From the South Pacific to London 2012 - Williams prepares to become part of Olympic history


On move-in Monday she will pick up the key to her little Olympic home by the sea. Only a few people in the world ever do that. Then, 11 days later, she will move up to the capital to carry the flag of the Cook Islands, at the head of an 11-strong team, including three officials, into the world spotlight of the brand new Olympic Stadium in London. Only a few Olympians in the world ever do that.

She is Helema Williams, 20 years old with five elder brothers, a younger sister, and two immensely proud parents. She speaks quietly, even nervously, but there is a streak of steel in this South Pacific islander.

Many may have heard of the Cook Islands and some know of the holiday island of Rarotonga but only a few of the tens of thousands sitting in that vip-packed arena for the London 2012 opening ceremony will be familiar with Manihiki, one of the northern Cook Islands.

Helema Wiliams has come from the other side of the world and a remote South Pacific island to take on the world. Her participation in London 2012 is in exactly the spirit in which the modern Olympic Games were originally conceived.

She may not expect to go home with a gold medal, but, when she first takes to the water in anger, it will be the culmination of years and years of practicing, training, and listening to the constant encouragement of her mother, Catherine. Mum is Tahitian, dad Jean-Marie is one of 11 children, and pearl fishing runs in the family.

“My mum inspired me,” said Helema – here name is a combination of grandmother Helena and great-aunt Emma – as she sat in the Royal Lymington Yacht Club.

At the bottom of England’s New Forest at the western end of a stretch of water called The Solent, that is where she has been training solidly since the end of April with coach Ben Paton and training partner, fellow Cook Islander Taua Elisa. Britain’s persistent torrential rain they know from summer at home: the temperature has been less appealing.

It is a long way from taking to the water sailing Optimists while at school in Ruamanu and moving up to the Olympic Laser Radial class in which she now competes at Tereora College in Rarotonga. Sailing has taken her round the world to race in Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Germany and the UK. Business studies were terminated after a year at Manukau Institute, Auckland. “I stopped school to go full-time training when I received an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship,” explains Helema. But she still takes her sketch book everywhere.  She enjoys sketching and painting.

As she packed up the Lymington training boat, supplied for the duration by Cook Islanders John and Anne Tierney, handed back the rented rigid inflatable coach boat, and waved goodbye to Taua, she knew that the next stop was the drive west along the coast to Weymouth, which is where the London 2012 sailing events will be staged. There, in addition to the key to the flat in the athletes’ village, she will also be supplied with her competition boat.

She was in reflective mood. “My mum wasn’t a sailor herself, but she always pushed me. I have never looked for role models, I don’t want to be like someone else, I just want to be like me. But, I know that, as well as also wanting to be back again at the next Games in Rio in 2016, there are more young sailors back at home and I also hope to help them, perhaps inspire some of them. That applies not just to other sailors but to all the Cook Islands athletes who want to make it to the Olympics.”

When she first arrived to compete on the European circuit, including at last year’s pre-Olympics on the Weymouth courses, she was “very excited. But eventually you get homesick, she said.”

Not least for home cooking. Helema will not be living in luxury in Weymouth. She has a nutrition programme and she will take her shopping list, as will many athletes, down to the supermarket and cook in a communal kitchen. Contrast that with the huge support brought by the lavishly-funded teams from Europe, other Australasian teams, and the United States.

The British, seeking to be top dog for the third Games running, have coaches, physiotherapists, a meteorological team, even sports psychologists to nurse their competitors, including taking their own travelling cooks, for years ahead and every hour they are racing.

“My problem is that I really like rice but I will have to cut down on carbohydrates for any evening meals before racing,” she says, adding: “I am not really a morning person and have always preferred afternoon or evening training sessions.”

Most of the racing is in the afternoon, but the weather can change the timing and the boat park is alive from before 09.00 every morning. Helema, who is right in the ideal zone for the Laser Radial dinghy at 1.7m and 68-70kgs, says she prefers light and tricky conditions. Murphy’s law says she can be sure they will be breezy. She is, says her coach Ben Paton, “really good at making quick decisions” and has set herself the target of turning her wild card qualification into a top 30 finish.

Back home, a family that is famous in the local pearl trade has a different kind of pearl to treasure. “So far, not bad for someone coming from a little island,” says Helema. Whatever happens over the next three weeks, that little island of Manihiki joins the annals of Olympic history.    

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