As New Zealand’s new canoe slalom course bared its teeth today – along with Auckland’s weather – Slovakian Matej Benus responded with a grin of his own as he finally broke his Whitewater XL drought.
The Rio Olympic C1 silver medalist claimed the second of the quick-fire shoot-outs on the second day of competition at Vector Wero Whitewater Park, as the event builds into tomorrow’s televised canoe slalom climax.
Despite picking up a 2sec touch, he was still 2.65secs ahead of first-day champion German Franz Anton on the tough 18-gate course, further buffeted by wind and rain.
It made up for a disappointing first day, when a minor error cost the warm favourite an early shot at pocketing some of the $60,000 prizemoney up for grabs this week.
“I made a small mistake yesterday and there are a lot of good athletes here so it was enough to put me out of the running,” Benus explained. “Today I was concentrating pretty hard because Franz and the other guys are pretty fast here. I’m happy – I didn’t win money in the last two races so I’ll be able to call my wife and tell her the good news finally!”
Many of the world-class athletes struggled to handle the Vector Wero course, with only three K1 paddlers – Michal Smolen (United States), Katarina Macova (Slovakia) and New Zealand’s Luuka Jones posting clear runs. Smolen was runner-up to Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) in the men’s K1, ahead of Kiwi Finn Butcher, while Jones matched Butcher’s best local finish with third in the women’s K1.
Benus, who has been coming down-under in the European winter for most of the last decade, using Penrith’s 2000 Olympic course as a base, was pleasantly pleased by the Auckland venue.
“I’m surprised that it’s this good and I’m probably going to come back in March with my training group.”
That’s significant news for the sport in this country, as his training group also includes Rio gold medal-winning C2 brothers Peter and Ladislav Santar.
While Slovakia shivers in sub-zero temperatures, 29-year-old Benus has used the Whitewater XL event as a scouting mission.
“I’m not here for the money – I’m here because it’s a beautiful country. I was last here maybe eight years ago and I love it here and I can’t wait to come back in March.”
Australian Kate Eckhardt took out the women’s C1, more than 6secs ahead of compatriot Rosalyn Lawrence, although Lawrence made amends in the K1 final, 0.65secs ahead of Great Britain’s Lizzie Neave. Although both Lawrence and Neave picked up penalties and Jones ran clean, the Kiwi’s 102.32secs time was still 1.41secs behind the winner.
Tunka, meanwhile, was conservative in his first run of the day but left nothing in the tank in the final. Despite picking up a touch, his 86.95sec raw time was comfortably the quickest, finishing an adjusted 0.57secs ahead of Smolen. Butcher was also quick, though picked up two penalties to drop him back.
Tomorrow’s action will feature New Zealand’s top juniors, followed by semifinals and finals of the canoe slalom competition, while the spectacular Boatercross racing will headline Sunday.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech) 88.95secs 1, Michal Smolen (United States) 89.52 2, Finn Butcher (New Zealand) 91.33 3, Vit Prindis (Czech) 95.41 4, Vavra Hradilek (Czech) 97.42 5.
C1: Matej Benus (Slovakia) 92.11 1, Franz Anton (Germany) 94.76 2, Cedric Joly (France) 1:01.09 3, Ben Gibb (New Zealand) 1:07.83 4, Shaun Higgins (New Zealand) 1:10.96.
C1: Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 1:20.95 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:27.31 2, Noemie Fox (Australia) 1:37.37 3, Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 1:45.58 4, Haylee Dangen (New Zealand) 1:51.61 5.
K1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:00.91 1, Lizzie Leave (Great Britain) 1:01.56 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 1:02.32 3, Nouria Newman (France) 1:04.12 4, Martina Wegman 1:08.74 5.