July 23, 2021, is not a date many people have reason to remember, but for Kirsten Fisher-Marsters, who carried the Cook Islands flag on that day during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, it will always have special significance. A talented breaststroke swimmer currently based in Kirikiriroa Hamilton, Kirsten is a bit of a hero in the Cook Islands. She’s represented the island nation at several high-profile swimming competitions, including three world championships, the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast in 2018 and Birmingham, England last year, with the highlight being the Olympics in Japan.
But for Kirsten, who is 24 and engaged to be married, life is about to change. While continuing to compete at an international level, she’s now developing a career in sports management while working in events at Cycling New Zealand’s base, the Grassroots Velodrome in Cambridge.
Working part-time at Hyundai for four years as a relationship ambassador (a job which came about through the Pinnacle Programme) allowed her to continue her 24-hour-a-week training schedule and extracurricular study for a degree in sports management through Massey University. Her five-year plan includes post-graduate study in the field. “I want to learn as much as I can about international sports management,” she says. “I am excited about the future. I think it’s moving naturally in the right direction.”
For now, swimming continues to occupy most of her time. As well as competing in the FINA World Swimming Championships in Melbourne this past December, Kirsten is involved in the Cook Islands athletes’ commission, a member organisation funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to advocate for athletes. “My task now is to give back and get something going for the next generation of athletes,” she says.
As part of the athletes’ commission, her specific interest is in providing support to young Cook Islands athletes. “No matter who you are, coming down off the enormous highs of big events can be hard. You work so hard to get there, then afterwards there is an adjustment period that can leave you feeling flat. I think it’s something that affects everyone in different ways, so it’s about finding positive ways to cope with that,” she says. With the support of the commission, she’d like to connect athletes afterwards, and bring a bit more of a community together. “I’d also like to get more Cook Islanders into leadership roles and governance roles within sport – it’s about creating pathways for that to happen.”
Kirsten has been involved in the Cook Islands swimming team since she was at school, when swim coach Horst Miehe and Cook Islands Aquatics Federation Romani Katoa, who have been key to the development of international competitive swimming by Cook Islanders, invited her to join the team. (She qualified to represent the country through her father.) It’s been a life-changing experience for her. “I didn’t know at the time how much swimming for the Cook Islands would mean to me, but it got serious very quickly,” she says. “I have a lot of people to thank, and it’s been a big part of the person I’ve become.”
While the hours of training required at her level tend to take over a swimmer’s life, Kirsten has always found time for other interests. At Botany Downs Secondary School, she was an all-rounder – academic, sporty, arty and a leader. She was deputy head girl in her final year. She also had a flair for innovation. Not content with being a champion in the pool, she proved she could walk on water too. Her science fair invention, “water striders”, won a $10,000 patent prize package on the TV show Let’s Get Inventin’.
Art, meanwhile, keeps her grounded in difficult times; not only through those post-swimming-meet blues, but through the pandemic lockdowns and the disappointment of the postponed Olympic Games in 2020. “I’ve developed my own coping mechanisms,” she says. “I tend to pick up a paintbrush and start painting.”
Kirsten believes the Pinnacle Programme, in particular the mentoring she received in Stage 3 at Kai Waho, gave her the confidence to develop as an individual. “When I applied, I was quite a different person,” she says. “I went into the Pinnacle Programme hoping to find a path. Pinnacle provides a great opportunity to meet people and put yourself into environments that aren’t comfortable, but that you can learn from.”
This piece is republished with permission from The Pinnacle Annual, a Hyundai New Zealand and Pinnacle Programme publication.
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