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Olympic hopeful J.J. Rice passes away at 18 in diving accident

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 18, 2024 2:28 pm

United States-born Tongan kitefoiler J.J. Rice, who was set to represent Tonga at the 2024 Paris Olympics, has died in a diving accident. He was 18.

Rice's father, Darren Rice, confirmed his death to local newspaper Matangi Tonga.

According to him, J.J. was free diving from a boat on Saturday, June 15, when he died from a suspected shallow water blackout. Other divers found his body on the seafloor underneath the boat at around 12:15 p.m. Efforts to revive him had failed.

Darren remembered how J.J., at 15, had helped rescue an 18-man ferryboat that capsized in heavy seas off Faleloa in 2021.

He also recalled J.J. swimming out to rescue two girls who had been swept off a sandbar and pulled them back to safety.

Rice's sister, Lily Rice, on Facebook, said she was blessed with the most amazing brother in the whole world.

"[I]t pains me to say that he’s passed away," Lily said. "I don’t even know what to say I don’t know what to do or what to think I miss [J.J.] beyond belief[.]"

She described her brother as the "most amazing," "funny," "unique," and "talented" person she's ever known.

"[H]e was an amazing kitefoiler and he would have made it to the Olympics and come out with a big shiny medal and [an] even bigger smile," she added. "[H]e made so many amazing friends all over the world because he was so lovable and they’re all going to miss him dearly[.]"

According to Matangi Tonga, J.J. (Jackson James) Rice was born in the United States to British parents, but grew up on Ha'apai island.

As a naturalized citizen, J.J. represented Tonga in kite foiling in international tournaments over the years.

Last December, he finished eighth at the Sail Sydney event to earn his spot at the Olympics.

This year's Olympics will see the debut of kite foiling.

He had been training and competing in Europe, CNN International said.

According to the Royal Yachting Association, kite foiling sees riders "fly" above the water on hydrofoils attached to boards and powered by huge kites. They can reach incredible speeds of up to 45 knots (51 miles per hour; 82.1 kilometers per hour).