Family Fortunes

In the latest of our features in the countdown to the 2021 NCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships later this month, we focus on how family support has formed the bedrock of the success enjoyed by the MacGibbon siblings.

When the brother and sister act Thomas and Natasha MacGibbon hit the water at the 2021 NZCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships the Arawa Club duo will be hunting precious metal across a wide range of events.

Yet none of their success would be possible without the love and support of mum Sheryl and dad Paul – who like so many parents have invested huge time, energy and financial support into assisting their kids’ sporting ambitions.

Based in the Christchurch suburb of Westmorland, the MacGibbon family have been engaged in sport for as long as they remember. In his younger days Thomas, 17, played rugby and was a promising gymnast. Natasha, two years Thomas’ junior, played hockey and trampoline.

The pair later discovered competitive swimming and also compete for the Taylor’s Mistake surf lifesaving club with Thomas currently a member of the Junior Black Fins squad.

However, they were introduced to kayaking through their cousin Jake Koekemoer, who still competes today for Arawa.

“Jake was a surf lifesaver and had started kayaking to improve his ski,” explains Natasha. “Thomas went along first and I think I got dragged along a couple of months later.”

“I really enjoyed messing around with my cousin and spending extra time with him,” adds Thomas (below left) who was aged 12 at the time. “I quickly found the right coach and loved it.”

Natasha was initially less convinced. After a brief flirtation with kayaking she took a one-year break from the sport before returning and finding life in a kayak a more attractive proposition second time around.

Under the coaching of Leigh Barker – a teacher at Cashmere High School where the MacGibbon’s are both students – the pair quickly started to thrive; regularly winning medals on the national stage.

For mum, Sheryl, a former horse rider, and dad, Paul, an ex-competitive sailor and skier – their kids venture into kayaking was a step into the unknown, but one both parents were happy to embrace.

“It has been an interesting journey for us and along the way we’ve had to pick up quite a lot of info,” explains Sheryl. “And this has meant quite a lot of reading.”

One of the greatest challenges – as any parent can attest – is the many hours spent in the car transporting kids to and from training.

Which in the case of sports crazy Natasha (see below left) and Thomas, that involves 12 training sessions per week across three sports; swimming, surf lifesaving and kayaking.

“We’ve made it work,” adds Sheryl. “We have our own bakery business, but that in some ways (given the flexibility we have) this makes it easier,” explains Sheryl. “Thankfully we haven’t had to call on too many people to help us, but we would always support the kids. 

“Training can start as early as 5.30am and the final training can end as late as 7pm and they have to fit school in between,” adds Paul, who often starts work at 1am in his role at the bakery. “Although life has become much easier since Thomas now has his own drivers’ licence.”

Travel to regattas is also not always straight-forward. Typically the MacGibbon family would catch a flight attend one Blue Lake regatta as well as nationals. But if on trailer duty for the Arawa Club this can involve a 20-hour drive from Christchurch to Rotorua or Lake Karapiro. 

Naturally, this involves great time and expense for parents while accommodation is often a motel or hotel.

“We find it a little easier staying in a motel or hotel,” explains Paul. “But it is important to remember that when they are back after a day of competing, we need to allow them a bit of downtime, so they can relax.”

Both Thomas and Natasha, who last year at nationals snared eight gold medals between them, are hopeful of another good showing in this year’s edition as both paddlers target selection for the 2021 World Junior Championships in Portugal.

Yet whatever the sacrifices both parents have made it has been worth it.

“The sport has given them great discipline,” explains Sheryl. “It is not easy to train in the winter in the cold. Both have really grown as part of a strong training group led by Scott Martlew (the two-time Para World Championship medallist). 

The group are very focused and a great bunch.”  

“We are very proud of both of them and what they have achieved. We’ve supported them all the way and put a lot into them.

As Natasha acknowledges: “Mum and dad have played taxi driver and funded our kayak careers. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

A fact which will be roundly echoed by scores of paddlers competing at Lake Karapiro later this month.