News & Updates

18 May 2023 • General

Kahurangi emerges from life-threatening injuries to national glory

Kahurangi Cotterill has survived lifesaving surgery to become national U18 400m champion. Credit: (Alisha Lovrich).

When Kahurangi Cotterill sped around the oval at Newtown Park on his way to men’s U18 400m gold at the 2023 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships – very few but his close friends and training partners would have understood the enormity of the achievement.

Just 11 months earlier the teenage Waitakere AC sprinter lay in a hospital bed facing lifesaving surgery. Stabbed three times with a 12-inch knife at a house party he required emergency hospital treatment.

Doctors performed a laparotomy (a surgical incision in the abdomen) but as he lay there seriously injured and in “survival mode” he had a moment of clarity.

“I realised I could have died, and it was a lot more likely (at that point that I would die) than not,” admits Kahurangi. “I just tried to breathe and think positive thoughts, and I started recalling all of the people I love like my mum, dad, all of my training partners and started saying their names.”

Thankfully the emergency surgery was successful. Doctors at Auckland Hospital carried out a 20cm laparotomy running from below his chest to past his belly button. He had survived but his journey back to the track has required patience, love and support from family, friends and the wider athletics community.

Raised in the central Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier and later Westmere, Kahurangi was perhaps always destined to become a 400m runner. His mother, Olivia Haddon, has been a former New Zealand Secondary Schools 400m champion with a PB of 54.91 and although he was a keen cricketer and rugby player, he had shown an ability to sprint with the Pt Chevalier Athletics Club as a youngster aged seven to 13.

However, in 2020 the direction of his sporting pursuits would change when his mum inquired about whether he would join the sprints training group of her close friend, Nuree Greenhalgh, at Waitakere.

“I was a bit hesitant at first and then lockdown happened,” says Kahurangi. “I couldn’t play rugby and I love training, so I found I had a local park to run in and a home gym downstairs. That is when I started to take athletics seriously.”

Once lockdowns were lifted, the Year 12 King’s College boarding student could finally join squad training sessions, but he was no overnight success.

“I was not that great at first because everyone else had been training for ages,” he recalls. “It was only at the start of 2021-22 when I started to progress at the Auckland meets. But we had a good dynamic and I love my training squad. It was a fun environment with the likes of Kadin Taylor and Lex Revell-Lewis, Alvin Xu, Joe Berman and others and it was good that we pushed each other.”

His natural speed-endurance propelled him to the 400m, and he impressed at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hastings – setting a PB of 51.94 to place fifth in the men’s U18 400m final.

Yet an incident at a house party last April was to have a seismic impact. At the wrong place at the wrong time, he was the unfortunate victim of the stabbing incident.

Thanks to the precision of the surgeons, and to some extent his own natural fitness, he survived, and from that point on he was determined to make the most of his gifts.

In hospital for a week his athletics future was put on hold. Fitted with a catheter and with little appetite – “the first thing I ate after surgery was a McDonald’s ice cream sundae because it was easy to eat” – he was in the very early stages of recovery.

“At that point I was not thinking about athletics, I was trying to get out of hospital. I was in survival mode just aiming to get through basic life functions. Once I got out of hospital, I was at home for maybe three to four weeks before going back to school.”

Within a month of surgery, he went to a rehabilitation centre and it was here he was told by a physio he would not be able to run for two years. Devastated by the news and unable to comprehend the thought of not being able to run for such a prolonged period he met with a doctor to work on a more rapid recovery plan.

“The doctor said the physio has been too conservative and put me on a rehab plan which started off with things like shoulder exercises and then two months after the surgery I went on five-minute walks and over time started to feel stronger and better.

“I was upset by what was said by the nurse but every day all I would think about was running again. I often wouldn’t think about anything else. I just wanted to come back to the track. I did have my doubts, but I think those doubts were overpowered by the belief I had in myself that I could come back stronger.”

Nuree expressed the importance of a patient approach.

“We talked about the fact he was only aged 15 at the time with his whole track and field life ahead of him,” she says. “If it takes a year or even two years to fully recover from the injuries that is fine. Kahu was lucky in the sense that he was not aged 24 and at the peak of his athletics career when sustaining the injuries.”

Over time the length of the walks were extended, he worked on a home exercise cycle and then he started to jog for one minute with four minutes of walking repeating this five or six times.

“It was crazy to think I could finally run again,” he says.

He later started continually jogging for extended periods and once he got up to 40 minutes of jogging, Kahurangi was given the green light to return to Nuree’s training group in West Auckland in late-September of 2022.

“I couldn’t rush it because training again was taxing on the body,” he adds. “I started off slowly running 300m in 60 or 70 seconds but then one 300m rep training at the Lovelock Track (home of Owairaka AC) I decided to just go for it. I totally surprised myself by keeping up with my team-mates, some of whom were beating me last year. I thought, how is this even possible?”

With his coach setting a target time for the summer of 52 seconds for the 400m he entered his first race post-surgery at Pakuranga in late-October with “no expectations.” Yet in a performance which confounded all logic, the teenager finished third that day in 51.58 – just 0.03 outside of PB set at the Auckland Secondary Schools Championships earlier that year.

“I had no idea what I was going to run,” he recalls. “I was thinking maybe 55 seconds because of the way I’d been training, but from there I was just ‘bring on the season’.”

Some six weeks or so later he ran a PB of 51.00 in the semi-finals of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Inglewood before winning senior boys’ silver in the final in another lifetime best of 50.30 to continue his dramatic progression.

Kahurangi believes a combination of his natural progression combined with the training have contributed to the improvement, but he insists a fresh mental approach to the sport since the stabbing has played a key role in his rapid development.

“The main thing that has changed is before surgery I was scared of racing. I would get so nervous and caught up in the race. But now having gone through lifesaving surgery I am so grateful to race. I am grateful to my family, coach and my training squad. This is my hobby and passion. I run now with good, excited nerves.”

This is a point echoed by his coach, Nuree, who has been “blown away” by the level of his performances during the 2022-23 season.

“After all he’d been through, I just kept shaking my head. Every single race seemed like it was a PB. I just couldn’t believe it was happening, but it is 100 per cent down to his mental toughness. He used to be very scared and very fearful when competing. But since overcoming the fight for his life and learning to walk properly again he has changed his mentality. He wants to compete, and he is happy to be there.”

In 2023 Kahurangi has gone from strength to strength. Lowering his 400m PB by more than one and half seconds, stand out highlights have been his national U18 gold medal in Wellington (49.34) and his current PB of 48.74 set at the Sir Graeme Douglas International presented by Harcourts Cooper & Co on his home track at the Trusts Stadium in Henderson. 

As one of New Zealand’s most promising teenage one-lap sprinters he has some big ambitions for the future and once the Year 12 Kings College student finishes his schooling his intention is to focus on athletics for the next ten years.

“I hope to always enjoy it and have fun with my teammates and competitors while I’m young,” he says. “In the longer term I hope to represent New Zealand at major international competitions such as the World U20 champs next year and then later maybe the Commonwealth Games, World Athletics Championships and Olympic Games.”

Yet whatever the future holds the incident in April 2022 cannot be ignored. It has forged his life path and emboldened the youth athlete with a fresh perspective and a new sense of purpose.