Deaf waka ama star takes on the world

(3 News)
(3 News)

She's a world champion, a national champion, on her own and with a team.

But to get there Vesna Radonich has had to overcome being deaf, depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Turanganui  River in Gisborne is waka ama world champion Vesna's sporting home.

Day in and day out, her paddle slices through the water; a soothing, rhythmic sound.

But Vesna can't hear it - she's deaf.

That's fine when she's on her own, but how does it work when she's in the boat with her champion teammates? How does she hear the calls and instructions?

"My team mates have been awesome, they've adjusted the call. I can hear a low pitch more than a high pitch but sometimes I can't always hear I have to trust my instincts and the feeling to know how to respond," she says.

Vesna was born hearing impaired but no one knew until she was five, it was assumed she had ADHD.

She struggled with self-esteem, she contemplated suicide. There were addictions and depression.

"I was quite addicted to drugs and alcohol, so that included heroin and cocaine and ecstasy because of my low self-esteem, I felt the drugs gave me confidence."

A friend in Sydney recommended she try waka ama - it turned out to be a perfect fit.

"I fell in love with it because I said to the coach 'I can't hear - I can't wear my hearing aids when I'm paddling, is that a problem?', they said 'no, that's fine'. That's the reason I loved it, here was a person who didn't see my disability or stop me participating in the sport."

She says it gave her an adrenalin rush to match any she'd had from drugs. And as her confidence grew, so did her talent.

She then moved to Tahiti, in 2010, to learn from the best paddlers.

By 2012 she was a world champion, the first New Zealand woman to win the elite title.

"My advice is just go for it, believe in yourself and know that you can."

Vesna is now hoping a cochlear implant will improve her hearing. She needs more funding, but as a mum has special motivation.

"It would be great to have it switched on to hear the words my son says that others get to experience."

In the meantime, she's coaching up-and-coming stars in Gisborne and a team of deaf paddlers.

And, of course, training hard for another world gold medal.

3 News