One’s a whitewater surgeon, precise and consistent, while the other is more a paddle-wielding gun-slinger and big-game hunter.
Despite their differences, Callum Gilbert and Finn Butcher’s canoe slalom futures are tightly entwined, ascending the same rising line onto the world stage.
The 21-year-old pair have been named once again in a strong New Zealand team for the ICF World Cup series in Europe, sealed with big finishes in last week’s Oceania championships in Auckland, having just been given High Performance Sport New Zealand support for the first time.
That funding announcement – which saw Canoe Slalom New Zealand pick up $450,000 for each of the next two years – has been a major confidence booster for both paddlers, joining fellow carded athletes Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson.
“The sport is definitely on an upward trend and it’s cool to be an influence on that,” Butcher said. “There are so many people who’ve put huge amounts of voluntary hours into the sport, that have helped us get to where we are. Now the younger guys coming through can see where we’ve come from and seen how High Performance Sport is recognising us, which hopefully keeps them in it.”
Tauranga local Gilbert had an impressive international season last year, with his quest for consistency helping him make the semifinals in all five world cup races and finishing 18th at the under-23 world championships. He and Butcher are flatting together in Auckland, allowing them to spend as much training time as possible on the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park course in Manukau.
“We’ve been working hard for a long time and it’s a huge effort,” Gilbert said. “There’s a number of people around us that have helped us achieve what we’ve achieved so having that added support makes a big difference.”
Being part of the burgeoning New Zealand team has changed the nature of the sport, especially in Europe.
“You have a good run and you’re wondering what your teammates have done, because they’re right there with you all the time. There’s people there to push you in training… it’s really good to have them around pushing you and keeping you on track.”
Unlike Gilbert, Butcher prefers to go out all guns blazing, which leads to equal measures of elation and frustration. He made two world cup semifinals last year and finished 15th at the under-23 world championships, although his qualification run for the latter – putting down the second-fastest time – remains a highlight.
“I’m trying to focus on improving a lot of different techniques and trying to get a lot faster, with less of a focus on consistency,” the Central Otago paddler explained. “It can sometimes be a bit disheartening when you can’t keep laying things down but I think I’m going in the right direction. Once my speed gets to a good stage, that’s when I’ll start working on my consistency, so it’s fun. That’s the cool thing about slalom – everyone goes about their training in completely different ways and have completely different styles and at the end, you’re 0.1secs apart.”
The recently-announced national team is dominated by paddlers from the the two strongholds of Bay of Plenty and Otago, with Olympians Jones and Dawson leading the way, as they’ve done for much of the last decade.
“They’ve pretty much blazed a trail – they’ve shown us that you can do it and you can get there from New Zealand,” Butcher said. “I’ve spent quite a lot of time training with Luuka and to be able to be there with those guys when they’re getting those results we’re striving for is inspirational.”
Most of the New Zealand team will be crossing the ditch for their next big race, next week’s Australian Open in Penrith. Other features of the team include Jones’s inclusion in the C1 ranks for the first time, along with the rise of Central Otago’s Kensa Randle into her first open team.
New Zealand team:
K1: Men: Callum Gilbert (Bay of Plenty), Finn Butcher (Otago), Mike Dawson (Bay of Plenty). Women: Luuka Jones (Bay of Plenty), Kensa Randle (Otago), Jane Nicholas (Bay of Plenty).
C1: Men: Ben Gibb (Bay of Plenty), Patrick Washer (Bay of Plenty), Shaun Higgins (Auckland). Women: Luuka Jones (Bay of Plenty), Kelly Travers (Auckland), Haylee Dangen (Bay of Plenty).
K1: Men: Callum Gilbert (Bay of Plenty), Finn Butcher (Otago), Alex Hawthorne (Bay of Plenty). Women: Kensa Randle (Otago), Courtney Williams (Bay of Plenty), Haylee Dangen (Bay of Plenty).
C1: Men: Patrick Washer (Bay of Plenty), Callum Gilbert (Bay of Plenty), James Thwaite (Auckland). Women: Haylee Dangen (Bay of Plenty).
Junior: K1: Zac Mutton (Bay of Plenty), Damien Torwick (Bay of Plenty), Callum Aitken (Bay of Plenty). Women: River Mutton (Bay of Plenty), Claudia Paterson (Bay of Plenty).
C1:L Men: Josh Bell (Bay of Plenty).