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Olympic canoeist finds balance on and off the water

Ella Nicholas 1
Practice makes perfect: Cook Islands Olympian Ella Nicholas starts another training session at The Groynes, Christchurch. PHOTO: Nicole Lawton.

Fifth-year medical student, Ella Nicholas is completing an Orthopedics and Neurology round at Christchurch Hospital — and pursuing a world-class kayaking career.

Nicholas placed 18th in her division at the 2012 London Olympics and has her sights set on a medal at the Rio Olympics in two years time.

Born and raised in Tauranga with Cook Island heritage, Nicholas competes for the Cook Islands on the international stage and competitive kayaking has taken her to at least 18 countries: France, Brazil, China and Germany to name a few.

Slovenia is her favourite so far.

“The capital city Ljubljana has a beautiful river running through it, perfect for flat water training,” she says.

“And it’s just not that touristy.”

Back home, her typical day sandwiches a nine-to-five stint at the hospital between two intensive canoe-training sessions. On top of that she squeezes in study, socialising, and, once a week, Game of Thrones.

Best friend Claire Munro says regardless of how busy Nicholas is, she always has time for people. “She just never fails to put a smile on your face.”

Nicholas also dabbles in French, yoga and blogging – her adolescent nickname “Ella-over-achiever” is well earned — but she gave up playing basketball and canoe polo this year, much to her dismay.

Remarkably, completing a medical degree while kayaking the world “one artificial river at a time” is not unusual in the Nicholas clan: Ella’s older brother Bryden and her younger sister Jane have also studied medicine while canoeing competitively.

Nicholas says most of her inspiration comes from her brother. He is the one who introduced her to kayaking, and wishes only the best for his younger sister.

“She has always been a tough little nut,” he says.

Now a full-time surgeon at Auckland’s North Shore Hospital, he has had to make the difficult decision to give up competitive kayaking to concentrate on his work and Nicholas says there will be a point where she, too, will have to choose medicine over kayaking.

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“I want to do surgery, which is a really long haul and hard, so I think that after Rio ’16 I will have to focus on getting my med career sorted and continue kayaking only as a hobby.”

Attending the 2012 Olympics was an amazing experience, Nicholas says, but she prefers the smaller competitions: the New Zealand Canoeing Open, North Island Champs and Oceania Champs, where she placed in the top 10 at each event.

That intense sporting career has taught her a lot about herself.

“When I first started university, I expected too much of myself, then I would always be letting myself down.

“But now I have figured out a training programme that works so that I’m still passing medicine and managing to fit everything in. So I think I’ve become more realistic and also more positive.”

Kayaking is a crazy sport, she says. Being the best in the world is no guarantee of a medal – so much comes down to chance on the water.

“So I’ve realised that I’ve just got to be positive and take what I can out every race.

“At the end of the day if I don’t get a medal, I don’t want to look back and think ‘well that was a waste of time’.”

_Nicole Lawton