One family: three doctors and three Olympians?
Kiwi doctor Jane Nicholas has her sights set on paddling at the Tokyo 2021 Games - becoming the third sibling in a remarkable family to compete at an Olympics.
Jane Nicholas is following in the footsteps of her older brother and sister in more ways than one.
The canoe slalom paddler took a philosophical attitude towards the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, considering she had resigned from her job at the Bay of Plenty District Health Board at the end of May last year to dedicate herself to her Olympic dream.
Maybe it’s the medical side in her, having that clearer understanding of what could be at stake, combined with the knowledge that at least she can still make it to the Games when they eventually take place in July 2021.
It will enable Nicholas to make it a hat-trick of Olympic appearances for her family in the same sport, following on from her brother, Bryden, and sister, Ella. And it will also maintain the line of representing the Cook Islands, which she calls one of her two home countries.
But what makes Nicholas’ story even more fascinating is that she’s also trailing behind her siblings in another respect - keeping up a family calling pursuing a career in medicine.
So let’s start with the dual country chapter of her story.
Nicholas was born in Te Puna, near Tauranga. At six months old, her parents took her to visit family in Rarotonga - her dad, Rob, grew up in the Cooks, and moved to New Zealand at 15 with a high school scholarship.
“I’ve been back at least once every year of my life,” Jane Nicholas says. “I feel a very strong connection to the Cooks.’’
Nicholas was like so many Kiwi youngsters - into most sports, and trying her hand to see what fitted best.
At Tauranga Girls High, she dabbled in water polo, basketball, netball, volleyball, cross country and canoe polo. By her final year, she had narrowed it down to basketball and canoe slalom.
She started in a canoe when she was 12, following her brother into the water.
“My sister and I spent time on the riverbank watching him. We loved it and had some natural ability as well, and I kept doing it through high school," she says.
“We had kayaking lessons at Waimarino Adventure Park [near Bethlehem] after school. We had a group of friends and we’d all go together, but I was lucky to have a brother and sister doing the same thing.
“That was a huge support for me. We’d all go training in the morning, then Bryden would drop Ella and me at Tauranga Girls and he'd go off to Tauranga Boys.’’
Neither parent was into the sport, although their mum, Sue Clarke, has become a lifetime member of the national association and is involved in organising the world junior slalom championships at Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau next year.
It was big sister Ella who first competed at an Olympics, racing at the 2012 London Games for the Cook Islands and finishing 18th in the K1 category.
She was 18th again four years later in Rio, where she was also the Cook Islands flagbearer at the opening ceremony; Bryden made his Olympic debut, finishing 21st in the men’s K1.
Meanwhile, Jane was making progress. She first represented New Zealand at a senior level in her late teens, at a 2010 World Cup event in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain - the significance of which will soon become apparent.
For several years she plugged along on the world circuit, albeit in the shadow of her good friend Luuka Jones.
Jones has presented a substantial road block to other New Zealand women paddlers, for whom there is routinely just one spot at the Olympics. Jones won silver in the K1 at Rio and is now preparing for her fourth Olympics.
“Luuka and I are very good friends – which is good because we’ve spent a lot of time together,” Nicholas laughs.
“She’s been really supportive of me, always there if I’ve got questions or need some extra advice.’’
Nicholas was in Rio as part of the support group for her siblings, and was on hand to witness Jones step up onto the Olympic medal podium.
“That was hugely inspiring," she says.
Nicholas had taken two years off competition, to concentrate on completing her degree in medicine.
"Maybe my heart wasn’t really in it and I thought I was stretching myself too thinly," she says. “Not being a full-time athlete probably meant part of me didn’t know if I could make it.
“But then after those two years, when I went back to [canoe slalom], it really cemented in me what I wanted to achieve. From that point, I put a lot more work into being where I am at the moment.’’
Nicholas, now 27, qualified for Tokyo at last year’s world championships in La Seu d’Urgell, which she’s come to know well since first dipping her toes into top-level competition there all those years ago.
And the decision to throw her lot in with the Cook Islands? She sought counsel from a range of people before making the switch.
“I didn’t make it lightly. I weighed up a lot of factors," she says. "I felt loyal to New Zealand as they had supported me through my whole slalom career. But I had the support of the Cooks, as well as New Zealand, to make the change.
"To be able to represent the Cooks, who might only have five athletes at the Games, is a pretty privileged position to be in.’’
Bryden, 31, has also qualified to paddle in Tokyo, but at the moment, his work in orthopedic surgery in Rotorua takes priority over training.
Ella, 29, is now a general surgical registrar. She has retired from international competition and is working at Christchurch Hospital.
But Ella has kept involved in the sport, creating a scholarship - the Oceania Legacy Fund - to give young canoe slalom athletes in New Zealand and the Pacific some financial support to get a leg up, in a sport where money isn’t abundant. “She’s hugely supportive of the sport,” Jane says.
Father Rob, a retired GP, has returned to help out in the current pandemic, but also makes frequent trips back to Rarotonga to train future general practitioners.
Jane followed her father and her siblings to Otago University and graduated in November 2016. She went to work at Tauranga Hospital, where they gave her three months off each year to travel and paddle full-time overseas, for which she’s immensely grateful.
When the Olympics eventually start, barring unforeseen changes, Nicholas will have Mike Dawson - New Zealand’s former leading male paddler and multiple Olympic representative - as her coach. Mother Sue will be her manager. And Bryden will be competing alongside her.
“Like all good brothers, I’m sure he'll give me a hard time,” she quips. “But my family, particularly my siblings, are a huge support system to me.’’
Other Olympic athletes may have been shattered by the postponement of the Tokyo Games. But after years of single-minded preparation to peak at a specific time, Nicholas has an even-handed, pragmatic view.
If she didn’t get there for whatever reason, she would be gutted, she admits. "But there are more important things in terms of health and happiness, which rank far higher than getting to the Olympics," she says.
In the meantime, Nicholas is returning to work, signing on with the Ministry of Health to provide voluntary Covid-19 support, plus doing some part-time work, while still keeping up her training as best she can during lockdown. She’s constructed a little gym in the family house at Te Puna.
"You need to be financially sustainable, and obviously that Olympic timeline is now looking a lot longer than I’d thought," she says of returning to work.
“There’s pretty good job security in medicine in general, and at a time like this we're needing an increased workforce for sure.’’
One thought: given her age, the 2024 Paris Olympics will still be within her reach.
“Yes, but this is the chance where I feel I’ll be more in my prime," she says. "I've been able to put down a year and a quarter of solid focus on training towards the Games. And it's been a good time in my medical career to take time off.
“[By 2024] I hope I’ll be on a surgical training programme. The work is obviously more intensive, so while I’m planning to paddle, it will be harder to keep improving like I am now.’’
Nicholas is clearly part of a high-achieving, high-minded family who have worked hard for their opportunities, and then happily put back in to help others, in sport and life.
So here’s to a happy outcome when Tokyo 2021 finally happens.