Olympics star, 18, dies weeks before making history at Paris 2024

Jackson James Rice, 18 (JJ Rice / Facebook)
Jackson James Rice, 18 (JJ Rice / Facebook)

A rising athlete has died in a tragic diving accident just weeks before his debut at the Olympics in Paris.

Jackson James Rice, 18, was in line to become the first Caucasian to represent Tonga at the Games, having qualified for the new kite-foiling event.

His father Darren confirmed the devastating news of his son's death to the Matangi Tonga newspaper.

The teenager, known as JJ Rice, died on Saturday from a “suspected shallow water blackout”.

He had been free-diving when his body was found beneath a boat at 12.15pm, with subsequent resuscitation attempts unsuccessful.

Jackson, who had British parents Darren and Nina, was born in the US before moving to Tonga.

He grew up in Haʻapai – where his parents run a tourist lodge – and viewed himself as Tongan.

Jackson’s sister Lily paid tribute on social media, writing in a Facebook post: “I was blessed with the most amazing brother in the whole world and it pains me to say that he’s passed away.

“He was an amazing kite foiler and he would have made it to the Olympics and come out with a big shiny medal … he made so many amazing friends all over the world.”

The talented athlete qualified for what had been due to be his first Olympic Games last December, courtesy of an eight-placed finish at a Sail Sydney event.

Kite foil racing combines aspects of “sailing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing and paragliding into one extreme sport”.

Mr Rice remembered how aged 15, Jackson risked his life to help save some of the 18 passengers on a ferryboat which capsized in choppy seas off Faleloa in 2021.

On another occasion, Jackson rescued two girls who had been swept off a sandbar, pulling them back to safety.

The time of his funeral will be announced at a later date.