Trail-blazing canoe slalom Kiwi Donald Johnstone believes the sport is on the cusp of the mainstream in New Zealand after the silver medal-winning Olympic efforts of Luuka Jones this morning.
Jones had the run of her life in the women’s K1 final on the Deodoro course at the Rio Olympics, posting a blemish-free 101.82sec time that was only beaten by Spain’s Maialen Chourraut.
While it was the culmination of a 20-year dream for Jones, it was equally satisfying for Johnstone, who was New Zealand’s first Olympic canoe slalom representative in Barcelona in 1992.
“It’s a real landmark for the sport and it’s really overwhelming to see Luuka get a medal,” Johnstone said. “We’ve got some good depth in the younger athletes coming through and this will give the impetus to really bring them forward – it would be nice now for Canoe Slalom New Zealand to leverage off that and use it to get plenty of support and funding.”
Jones’ finish came a day after Mike Dawson became the first New Zealander to make an Olympic final, finishing 10th, which Johnstone believes was a significant breakthrough in its own right.
Until today, Johnstone owned New Zealand’s finest international performance – fifth at the world championships in France in 1988 – but he’s delighted for it to have been surpassed.
Jones, 27, was competing at her third Olympics, after making her debut as a nervous 19-year-old in Beijing and finishing dead-last. A horror training accident days out from London overshadowed her performance four years later but she left nothing to chance this time around.
“I left nothing out there – I just bared my teeth and went as hard as I could,” Jones said. “I was so proud as a Kiwi to see the flag go up. One of my goals is to put canoe slalom on the map in New Zealand… hopefully this will grow the sport in New Zealand.”
Jones was still a pre-teen at Otumoetai Intermediate in Tauranga when she noted some life goals on a school english project, which included such gems as “When I grow up, I want to be a world famous kayaker” and “Olympic medal”.
Her first coaches, Waimarino Adventure Park’s Blair and Barry Anderson, helped stimulate that passion when she turned up as a 7-year-old.
“I’m just so stoked we managed to brainwash her so early,” Blair Anderson quipped. “She’s ticked off all her goals now and the last one was one of the most important – she wanted to keep having fun kayaking. When you saw her reaction on the TV today, you could tell that was still driving her.”
Anderson has now seen four of his early proteges compete in these Olympics; Jones, Dawson and Cook Island duo Bryden and Ella Nicholas, who are also from Tauranga.
With the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park opening in Auckland earlier this year, canoe slalom in New Zealand now has the facilities to grow the sport, with November’s inaugural WhitewaterXL event also to be held at the venue.
Jones and Dawson are ambassadors for WhitewaterXL, with newly-crowned Olympic K1 champion Joe Clarke (Great Britain) and C1 champion Denis Gargaud Chanut (France) already confirming their attendance. The Rio results couldn’t have been better for WhitewaterXL race director John Snook.
“Everything is falling into place for canoe slalom in New Zealand now – it’s like the perfect storm,” Snook said. “We’ve always had outstanding whitewater paddlers in this country but it’s been so hard for them to compete with the European nations, with their artificial courses and their professional support. Now we’ve got one of the best courses in the world at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park, we’ve got a world-class event on our doorstep in November and we’ve got our own home-grown Olympic stars to act as role-models for the next generation coming through.”