Luuka Jones has been given a late boost as a seven-strong New Zealand canoe slalom team heads into the first ICF World Cup of the season in Prague this weekend.
Jones, the Olympic K1 (kayak) silver medalist, has taken on the additional challenge of C1 (canoe) this year and will make her World Cup debut on the famous Troja venue in Prague.
It comes the same week the International Olympic Committee confirmed that women’s C1 would be added to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, although Jones was keeping her focus firmly in the short term.
“I’m looking forward to racing in Prague – it’s one of my favourite courses – and it will be the first World Cup for me doing both C1 and K1 so there will be some learning going on but at the same time, I am hoping to put down good runs in both classes,” Jones said. “By doubling up, we’re now having to fit in training for two classes instead of one and because they are technically quite different, I need to spend time developing both. It is a bit of an experiment but so far, it is working.”
Jones finished second in both classes at a race in Pau, France – the venue for this year’s world championships – recently and will face a world-class field in Prague, including Rio K1 gold medalist Maialen Chourraut (Spain) and bronze medalist Jess Fox (Australia). She will be joined in the K1 class by fellow Kiwis Jane Nicholas and Kensa Randle, with Nicholas also racing the C1.
The New Zealand men’s charge, meanwhile, will be led by Olympic finalist Mike Dawson and rising stars Callum Gilbert and Finn Butcher.
Gilbert distinguished himself last year, making the semifinals of every World Cup he attended, and wants to press on this season.
“There are lots of tough competitors here in Prague, with paddlers back into training after the Olympics and looking sharp,” Gilbert said. “Following on from last year, I’m looking to maintain my consistency, searching for solid runs to see how I size up for the rest of the season.”
Butcher also had a breakthrough year last year and joined Jones, Dawson and Gilbert as a carded athlete, supported by High Performance Sport New Zealand, for this season.
He had a solid summer of training at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland, before spending the last month in Pau with Jones, Dawson and coach Campbell Walsh.
“This year is a big learning year for me, aiming to learn what works for me and what doesn’t in terms of planning, racing, nutrition and psychology and really refine it for the world champs at the end of the year,” Butcher said. “I’m looking to start the season paddling with intent and freedom, then see where that takes me!”
The men’s K1 field will also feature all three Rio medalists, led by Great British Olympic champion Joe Clarke, while the local Czech paddlers will be extremely hard to topple on their home waters.
Patrick Washer is the other New Zealand team member this weekend, joining Gilbert in the C1 ranks. Racing starts on Friday night (NZ time).
NZ team: K1: Men: Finn Butcher, Mike Dawson, Callum Gilbert. Women: Luuka Jones, Jane Nicholas, Kensa Randle. C1: Men: Callum Gilbert, Patrick Washer. Women: Luuka Jones, Jane Nicholas.