Kirkpatrick Mariner (Photo supplied)

Kirk Mariner has been recollecting stories from his life as the child of immigrant Sāmoan parents growing up in Aotearoa. He’s started writing them down for his children and mokopuna — and now we’re sharing them on E-Tangata. Here’s the latest one, on his days as a barefoot sprinter.

 

When I was at intermediate school, I was quite good at the 100-metre sprint. My speed surprised most people because I was very wide-framed compared to the skinny Pākehā kids I ran against. I was also more physically developed than most kids my age.

My biggest feature were my thunder thighs. Once I got those going, I was unstoppable. I got the nickname “Husky” for how I moved.

Usually, when the race gun went off, I’d have a sluggish start, and eventually, I’d find my way and overtake the others, coming out as the winner. I thought I was untouchable. I’d puff out my chest proudly, strutting around like a rooster after every race.

On athletics day, I caught the eye of the school’s PE teacher. He was Māori and from around Waikato, so I’m going to call him Mr Waikato. Mr Waikato was one of the cool teachers, and he asked me about joining an athletics club. He contacted my parents to say I had potential and wondered if I could try out. They said yes.

The following week, I met Mr Waikato and some other students and he took us to an athletics club meet. Mr Waikato accompanied us to the officiating tent for registration.

Officials: “Hey, Waikato, are these your boys?”

Mr Waikato: “Yep. Boys, line up and let these officials know who you are and what event you’re entering.”

The officials thought I was there for discus or shot put because of my height and size. Mr Waikato corrected them: “He’s here for the 100 and 200-metre sprints.”

The officials laughed. Mr Waikato did a fake laugh, then he gave them a deadpan look and said: “Nah, I’m serious.”

As we walked away, he muttered something like: “Fucken honkies.” I’m sure they heard him too.

When it came time for the race, I was up against boys who had proper track shoes. The shoes were narrow, slimline, and had sharp spikes like mini nails or tacks embedded in the sole. They looked like a deadly ninja shoe to me. I’d never seen anything like them.

As we lined up, some of my competitors looked at my bare feet and sneered at me. They were among the best runners for the athletics club. There was also this cool redhead kid. He was tall and skinny and athletic, and when he ran, he was like a cheetah. Smooth and effortless. I’ll call him Merlot (smooth red). Merlot was in the lane next to me.

Merlot: “Hey, bro, good luck.”

The grass track was nice and dry that afternoon, and I came in a respectable second for the 100-metre sprint, and third for the 200-metre race. Merlot won both, easily.

The spectators and officials didn’t know what to think. They were astonished that a big brown kid with no shoes could even run or sprint fast.

Mr Waikato: “I told you he could go like the clappers. If he had training, you never know where he could go.

“Want him to be part of the team to go to regionals?”

It didn’t take much convincing. I was selected to run the 100 metres and 200 metres at the regional club meet in two weeks.

That day, the 200-metre heats were in the morning before the 100-metre races. I was the only brownie, twice the size and weight of the other sprinters. All the Pākehā kids were skinny and had on their club kit and special track shoes. I was in black stubby shorts, a tight-fitting club singlet borrowed from Merlot (which had taken me forever to put on) and bare feet, my running shoes of (no) choice.

None of the other competitors acknowledged me except for Merlot. Unfortunately, the track was also wet.

Official: “On your mark, get set . . .”

BANG!

I slipped right at the start line. My feet had no traction on the wet track and I was all over the place. I slid one way, then the other, and when I finally found my balance, the other sprinters were already 20 to 30 metres ahead of me. I finished last. Merlot came in first.

At the finish line, some of the runners smirked at me. One of the competitors, known as Ray Cyst, yelled out: “Better luck next time. Oh, that’s right, there is no next time!” Then he laughed at me.

Ray was known to be a bully. I was feeling humiliated and a little dejected after being eliminated from the 200-metre race, and Ray was pushing all the right buttons. Merlot thought he was a dick, too. “Just ignore him, bro,” he said to me.

One spectator on the sideline joined in with Ray Cyst’s antics. It was Ray Cyst Senior.

Ray Cyst Sr: “Hey you, Maōri boy, where are your shoes? Oh, that’s right. Monkeys can’t wear shoes!”

He had this loud obnoxious laugh which echoed through the park. Other spectators started moving away from him and his jeering. A senior official called Matua yelled back.

Matua: “Hey, it’s only a race, and he’s only a kid, so settle down. Otherwise you’re not welcome here.’’

Ray Cyst Sr responded by doing some monkey gestures. By then, I was feeling really down. I still had the 100 metres to compete in, but I didn’t want to be shamed again and let anyone down. I wanted to withdraw.

Merlot saw all of this. Thirty mins before my 100-metre heat, he came up to me and said: “Bro, I got you. I spoke to Mr Waikato and I have an idea. I’ll be back in 10 minutes. Trust me.”

He disappeared. Then, true to his word, he came back before my race holding a shoe bag.

