The fact that the 2021 New Zealand Virtual Paddling Championships is not just about the elite paddlers is perhaps best exemplified by the efforts of Mandy Heim.
Aged 55, Mandy, wife of paddling stalwart Grant Heim, had not even sat in a surf ski until two and a half years ago but thanks to her determination and willingness to give the sport a go she has developed her paddling skills and earlier this week posted a time of 1:21:42.
While Mandy’s time is a little over 30 minutes slower than the current overall leader Ben Keys, it should be acknowledged that the achievements of the Howick-based schoolteacher is no less impressive.
“My story just goes to prove you can learn a very complex and complicated skill at a later age in life,” she adds.
Hailing from Pretoria, South Africa, the Heim’s relocated to start a new life in Auckland more than 25 years ago.
Describing her husband as a “super aquatic man”, Grant excelled in swimming, water polo and surf ski paddling, where he has competed in the iconic Molokai Crossing and in the past placed top eight in the King and Queen of the Harbour event in Auckland. An event he has been involved in for more than 17 years.
Indeed, Mandy recalls many memories of watching her husband compete.
“I’ve been on the support boat during the Molokai and also watched him compete in the Tahiti ocean race,” she says. “I’ve watched and watched over the years but always thought I would never be able to surf ski.”
Mandy formerly competed as an ocean swimmer and ran marathons but decided in her early 50s she needed a fresh training challenge and in December 2018 after her husband bought her an Epic V8 Pro surf ski as a 33rd wedding anniversary present that new challenge was born.
“Absolutely delighted” to receive the gift, she approached nine-time Queen of the Harbour champion Rachel Clarke to teach her the basic skills.
Breaking down the basics of the sport, it nonetheless proved a shock to the system for the mum-of-two.
“At first I spent every session falling in,” she recalls. “I didn’t realise I had little balance. I hated the first few sessions, I was on the verge of tears. It was so hard to learn.
“Having watched paddling for many years, I thought I would be able to transfer the skills but this was not true.”
After an initial grounding by Rachel Clarke, Grant (see pictured above with Mandy) become coach, mentor and guide to his wife. This has been a “blessing in our relationship. I love time on the water with him.”
Adopting a patient approach, Mandy has developed from a “nervous novice on the water” to a more accomplished paddler but she admits none of this would have been possible with her husband’s selfless input.
“At the expense of his own fitness Grant has said for each and every session, I won’t leave you behind,” she adds. “He has taught me everything he knows. I’m a visual learner and sometimes he has coached me about surf ski until he is blue in the face. He has an empathetic approach and that granular processing ability to teach somebody else how to do it, and slowly I’ve improved.”
There have been some bumps in the road. She describes her competitive debut at the 6km event as part of the 2019 King and Queen of the Harbour as “a disaster.”
“I don’t know how many times I fell in,” she recalls.
However, a key turning point in her development came after making the honest appraisal not to paddle in winds of more than 12 knots.
“I remember one day going out on a calm day of less challenging conditions when I suddenly was in the mental space where I owned the paddle,” she adds. Waves aren’t a challenge anymore, they’re a help.
Training 3-4 times a week with the paddlers at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club she has continued to develop and last year successfully competed at the King and Queen of the Harbour and Cambridge to Hamilton races.
Now with a much greater knowledge of pacing, speed and heart-rate, the Virtual Paddling Champs presented an irresistible opportunity to compete in a controlled environment.
“The adrenaline and chaos of an actual surf ski event can be quite intimidating for me but I can take my time competing in virtual event. I can manage the conditions and it is far less pressurising. Besides I get to choose the course!”
Mandy registered her first time for the national surf ski championships on a light north easterly breeze, setting off from Okahu Bay heading out towards Devonport then towards Auckland Harbour Bridge and then back to the starting point.
She clocked a time of 1:21:42 and was proud of her efforts.
“I was pleased with the time because last year when I did a 12km time trial, I recorded 1:57,” she says. “I now hope to compete at least three more times (in the Virtual Paddling Champs) and the goal now is to get under 1:20.”
So why would she encourage other paddlers, even those towards the back of the pack, to give it a go?
“The beauty of the virtual champs is you have the option to compete in manageable conditions,” she says. “On a calm day the less experienced paddlers will be surprised what they are capable of achieving.”