Donald Johnstone kick-started things 24 years ago so it was appropriate he was back in the thick of the kayaking action on the opening day of Whitewater XL in Auckland today.
Johnstone was New Zealand’s first canoe slalom Olympian, finishing 25th at the Barcelona Games in 1992. There’s been only three since to paddle at that level – Owen Hughes, Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson – with Jones’ silver medal at Rio this year the undoubted highlight.
In a year of firsts for the sport, the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park has opened in Manukau, which is also hosting the first major event this week with the four-day Whitewater XL.
Johnstone, now 53, showed he’s still got game by finishing 23rd in the opening qualifying round, missing out on tonight’s quick-fire head-to-head racing but comfortably making Saturday’s televised canoe slalom finals.
The Bay of Plenty local is thrilled to be racing a world-class course without having to go overseas.
“This facility is a game-changer and a great gain for our sport in New Zealand, especially in light of what Luuka achieved in Rio, and it gives our base of boaters an international course to train on and race on,” Johnstone said. “Mike and Luuka are doing really well lifting the profile and I really hope they just keep hammering it out, because this is their time. They just need to savour the flavour!”
Johnstone retired soon after his Olympic appearance but came back to the sport recently to prepare for next year’s World Masters Games. He paddled Vector Wero for the first time last month and admits it has its challenges.
“I found it quite hectic out there – the river is busy with all the features through the mid-section – so I’ve really been enjoying the training on there this week. I’m pretty fired up about the masters games, though there are a lot of overseas guys coming over as well, which will make things interesting.”
There were a number of Olympians present in the opening round, including 2012 K1 silver medalist Vavra Hradilek (Czech Republic) and Rio C1 silver medalist Matej Benus (Slovakia), although it was two-time world extreme champion Joe Morley (Great Britain) who clocked the fastest time in the opening run.
Jones qualified for both the K1 and C1 finals, having announced she’ll chase spots in both boats at the Tokyo Olympics, with women’s C1 to be added for the first time.
“Before the Games, I’d already been thinking about it, and then when I got back I started training in a C1,” Jones explained. “To try and go there competing in two classes is another big challenge.”
Another Olympian racing today was former canoe sprinter Mike Walker, who finished fifth in the K2 1000m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with Steven Ferguson. Walker started his paddling career in slalom and is also targeting the World Masters Games, having been out of the whitewater scene for 17 years.