Merlot: “Bro, these are my cousin’s, so they should fit. But, you need to put these on five minutes before the race without anyone seeing you. And as soon as you finish, run to me or the coach and quickly take them off. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied with a puzzled look.

I opened up the bag and grinned like a Cheshire cat. Inside were a pair of football boots. They had long, big, fat sprigs — real cleats rather than the sissy spikes the runners had on their shoes. They belonged to Merlot’s cousin, who lived close to the park. I knew the boots would give me a decent grip on the ground and help me compete.

I couldn’t wait to race. Just before start time, I put them on. They fit perfectly. I also did my best to hide them from race officials, dodging behind the other runners.

Just like in the first heat, I got a look of disdain from some of the competitors at the start line. I didn’t care, I was ready to go. To me, the shoes were magic. Wearing them gave me confidence.

BANG!

This time, when the gun went off, I got the start I needed. I was poised, balanced and focused, and I smashed all my competitors by two to three metres.

When the coach and Merlot ran over to congratulate me, I took the boots off and handed them over. Merlot hid them before the race officials saw anything. Everyone was shocked that I’d beaten all the other athletes and made it to the semis.

From the corner of my eye, I also saw the race officials milling around the lane I’d just run in. With my heavy weight and secret football boots, I’d ripped up the track like a tractor ploughing the ground.

I hid from officials as they tried to figure out what had happened and went about fixing the track. They had a few shovels and rakes, and I think they even used the cricket pitch roller to smooth out the surface. The next heat was delayed by 30 minutes while they worked.

Come semifinal time, the track was still a bit wet in places, so we decided to use the magic football boots again. Merlot and Ray Cyst Jr were also racing. Ray gave me a cold stare. Merlot said to ignore him and beat him on the track. I did just that, finishing second, behind Merlot. Ray Cyst Jr came in fifth and looked very unhappy. Mr Waikato was overjoyed and gave me high-fives. He also took the boots from me and put them in his training bag.

Just like before, the officials inspected my lane. This time, they also had an angry Ray Cyst Sr on the sidelines making monkey gestures again. Matua, the senior official who’d already yelled at him, came over to Mr Waikato and me to let us know what was going on.

Matua: “Kia ora, Waikato. A complaint had been lodged against Mariner for using the wrong footwear.”

Mr Waikato: “Who made the complaint?”

Matua: “You might know him. They tend to make a lot of noise when things don’t go their way. It’s Ray Cyst Sr and his boy. They think they saw Mariner wearing football boots which gives him an unfair advantage and probably explains why our track lane looks like a ploughed paddock. What do you have to say?”

Mr Waikato: “Do you think his feet would fit in a pair of footy boots? He has Islander feet. Look at them. They’re bigger than the waka you travelled in. In terms of the track being torn up, compared to the other runners, he’s Jumbo the elephant, so of course it looks like a dirt track after he’s on it.”

Matua laughed. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended.

Matua: “Look, Waikato, I need to look in your bag, just to be sure.”

Waikato reluctantly showed Matua the bag. Everyone saw Matua look inside the bag.

Matua: “Done. Ka pai. You’re all good. Can’t see boots in the bag.”

Matua then signalled to his officials team waiting nearby: No boots here. Both Mr Waikato and I were surprised because I’d just given Mr Waikato the boots to put in the bag. But, since Matua said he couldn’t see any boots, I was through to the finals.

Ray Cyst Sr went off at the decision. Eventually, officials called in police to remove him. He was forced out, with cheers from the spectators. Apparently, Ray Cyst Sr’s unpleasant and offensive behaviour hadn’t been limited to just me that day.

By final’s time, the track had dried out completely, so I didn’t need the football boots. I was also being closely watched by all the officials.

When the start gun went off, I felt awesome. I was back to running in bare feet, like I’d always done, and my legs felt strong. Merlot was out in front. I was behind him, and it stayed that way for most of the race. Then, with 20 metres to go, two other sprinters overtook me. I finished fourth overall. Merlot won.

After the race, Mr Waikato, Merlot and I were waiting for the official results to come in.

Mr Waikato: “Thanks, Merlot, for sneaking those boots out of my bag when we were talking to Matua after the semifinal.”

Merlot: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was going to ask you for them so I can take them back to my cousin.”

We all looked at each other before Mr Waikato checked his bag. The boots were inside, where they’d been since I took them off after the semifinal. I smiled. My magic boots had become even more special. Not only did they get me to the finals, they had the superpower of being invisible too.

At the end of the day, Mr Waikato and I walked past Matua on our way back to the van. He had a massive grin on his face. Mr Waikato whispered “thank you” as we passed.

Matua just gave the “Chur, bro” nod in response, and a thumbs-up to me.

 

Ti’a Kirkpatrick Mariner is the son of immigrant parents from Sāmoa. He was born in Masterton, and grew up in New Plymouth and Auckland. He now lives in Whakātane with his wife Rawinia, near her hapū and their mokopuna.

Read his first piece in this occasional E-Tangata series here.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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