A year ago, Tauranga kayaker Claudia Paterson sat miserably on her couch, her arm in a sling and her dreams of competing on the world stage as busted as her shoulder.
Now the 18-year-old Bethlehem College paddler has found the ultimate redemption, qualifying for the K1 semifinals at canoe slalom’s under-23 and junior world championships in Bratislava, Slovakia, overnight.
It continued a remarkable campaign for the New Zealand team; Paterson joined fellow Kiwi Kensa Randle, who qualified in the under-23 ranks, and Callum Gilbert, Finn Butcher and Zack Mutton, who made it through the previous day.
For Paterson, however, there was also the immense satisfaction of knowing just how far she’d come. Three weeks out from last year’s championship, she dislocated her shoulder while paddling in France, forcing her home where surgery awaited. As her teammates competed, she could only sit, dejected and dispirited, following their progress online.
“I was close to calling quits on the whole kayaking thing but I realised I missed kayaking way too much, so I decided to give it one last shot and see if I could get to the 2017 junior worlds,” Paterson explained. “It was my last chance to compete as a junior.”
She spent six months out of her boat entirely, only allowed back on moving water in February. From then on, small steps became larger; she rebuilt her strength, regained her feel of the water, took out the national secondary school title and finished third in the open nationals, and only then set to work on her biggest obstacle.
“I knew the surgery reduced my chances of re-dislocation and I knew I was above the strength level I had prior to the accident but psychologically, I couldn’t get on whitewater without thinking ‘is this the session it’s going to dislocate?’. Time is the greatest healer of confidence, which I didn’t have a lot of before I headed to Europe.”
Which made her first run overnight even more remarkable; despite bundles of nerves and a 2sec touch on the penultimate gate, she clocked 118.65secs for her first run and qualified more than 2secs inside the top-20 automatically through to the semifinals. Paterson paid tribute to Canoe Slalom New Zealand, who showed faith in her and gave her dispensation to miss selection events during her recovery.
“To not only make it to the junior worlds but to then qualify for the semifinal off my first run – I’m pretty happy right now! I’m so happy I managed to put it together and do such a solid run under so much pressure – it’s so much more than I hoped for. The last 12 months have been hard but I’m proud of how far I’ve come and I’m planning to keep on going.”
Czech 16-year-old Antonie Galuskova was the quickest qualifier in the women’s junior K1, while Paterson’s fellow Kiwis Casey Hales and Annie Wardle had their moments on the tough course, with Hales 34th in her first run and Wardle 16th in the repechage, where the top-10 progressed through.
That was the route Randle was forced to take, meanwhile, after missing gate 22 in her first run and dropping to 45th with a 50sec penalty, behind another Kiwi Courtney Williams, who was 33rd.
Randle, a product of the strong Central Otago paddling factory now living in Auckland, needed something special in her second run and duly delivered, posting the sixth-fastest time of 115.26, despite two touches.
“I struggled on today’s course – in my first run I was fighting the whole way down but luckily In my second run, I could compose myself and pull out a run that was good enough to qualify,” Randle said. “I’m looking forward to the semis on Saturday – the course looks harder but I’m always up for a challenge.”
A missed gate cost Williams, however, as she dropped to 23rd, while Austria’s Lisa Leitner was the top under-23 qualifier with her own story of redemption. She was disqualified at the European Championships for an underweight boat and the Austrian Federation then disqualified her for two World Cups but she stormed home in 91.88 in her first run, more than four seconds quicker than multiple world champion, Jessica Fox, in 96.21, with Great Britain’s Mallory Franklin third in 97.61.
Gilbert, Butcher and Mutton are all back in action for tonight’s semifinals, with Tauranga’s Gilbert and Alexandra’s Butcher in the under-23 division and Rotorua’s Mutton chasing junior glory.