At the tender age of 13, Shakira Mirfin was travelling the world, wearing the silver fern and racing her BMX bike.
It was an exhilarating, sometimes crazy, time for the young girl from Invercargill. And she loved it. That was until the ramps got bigger and the jumps got higher, and Mirfin decided she’d had enough.
She looked for a new sporting challenge to satisfy her thirst for fitness. So she threw down her bike, and jumped in a boat.
You may wonder why the 14-year-old would choose rowing, which requires being on the water at dawn on misty cold mornings (especially in Southland)?
Mirfin is a smart cookie. “I don’t train in the mornings,” she says. “My coach is a postie”.
Yes, Mirfin is coached by Jack Allan – a renowned Southland rowing coach who also delivers the post in his day job.
“Over the years I haven’t seen the benefits of early morning trainings,” says Allan, who’s also coached New Zealand U21 crews. “It’s not a good idea to get kids up at 4.30am – I think it’s detrimental to them.”
So Mirfin goes to the gym before school at Southland Girls’ High each morning, and is out on the water for a couple of hours in the afternoon, once Allan finishes his rounds.
Their regime seems to be working. For the last two years, Mirfin has won the single sculls in her age-group at the Maadi Cup, the national championships for school rowing.
It’s quite a feat for a school that doesn’t have a strong rowing programme. But Allan says Mirfin is one out of the box.
In his 16 years coaching, Allan has worked with some hard-toiling rowers. “But Shakira is different,” he says. “She’s exceptional.”
This week, Mirfin is back on Lake Karapiro trialling for the New Zealand junior team to race at the world championships in Tokyo in August.
If she makes it, the 16-year-old will be contesting her second world championships, but in a very different sport than her first.
Mirfin started off on a BMX having watched her brother, Zachariah, and cousins riding on the Invercargill bike track managed by her uncle.
She quickly became one of the best girls on a bike, and is believed to have been the first Southlander to represent New Zealand in BMX. At 13, she rode at the 2015 world championships in Belgium, where she finished sixth in her semi-final. “It was pretty crazy,” she says. “I loved the environment, surrounded by riders from all different countries.”
After winning the national U14 title the following year, Mirfin called it quits.
“I really enjoyed the fitness side of it, but I was reaching the next level of BMX, and I probably wasn’t ready for it,” she says.
She discovered rowing just as she’d found BMX – watching her older siblings Zachariah and sister Ariana compete in the sport. They were medallists at club and university level.
Her parents double-checked that she was happy with her decision. “In the beginning, they weren’t too sure – it was quite a change. But they were really supportive when I’d made up my mind,” Mirfin says.
“The hardest thing was that I’d travelled a lot with BMX, and I felt I was giving all that up to do a brand new sport.” But Mirfin certainly hasn’t sat still.
Rowing with the Invercargill club and at school, Mirfin enjoyed being part of a crew: “it hypes you up more”. But it’s in the single scull where she’s really made her mark.
At last year’s Maadi Cup in Twizel, Mirfin won the U16 single sculls. On Lake Karapiro this year, she claimed the U17 girls singles title, winning the final convincingly, by over 4s, from Holly Chaafe of Mt Albert Grammar.
Her latest victory came with a special prize – a custom-built Laszlo skiff for Mirfin and her school. Mirfin hopes to row in it at next year’s Maadi Cup, where she’ll look to add the national under-18 title to her achievements.
Since 2018, Aon’s ‘Maadi Cup Legacy’ initiative has presented new boats to the schools of the U17 girls and boys champions.
“We recognised that not every school has the resource and the numbers of participants to enter an eight, but most schools could participate in a single scull event,” says Russell Bailey, deputy managing director of Aon.
“It’s exciting for all schools to receive a new skiff, but especially for a school that doesn’t have a big rowing programme. If it helps them help a student achieve their goals next year, then we’ve done what we set out to do.”
Southland Girls’ had a team of just three rowers at the Maadi Cup this year, so the new $10,700 skiff may help draw in more potential scullers at the school.
“It would be cool if we had a bigger crew,” Mirfin says. “But I feel coming from Southland, it makes you more determined when you race the bigger schools – and then you beat them.”
In a boat – as she was on a bike – Mirfin is driven by a desire to always push herself to new limits. “When the other rowers are all around you, it motivates you to sprint to the finish,” she says.
That can be a good thing, and a bad thing, explains her coach.
“At the Maadi Cup this year, the under-17 singles had one of the biggest fields – 69 rowers across nine heats. So Shakira has had to learn to pace herself, and not show everything on day one,” Allan says.
“She’s done exceptionally well to now understand that, early in a regatta, to have people in front of you at that stage is not a bad thing; you just have to qualify. She sees the sense in that now.”
Allan has worked with a number of promising rowers in his career. One of them was young Southlander Tess Young, who won the U18 singles title at the 2011 Maadi Cup – but ironically left her boat for a bike in 2014, (the same year Mirfin made her switch, but in reverse). Young then teamed up with world BMX star Sarah Walker to win the national team sprint title on the cycling track.
Allan says Mirfin’s attitude is exemplary – and it’s not just in her training. “She goes to regattas with her schoolwork, and she actually does it. It’s not just sport she wants to excel in; she wants to excel in life.”
Despite its geographical isolation, Southland has turned out some exceptional rowers in the past decade who learned their craft on the Oreti River – the likes of Olympians Storm and Jade Uru, Nathan Cohen, Louise Ayling and Genevieve Behrent.
Does Mirfin have what it takes to add her name to that impressive list?
“She’s definitely got the work ethic and determination, but it really depends on which direction she wants to go,” Allan says. “Rowing is a pretty ruthless sport.
“There aren’t many [top rowers] who haven’t had setbacks and experienced hard times, but they are determined and hungry for success. Shakira is a confident young woman, who goes in with the attitude ‘respect your opposition but don’t be scared of them’. She has some big shoes to fill, but she’s up to it.”
Mirfin is eyeing up a move north in two year’s time to Waikato University – to study law and row in crews. “It’s a nice climate up there too,” she says.
She looks to former world champion and three-time Olympic single sculler Emma Twigg as a role model and, like most young rowers, the Olympics are her ultimate goal. But for now she’s content to see where the river takes her.