Tongan Olympic kitefoiler JJ Rice dies in diving accident at age of 18

JJ Rice, who was chosen to represent Tonga at the Paris Olympics, has died in a diving accident. He was 18.

Rice’s father, Darren, confirmed his son’s death on Monday to the Matangi Tonga newspaper.

Rice was born in the United States to British-born parents, but grew up in Ha’apai, where his parents operated a tourist lodge, and considered himself Tongan. “I have lived in Tonga all my life, I see myself as Tongan, I don’t see myself as anything else,” he told Matangi Tonga in May.

Darren Rice told the newspaper that JJ had risked his life at the age of 15 to save people in danger after their ferry capsized off the island of Foa. He died in the same area on Saturday during a free dive. Matangi Tonga reported that Rice apparently blacked out and drowned. His body was found by other divers and attempts to revive him failed.

“I was blessed with the most wonderful brother in the world and it saddens me to say that he has passed away,” Rice’s sister Lily said in a Facebook post. “He was a great kite foiler and he would have made it to the Olympics and come out with a big shiny medal. He has made so many wonderful friends all over the world.”

He finished eighth at the Sail Sydney event in December to earn his Olympic place. Kite foiling will become an Olympic sport for the first time in Paris.

Rice had recently trained and competed in Europe. Kitefoilers race on boards lifted out of the water on foils and can reach speeds of more than 50 km/h. He told ABC Pacific this year that he hoped to use a grant to set up a sailing school after the Olympics.

“It would be so nice if we could get the young kids sailing in Tonga and hopefully push them through to the next Olympics,” he said.