Lucy Makaea beats Sophie Hildesley to win the beach flags at the NZ U14 surf lifesaving champs in Mount Maunganui. Photo: Jamie Troughton, Dscribe Media.

For four years in a row, Makaea has been the U19 sportswoman of the year in surf lifesaving’s northern region. Last year, she was crowned New Zealand’s U19 Ironwoman, the event that combines the four main disciplines of the sport – swimming, running, surf ski paddling and board paddling.

This year the ironwoman title went to Black Fin Olivia Corrin, after Makaea found it tough going in the surf.

“I was in the top pack, but I got jagged a couple of times,” she says. (To be ‘jagged’ is when someone catches a wave behind you and surfs pasts you). “At the end of the day it’s surf, and that’s what happens.”

Naturally, the highlight of Makaea’s career so far has been representing New Zealand in the Junior Black Fins at last year’s world youth surf lifesaving championships in Adelaide. She brought home eight medals, including team gold in the beach relay and the 4 x 25m manikin relay, and an individual silver in the 100m manikin tow with fins.

She also helped the New Zealand team pip Australia to win the overall team world title.

Earlier this month, Makaea wore the colours of the Currumbin Beach Vikings club at the Australian pool rescue championships on the Gold Coast, and collected three gold, three silver and three bronze medals. She also set three New Zealand records and two Australian records in the process.

“To have my name on an Australian individual record is honestly the best thing ever,” she says. “Everything is paying off.”

Makaea trains six days a week – twice a day, and sometimes three. Each morning, she’s in the pool at 6am for two hours with the Mt Eden swim club.

In her first year out of Avondale College, she’s studying for a bachelor of communications degree at AUT. She wants to be a sports journalist: “I really want to write about sport because it’s been such a significant part of my life.”

On the train ride home, she studies before heading to her evening training swim.

In her spare time, she coaches the junior nippers at the Piha Surf Life Saving Club, now her home club. “I love helping out the kids. When they do well, I get a buzz out of it,” she says.

“Managing everything is hard, but I’m still staying on top of things. If I’m tired, the determination to achieve my goals overpowers everything.”

Rather than brushing him off in sibling rivalry, Makaea says she’s fortunate to have her brother Noah – who’s surf lifesaving in the under 16 age division - alongside her in the pool each day.

“He’s at the age where he’s the same speed as me, so we push each other. It’s good to have my own little training partner now,” she laughs.

Lucy Makaea was named U19 Sportswoman of the Year at the 2019 Surf Life Saving Northern Region Awards. Photo: supplied. 

Until recently, Makaea was coached by four-time Olympian Steven Ferguson – who was head coach at the Piha club, until he joined Emirates Team NZ’s sailing crew for the 2021 America’s Cup defence. Ferguson swam and kayaked at the Olympics, but was also a world surf lifesaving champion.

Now she’s under the guidance of Piha’s new head coach Bjorn Battaerd, and gets help with her swimming technique from legendary Mt Maunganui coach, John ‘Spindles’ Bryant. “I send him videos of my technique in the pool,” Makaea says. “He’s played a huge part in what I’m achieving now.”

Her talent has been recognised, too, by the Tania Dalton Foundation - she was one of the original 11 scholarship recipients chosen last year. She receives $15,000 over three years, and mentoring from Amanda Gilchrist from the First Foundation (which helps talented students from low-decile schools through tertiary education).

"Lucy is exceptional - so talented, determined, self-motivated... and so busy. She just trains her butt off," Gilchrist says. 

Makaea is now in the New Zealand development squad, and her focus is squarely on making the step up to the open women’s grade, and a place in the Black Fins.

She’s training to make the Black Fins team for the Orange Cup in Germany later this year, and the 2020 world championships in Italy.

“It’s within hands reach. I’ve just got to keep grinding it out and staying motivated,” she says. “And maybe break more records.”

The village of Mutalau will be loudly cheering her on from the Rock of Polynesia.  

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