Ten months ago, a jet-lagged Joe Clarke arrived in New Zealand packing a couple of handy international results and a seemingly implausible plan to set up and train on the world’s most extreme canoe slalom course.
Tomorrow, he’ll line up at the Oceania championships in Auckland as an Olympic gold medalist and kayaking super-star.
The 24-year-old Red Bull-sponsored Great British paddler has had his world turned upside down by his win in Rio but he’s delighted to be back down under, where his Olympic journey began in earnest.
“It’s great to be back in New Zealand and I’ve got lots of fond memories – coming back as Olympic champion, it’s hard not to have a lot of love for the place,” Clarke said.
Clarke’s unorthodox Olympic buildup was the brainchild of top Kiwi paddler Mike Dawson, who wanted to recreate the mental pressures they would both face in Rio by substituting the massive crowd noise and public expectation for the roar of glacier-fed rapids and crucial life-and-death moves.
Together, they helicoptered into a remote gorge on the Whataroa River south of Hokitika and, amid the giant boils and schist boulders of the grade-5 Grand Finale rapid, set up slalom gates with home-made plastic poles and twine.
Their week-long expedition worked; Clarke had the run of his life inn the final in Rio, while Dawson finished 10th, the best-ever result by a New Zealand male.
This weekend’s Oceania titles at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park may not have the same intensity as Rio but Clarke still faces a quality field. France’s Mathieu Biazizzo, Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) and Australia’s Lucien Delfour are all ahead of him in the ICF rankings and he’s enthused beginning his season away from his London training base.
“I’m really looking forward to sitting on the start line again for the first time since the Olympics. I’m maybe not quite in the shape I was then, due to time off and media commitments, but you’ve got to start somewhere and it certainly beats cracking the ice at Lee Valley in the freezing conditions!”
Clarke’s presence adds to a star-studded lineup, with more than half the 140-strong field coming from overseas. Australian Jess Fox is the World No 1-ranked paddler in both C1 and K1, squaring off against New Zealand’s Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones in both classes, while Slovenia’s Matej Benus is the top-ranked C1 men’s paddler in the world at the moment.
It’s a huge occasion for a number of rising New Zealand paddlers to test themselves against the best, with Clarke predicting big things for the sport in this country, following Vector Wero’s opening last year.
“The course has got the potential to be a lot better and one of the best in the world, if configured differently, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction to help New Zealand excel in the sport.”
Entry to Vector Wero is free for spectators, with heats in both C1 and K1 starting on Saturday morning and Sunday and Monday featuring semifinals and finals.