Finn and Oliver’s Transformative PaddleAble Journey

Oliver holds his medal at podium of National Championships

If the PaddleAble programme needed a ringing endorsement it came from the words of Erina Emery, mum of emerging paracanoe paddler Oliver.  At the 2023 NZCT New Zealand and Oceania Canoe Sprint Championships at Lake Karapiro, Oliver, who took up the sport just 8 weeks earlier, claimed four bronze medals (three  in the novice races and one in the Para K1 200m final).

And the joy in her son’s achievements was crystal clear in mum’s emotions. Yet her unrestrained ecstasy was less about the podium finishes, it was how PaddleAble had proved transformative for her 15-year-old son.


“He’s now got a real purpose and a great community he can be involved in,” explains Erina. “It is not about the winning but being part of an amazingly supportive community of cool people. This is a sport he can do for the rest of his life but also one he can do for leisure alongside non-disabled paddlers.”


Oliver, a student at Auckland Grammar School, is just one positive example of the PaddleAble programme designed to enable paddling clubs/providers or events to better cater for disabled people and deliver positive paddling experiences.


Led by Canoe Racing NZ Projects Manager Aaron Osborne, PaddleAble was set up after the sport was one of 16 to receive funding from the Sport NZ Disability Fund to engage more with the disability community.


With 24 per cent – almost one in four adult Kiwis – identifying as having a disability – Canoe Racing NZ saw huge opportunities to “shift the needle” in disability inclusive paddling opportunities and Aaron set about changing the approach.


“This is not about high performance funding for Paracanoe but it was to enable clubs to be more inclusive of those with a disability in the hope of attracting more disabled people to the sport”.


Connecting with the like of Blind Sport NZ, the Halberg Foundation and several Parafed organisations to inquire about how best to support disabled paddlers the project was piloted at North Shore Canoe Club.


Canoe Racing NZ provide frameworks and support to allow the clubs and providers to deliver quality and equitable paddling opportunities for those living with impairments through the provision of education, resources, systems and equipment. A project which aligns with and supplements the Try Learn Explore programme.


“The project is to learn and understand and then provide education and change systems to promote a long-term shift.  We could theoretically go out tomorrow and organise lots of disabled people to try kayaking once. However, we want to provide a more sustainable model driven by the clubs. We are trying to shift the culture of the sport to raise awareness and have more coaches aware of the needs of disabled paddlers. It could be around equipment needs or even as simple as when a paddler first signs up for the club having an option for that paddler to say they have an impairment.”


The North Shore club have also seen the benefits of the programme with the development of paddlers such as Oliver Emery and Finn Murphy.


Finn sits in boat at dock preparing for race at National Champs


Finn, who had his leg amputated last year following a motorbike accident, was keen to engage with a sport and after learning about PaddleAble and given a reply by Aaron to an inquiry email within 25 minutes he was impressed.


“After moving so quickly I thought this must be a good organisation to be involved with and I started paddling late last year,” explains Finn.


A former national club champion rower, Finn had a desire to paddle because it was a water-based sport with a relaxed atmosphere. And since joining North Shore Canoe Club, Finn has been given great support and he has thoroughly embraced his paddling journey.


“It is cool to be part of a club and I’ve enjoyed both being a part of that competitive environment and that social aspect of meeting lots of new people,” adds the Auckland-based paddler who builds swimming pools.


“It is a crazy to think I can come in as a novice and share the water with paddlers of the calibre as Aimee Fisher (2021 World K1 500m champion) and Corbin Hart (2020 Paralympian). When I’m in the water it feels therapeutic, it doesn’t feel like I have a disability. When in a kayak it is almost meditative.”


Oliver has similarly been impressed with the support offered as part by PaddleAble. He has progressed through different boat types at North Shore Canoe Club and praises the welcoming nature of the sport.


“When I first started I had one-on-one coaching support from Josh Bull,” adds Oliver. “Since then my kayaking has evolved through coaching support from Gavin Elmiger and also Connor Hamschmidt, I’ve got a better style and form and I’m getting faster. I can’t believe how far I’ve come. I’ve loved kayaking from the start. It is so nice and soothing to be out on the water.”


The impact has already been seismic on those kayakers who have experienced PaddleAble and Aaron insists the next steps are to enable every club in the country to be PaddleAble endorsed. He acknowledges the changes will take time to bed in but it is worthy project which will introduce many new paddlers to the sport.

“We are having those conversations with the clubs and coaches to participate in education and make them more aware. We hope of course to have more disabled paddlers out on the water – that is the first aim. If we then have some who are interested in racing, that’s great.”


But the final word goes to Erina, mum of Oliver, who wholeheartedly supports the benefits of PaddleAble.


“I would absolutely encourage anyone to get involved in PaddleAble. “It is such a kind, nurturing, beautiful community and it is something that many people with a disability can comfortably do alongside other paddlers.”


***If your club or organistion would like to become PaddleAble endorsed or work towards becoming more Disability Inclusive please make contact with Aaron Osborne –

***If you would like to learn more about PaddleAble click here

***If you are interested in attending PaddleAble Disability Inclusion Education please complete the following form click here

***If you would like to learn more about Paracanoe racing click here