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'Amazing' kitefoiler J.J. Rice dies in diving accident aged 18

J.J. Rice had had ambitions of competing at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. (From J.J. Rice via CNN Newsource) J.J. Rice had had ambitions of competing at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. (From J.J. Rice via CNN Newsource)
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J.J. Rice, a United States-born kitefoiler who was hopeful of one day competing for Tonga at an Olympics, has died in a diving accident at the age of 18.

A spokesperson for the Tongan National Olympic Committee confirmed Rice’s passing to CNN and said that the organization was “deeply saddened by his tragic death” on June 15.

Rice’s father, Darren, told the Matangi Tonga newspaper that his son was free diving from a boat at Faleloa on the Tongan island group of Ha’apai when he experienced a shallow water blackout, which is when a person loses consciousness underwater from a lack of oxygen.

CNN has contacted Tonga Police for further comment.

In a Facebook post, Rice’s sister, Lily, paid tribute to “the most amazing brother in the whole world,” adding: “He was an amazing kitefoiler and he would have made it to the Olympics and come out with a big shiny medal and a[n] even bigger smile.”

Writing on Instagram in the weeks prior to his death, Rice said that he had missed out on qualifying for the upcoming Paris Olympics but would be “training as hard as possible” to compete at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

Kitefoiling, also known as kitesurfing or Formula Kite, is making its Olympic debut in August, with competitions held at Marseille Marina. The discipline sees athletes lifted off the water on foils while harnessed to a board and a sail.

Rice grew up on Ha’apai, where his parents have operated a lodge for tourists since 2010. He had been representing Tonga while training and competing in Europe prior to his death.

Pita Taufatofua, who has represented Tonga in taekwondo at the Summer Olympics and cross-country skiing at the Winter Olympics, remembered Rice as someone with “great respect for the sea.”

He wrote on Facebook: “JJ left this world doing exactly what he loved, in a place he loved, the Ocean … May you continue to ride the waves of heaven on your next great Adventure.”

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said that he was “deeply saddened to hear about the tragic passing of Jackson James Rice, just weeks before the Olympic Games Paris 2024. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, for the loss of a great talent.”

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