/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

Crowdfunding, donations and back-breaking work are how Tuhoto-Ariki Pene pays to compete in mountain bike races. And he’s doing it in honour of the brother he lost to suicide.

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Tuhoto-Ariki Pene soaks up the peace of the forest. A soft breeze rustles through dense green foliage as he takes in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the damp earth.

“It just brings you peace. It's calming, this forest, it’s awesome.”

Suddenly, he’s screaming down through the tree line, dropping his heels to drive his mountain bike forward. 

Reaching speeds of 70kmh or more, Pene negotiates rocks, sharp bends and steep descents. He’s making split-second decisions, jumping over gaps or riding over twisted tree roots. Behind the full-face helmet, he’s utterly focused.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene won the junior men downhill at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Val di Sole in Italy.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene won the junior men downhill at the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup at Val di Sole in Italy.

Competitors race against the clock, testing both their speed and handling skills. 

“I like high speeds. Like, you’re going past a tree at 60-70kmh. You got to get used to looking far ahead,” Pene says.

“You’re following where your eyes go, your bike is following you. And all you're doing is correcting it.  You find your centre of gravity and you just feel as one.

“It's just easy downhill, the big jumps, because you don't really have to pedal as much. That’s why I love it.”

The runs take only a few minutes, with racers flying through rock gardens, launching off unnerving jumps and holding traction through swampy ground and forest-floor roots.

Some courses have flat sections where riders must pedal, pump and jump to maintain their speed.

It’s an adrenaline rush riding those lines - and waiting at the bottom of the run, where rivals can edge ahead of each other by hundredths of a second.

“I take a few breaths,” Pene says.

I get nervous sometimes, but it's a good feeling to have that nervousness before a race. It feels like you're ready.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene

Pene (Te Arawa) has been comfortable in the saddle since he was toddling. Aged three, he started riding BMX after parents Slim (Robert) and Karen built Rotorua’s first track. 

Pene would become a seven-time national champ. His elder siblings Ihakara, Kayla, and youngest Ngahina were all champion riders. “My little sister ended up world number three. Our family was pumping, eh.”

A family with a love of two wheels: Kayla, Tuhoto, Ngahina and Ihakara.

A family with a love of two wheels: Kayla, Tuhoto, Ngahina and Ihakara.

When he was seven, Slim began driving shuttle buses, taking mountain bikes to the top of the Whakarewarewa Forest trails. 

“My brother and I, we'd just cut lap after lap every weekend.  Just jumping on my dad's bus going up to the top, coming down. 

“And we just got quicker, following each other down the track. I was following him because he was always quicker.”

Ihakara Pene began racing, winning the junior title at the Oceania Mountainbiking Champs in 2012.

“Then I was just following in his footsteps, kept following him,” Pene says. “And then got to the point where I started racing and yeah, now  I'm here.”

Ihakara took his own life, aged 19.

Ihakara took his own life, aged 19.

In his first year competing at a junior elite level, Pene claimed the NZ U19 National Downhill Champion title at Cardrona, the only competitor in his age group to finish under three minutes.

 It was just a few weeks after Ihakara’s death. He’d been working on an isolated farm, near Taupō.

We lost him to suicide. He was 19 at the time and I'm 19 now.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene

“We were close coming up, growing together. Just riding all the time. He was right there with me.

“I think about him all the time when I'm riding, hunting and doing all that outdoorsy stuff because that's what we used to do together.

“I was just following in his footsteps.” Pene and his brother Ihakara.

“I was just following in his footsteps.” Pene and his brother Ihakara.

“I always feel him no matter where I am.”

Pene has a tattoo on his upper arm, drawn by Ihakara. “I'm pretty sure he’d be proud of me. He’d be laughing at a few things, but yeah he’d be happy.”

The tattoo on his arm was designed by his brother.

The tattoo on his arm was designed by his brother.

The months following Ihakara’s death were “a rough time”. But Pene travelled to Europe and placed 7th in the Union Cycliste Internationale world champs.

The following year he crashed during the National Champs in Rotorua, but still finished fifth. Two weeks later he set the fastest overall time at the Oceania Championships in Bright, Australia.

“But then I went overseas and I was real sick off the plane.” In his first World Cup event, he didn’t even qualify. “It was a bug. I couldn't talk properly and I couldn't breathe. I was trying to push, but it just wasn't happening.”

Competing has taken Pene all around the world, but Covid has put his plans on hold.

Competing has taken Pene all around the world, but Covid has put his plans on hold.

It took three weeks to recover. He travelled to Italy. 

“That's where I banged it out and ended up winning one of the World Cups. 

“I didn't want to not qualify again. It really annoyed me. And because of that, I just wanted to go hard and try to win it. And I did.

On the podium in Val di Sole, Italy.

On the podium in Val di Sole, Italy.

“And then at the next World Cup I got a third, that was in Switzerland.”

