Czech kayaking star Vavra Hradilek overcame jet-leg, some fired-up locals and a fair dollop of emotion to win his second Kaituna Timetrial title near Rotorua today.
The 2012 Olympic canoe slalom silver medalist and 2013 world champion headed his good friend and top Kiwi Mike Dawson by just over a second on the spectacular run down the Kaituna River, which takes paddlers over a series of Grade 5 rapids and waterfalls.
Hradilek is in New Zealand for this week’s inaugural Whitewater XL event in Auckland, with the Kaituna race also doubling as qualifying for Sunday’s Boatercross final at Vector Wero Whitewater Park. But he’s also delighted to be back at his second home, at Okere Falls.
“I’m super-stoked to win, for sure, and it feels good to beat Mike on his home river but it’s just great to have that many people around and to be back on the Kaituna,” Hradilek said.
His time of 6mins 27.49secs helped him add to the title he won in 2013. He was just over a second clear of 2014 winner Dawson, who clocked 6:28.67, with the big surprise coming in third, where 16-year-old local Zack Mutton scorched home with two consistently fast runs, with the best of them a 6:32.29. Fellow Okere Falls product Jamie Sutton was fourth, with another Czech star, Via Prindis, fifth.
Dawson was the link that first drew Hradilek to New Zealand – they competed against each other as juniors in 2004 – but he’s since forged far deeper connections. He’s been coming to Okere Falls every summer since 2009, taking advantage of the Southern Hemisphere summer while his native Prague shivers amid snow and ice.
This trip is different for a few reasons; just three weeks ago, he had the premiere of Tenkrát v ráji, a major Czech movie he starred in. And earlier this week, he also got to paddle the stretch of river where hugely popular New Zealand representative Louise Jill drowned last year.
While Okere Falls is his second home, the close-knit kayak-centric community is like a second family and to say he hurt deeply when Jull died is a massive understatement.
“We paddled the lower gorges the other day and that was really emotional but I felt like something was up there. I was so scared but I really needed to do it. I’ll always remember her and she left a spirit which we’ve just got to carry on. That’s the most important thing about the community here.”
Having shown his form is right on target, Hradilek is now looking forward to a big week at Whitewater XL, with practice on Monday and Tuesday, a corporate raft day on Wednesday and competition going through Thursday to Sunday. He’s eager to see how the Vector Wero course behaves in competition for the first time.
“It’s a beautiful country and there’s an awesome crew around. The vibe around the kayaking community makes me come back every summer, even though there has been no artificial training facility here until this year. Now we’ll see how Wero goes and it’s fun to work on something new – I’ve never raced such a big race at this time of the year so it’s a different game.”
Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Nouria Newman completed an all-overseas podium in the women’s race, though her margin was even smaller than the men’s division.
With a time of 6:46.92, Newman was just 0.60secs ahead of British paddler Sandra Hyslop, who won last month’s adidas Sickline extreme world title in Austria. Martina Wegman (Holland) was third in 6:59.17, just ahead of leading Kiwi Nikki Kelly.
Newman only arrived in the country this week and she needed a 43sec improvement in her second run to capture the title.
“With slalom, we’re not used to racing for that long,” Newman explained. “I’m happy I pulled off a good run but Sandra is really fast and that was really hard. I had less energy in the second run but I had better lines into the rapids and I was a bit calmer.”