The ‘perfect storm’ of a new venue and a silver star could be about to break canoe slalom into New Zealand’s sporting mainstream.
As the leading Kiwi paddlers took on a world-class international field at this weekend’s Oceania championships at Auckland’s Vector Wero Whitewater Park, off the water the governing body is gearing up to bring through the next wave.
Canoe Slalom New Zealand (CSNZ) was the biggest winner in last month’s national funding announcement, receiving $450,000 for each of the next two years. Previously, Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson had received individual campaign funding, which their national body has now been entrusted with. Sport New Zealand also contributed a one-off grant of $250,000 for gates, timing equipment and infrastructure at Vector Wero.
It means rising stars Finn Butcher (Alexandra) and Tauranga’s Callum Gilbert will receive High Performance Sport New Zealand funding for the first time, with Gilbert celebrating as the leading Kiwi K1 qualifier in today’s heats.
Rio Olympic silver medalist Jones, who progressed to the C1 and K1 semifinals despite battling a chest infection, is delighted to see Gilbert and Butcher rewarded for solid world cup seasons last year.
“It was always a goal before the Olympics to help the sport and I’m stoked that I’ve been able to help,” Jones said. “It can be pretty hard to compete at the highest level in sport with limited support so it’s great to see some of our talented younger paddlers getting funding.”
The challenge now is for CSNZ to go from amateur status to a semi-professional sporting model, with chairman Chris Pascoe explaining the sport would soon be employing a high performance manager and a coach.
“We have been working with the national funders for four years and making a bit of traction but it’s just been a perfect storm in the last year, with Vector Wero opening and Luuka winning silver,” Pascoe said. “If Vector Wero hadn’t opened, it never would’ve happened and if Luuka hadn’t won silver, it probably wouldn’t have happened either, but just as importantly, if High Performance Sport New Zealand didn’t have faith in our organisation, we also wouldn’t have been in this position. Our big problem is that we’ve now gone to another level but our committee members are still doing huge voluntary hours each week on the administration of the sport.”
With encouragement from the national funding bodies, Canoe Slalom and Canoe Racing New Zealand have begun talks to look at sharing some high performance and administration resources, while CSNZ is also considering introducing a board of directors.
With the new funding having kicked in from the start of this year, current national coach Aaron Osborne is in place as acting high performance manager, while that role and the coaching role are advertised.
Dawson, who has self-funded large parts of his kayaking career, is delighted to see his sport taking a big step forward.
“Slalom has everything they need to mount a gold medal campaign now,” Dawson said. “It hasn’t put us on a par internationally but it’s definitely given us the opportunity to bridge that gap and prove that with more support, we can produce better results. With better results, we can get more support so it’s the start of a really positive movement for slalom.”
Meanwhile, Australian star Jess Fox dominated the opening day of the Oceania championships, more than 5secs ahead of her nearest rivals in the K1 class and 6secs clear in the C1 heats.
Great Britain’s Ryan Westley was the fastest qualifier for tomorrow’s C1 semifinals with a 90.23sec run, while United States Olympian Michal Smolen clocked 86.68secs for the fastest K1 men’s time.
Tomorrow’s racing will see semifinals and finals in men’s C1 and women’s K1, with champions decided in women’s C1 and men’s K1 on Monday.
For full results, see here