On the unforgiving 2.9km Mont Sainte Anne course, in eastern Canada, Pene claimed a bronze medal, just one second behind the winner. He was the first junior male downhiller to finish on a world championship podium in a decade. 

“I was pretty stoked with how the season went over there,” he says.

He finished the year named Te Tama-ā-Ranginui (Junior Sportsman) at the Māori Sports Awards. 

This year, he progressed into elite racing, claiming the overall title in the New Zealand Downhill Series in February. But three days before he was supposed to fly out to join the international circuit, the country locked down to stop the spread of Covid-19. So far, events in France, Italy and Switzerland have been cancelled. That put the brakes on his dream to become the first Māori Downhill Mountain Biking World Champion.

“With all that's happening, it's probably best that I stayed here.  I can't worry about it. I've got another year to train and to save money because it's expensive.”

Pene’s whānau live in Maketu, but he rents a home in Rotorua. He grew up speaking te reo Māori. “It's been hard for me to learn a bit of English. The only way I've learned is by talking to people. So, I’m a little bit rusty here and there.”

He works for the Rotorua Trails Trust, building and repairing a network of biking and walking tracks in the 5600-hectare Whakarewarewa Forest.

Taking a break at the shuttle stop in the Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua.

Taking a break at the shuttle stop in the Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua.

Money, and paying the travel costs of competing, is a constant worry. Each race can cost him $700-800.

“In the New Zealand season, there's quite a bit of races. 

“An entry is probably $100, but you also have to get to the races, some of them up in Auckland, Wellington and all the way down south.

It's accommodation and then driving or flying there. The bikes are expensive to fly sometimes. Yeah. So it can add up slowly over the seasons to a big, big number.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene

The overseas events follow the New Zealand season, and he relies on fundraising and sponsors to help get him there. 

“It's hard for my family because they help me a lot, my partner helps me heaps to raise money and I've got sponsors. Over the last few years I've had some good help from people.

“I show them my goals and they want to help with it. 

2019 was a strong season for Pene.

2019 was a strong season for Pene.

“But I hate asking for money. I feel like I can't give it back. Unless it was like last year, I felt like my results gave back to them.”

He has tried crowdfunding, using the ISport Foundation platform, which helps young athletes attract donors. He raised $570, although his goal was $3000.

“I do worry about money a lot. If I had cash sponsors, it'd help so much more. I could get out and train instead of working. 

“And I'd just have no worries, because sometimes I go over[seas] stressed, going into races, so it does get kind of hard. 

“I don't make much profit off of this sport, to be honest. I probably only get €200 for winning a World Cup.  

“You don't get much profit out of it unless you're really up there and really big on the social medias.

“I try to work as much as I can, and it goes straight into the riding. It goes straight into my business in a way.

Everything I’m saving just goes straight back into me going overseas. But if I'm always travelling, I can't stay at a job for too long to save.

Tuhoto-Ariki Pene

Pene is conscious that he needs to find a career after sport. 

“It's hard because I can't stay and do a trade or get some qualifications or something.

“I still have to live as well, pay my rent, buy food and all that stuff. I’ll just have to be a bit smarter about it.”

“My focus is strong, man… it's only me and the bike,” Pene says.

“My focus is strong, man… it's only me and the bike,” Pene says.

Karen Nimmo is a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with elite athletes.

She says some stress can propel athletes to the top of their game, but too much anxiety can “swing a wrecking ball” at performance.

“One of the hardest things to manage is the uncertainty of elite sport – and there are so many variables,” Nimmo says.

“That’s why athletes always talk about ‘controlling the controllables’. It means managing the things you can and preparing as well as possible for those you can’t.

“Not having a reliable income – or even knowing where the next dollar is coming from or where you’ll be sleeping – certainly ramps up the stress levels, and that can play havoc with performance.

“Having said that, some of the best success stories come from places of worry and hardship. Fear is a great motivator.

“It’s not sustainable though and it can be hard on an athlete’s mental health and/or shorten their career.”

Nimmo says there are two kinds of anxiety. Trait, which is related to an individual’s personality. And state, related to circumstances, such as financial worries or things within the competitive environment.

“Both can impact performance, that’s why it’s essential for athletes to have stress management techniques in their personal toolkits – not just for performance but for life. At a minimum they need mindfulness, relaxation and breathing techniques and sound pre and post competition routines.”

Nimmo says stress is a common problem for non-mainstream competitors. 

“Planning and advice is hugely helpful but it doesn’t make up for constant money worries. Many smaller or less mainstream organisations are financially strapped so their athletes need extra resilience to cope.

“Financial support or sponsorship can make a significant difference to an athlete’s wellbeing as well as performance – but where that’s not possible the difference may hinge on a person’s grit and capacity to make the most of what they’ve got.”

Pene believes he has both.

“My focus is strong, man. Once I'm on the bike, there is nothing taking me away from that… it's only me and the bike.”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Ed Scragg