Teen kitefoiler JJ Rice dies month before Olympics debut

By Allen Cone
Kitefoiler JJ Rice died in a diving accident recently before he was to make his Olympics debut later this summer. Courtesy World Sailing Association
Kitefoiler JJ Rice died in a diving accident recently before he was to make his Olympics debut later this summer. Courtesy World Sailing Association

June 17 (UPI) -- Teen kitefoiler Jackson James Rice, who was seeking to become the first caucasian to represent Tonga in the Olympics, died in a diving accident this past weekend.

The 18-year-old Rice, known as JJ, planned to compete in sailing at the Summer Olympics in Paris next month. He died Saturday in Faleloa on the group of islands of Ha'apai, where his parents Darren and Nina Rice own the Matafonua Island Lodge.


His father told the Matangi Tonga newspaper his son was free diving from a boat when he is suspected to have suffered a shallow water blackout.

He was born in the United States and moved to Tonga with his parents and younger sisters when he was about 3 years old.

"I was blessed with the most amazing brother in the whole world and it pains me to say that he's passed away," Lily Rice, his sister posted on Facebook. "I don't even know what to say. I don't know what to do or what to think. I miss JJ beyond belief."


Rice earned a spot in the Summer Olympics last year competing in kitefoil in Sail Sydney competition in Australia, where he finished in eighth place.

Kitefoil involves riders flying above the water on hydrofoils attached to boards and powered by huge kites. The sport is one of two new sailing disciplines set to debut at the Summer Olympics. They can reach speeds of 51 mph, according to the Royal Yachting Association.

He competed last month in the 2024 Formula Kite World Championships in Hyeres in southern France.

"Now I begin the long trip back home, and I cannot wait to get back to Tonga to see family, friends and of course my beautiful training grounds," he posted on Facebook on May 25.

The International Kiteboarding Association published a tribute on Facebook, saying "his passion soared as high as the kites he rode."

Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua, who was Tonga's shirtless flagbearer at the 2016 Rio Olympics, said he first met a young Rice after spotting him lying under a van, covered in engine oil. He had been helping his father at the time, Taufatofua explained on Facebook.


"In between helping at the resort, he would do what he loved -- kite surfing -- out in the oceans of Ha'apai, Taufatofua said. "Being self-taught as a kid, he reached a level where he would compete at the recent Olympic-qualifiers on his quest to one day represent Tonga at the Olympic Games.

"He had a great respect for the sea and for all the people in our little motu [island]. JJ left this world doing exactly what he loved, in a place he loved -- the ocean."

Notable deaths of 2024

Joe Engel
NASA astronaut Joe Engel, who served as a backup pilot for the Apollo 14 mission and then later commanded the space shuttle Discovery in 1985, died at the age of 91 on July 10. Photo courtesy of NASA

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