The first wave of international paddlers have arrived in New Zealand ahead of next week’s Whitewater XL, eager to get the jump on the deluge of world-class rivals expected in the next few days.
The inaugural Whitewater XL will be held at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland, combining canoe slalom, rafting and boatercross racing from November 20-27.
It has attracted more than 100 of the best kayakers on the planet, eager to test the Southern Hemisphere’s newest artificial course during the European off-season, as well as sample some of New Zealand’s world-renowned rivers.
That’s certainly the case for Czech Republic K1 pair Vít Prindis and Ondrej Tunka, who have based themselves on the Kaituna River near Rotorua for the last week and immersed themselves in the Okere Falls slalom scene.
“This is my first time in New Zealand and it’s such a beautiful country – it’s perfect to come here for winter training for us,” Tunka explained. “I’ve always wanted to see New Zealand and being able to do the Whitewater XL event here is a huge bonus.”
The 26-year-old was part of the world championship-winning Czech K1 team in London last year, while Prindis won double gold in the second round of the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in Spain earlier this year, capturing the K1 and slalom cross titles, with Tunka third in the latter.
Prindis also fought an enthralling duel with reigning world champion Jiri Prskavec and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Vavra Hradilek for the Czech Olympic spot in Rio, which Prskavec secured by just fractions of a second.
Hradilek is one of the event ambassadors for Whitewater XL, arriving tonight, although Prindis believes the race for the inaugural title is wide open.
“The racing will be really good and there are so many people who could win,” Prindis said. “It’s also good to be able to see what the course is like and maybe come back again with a team to train here during our winter. The Southern Hemisphere has a lot of options now and New Zealand is a great place with all its beautiful rivers and places like the Kaituna to train and build endurance.”
Prindis has been to New Zealand once before, with compatriot Ivan Pišvejc in 2012, but intends staying a little longer this time and exploring the South Island after Whitewater XL if the recent earthquake damage allows. He’ll leave in mid-December, heading back to Prague to get some lung-burning, fitness-building cross country skiing in, while Tunka plans to stay until the end of January.
Aside from the Czech crew, a number of other top Europeans are competing, including British extreme paddler Joe Morley and Germany’s 2008 Olympic champion Alexander Grimm, while the United States and Australia also have big contingents.
Slovakia’s Michal Martikan, a multiple Olympic medal winner, headlines the C1 field, with his compatriot and Rio silver medalist Matej Benus expected to provide a stiff challenge.
Another Rio silver medalist, Kiwi Luuka Jones, will have a big field of K1 women challenging her, led by Britain’s Lizzie Neave, France’s Nouria Newman and Australian pair Noemie Fox and Rosalyn Lawrence.
A big field of rising paddlers will also tackle the Junior WhitewaterXL title.
The week of whitewater kicks off on Sunday with the Kaituna Time Trial in Okere Falls, qualifying paddlers for the boatercross event, with the opening ceremony and powhiri in Auckland later the same day.
Vector Wero will also host a corporate raft day on Wednesday, with teams of five each guided by one of the top Whitewater XL paddlers down the Manukau-based course.