Things have come full circle for Kiwi kayaker Mike Dawson, who will embark on his 10th world canoe slalom championship in Pau, France, this week.
The 30-year-old is the veteran in a 10-strong New Zealand team at the championships, having first been to the worlds as an 18-year-old in Australia in 2005.
For most of his lengthy paddling career, which has seen him attend two Olympics, Dawson has successfully combined canoe slalom with creek and expedition paddling, subsidising his Olympic campaigns with extreme race prize money.
Now organisers have come to the party in Pau. For the first time, the ICF has added extreme slalom to the world championship disciplines, where four boats race down the course at once.
After racing the previous nine world championships solely in his K1 boat, being able to break out his plastic creek boat at the worlds is great news for Dawson.
“It’s definitely cool that extreme kayak has been included in the programme this year – it’s something Kiwis have always been traditionally really strong at, it’s a lot of fun and the spectators love it,” Dawson explained. “I’m really happy to get the chance to race in that discipline.”
Dawson’s best world championship finish in the past came in 2014, when he finished 12th in the K1. He was the fastest qualifier for the semifinals a year later in London but eventually finished 28th.
This season, racing extreme for the first time, he collected New Zealand’s first-ever World Cup gold medal at the opening round of the season in Prague, added bronze a week later in Germany, then picked up silver in Spain last month at the season finale. Fellow Kiwi K1 paddler Callum Gilbert will also line up in the extreme slalom this week, with Finn Butcher (K1), Shaun Higgins, Ben Gibb and Patrick Washer (men’s C1) completing the New Zealand men’s contingent.
Luuka Jones, meanwhile, will have her own twin-boat ambitions when the Rio de Janeiro silver medalist lines up in both the K1 and C1 this week.
After her break-out Olympic result in the K1 last year, she took up the C1 class this season to develop her all-round water skills but has quickly found her C1 results overtaking her traditional strength.
She made three World Cup finals this year, including finishing fourth in Germany in the second round of the series, adding sevenths in Italy and Spain. Her best K1 results, meanwhile, were a pair of 12ths to open the season.
“If you’d told me then I would make all but one C1 final I would have been very happy,” Jones said. “There have been a few challenges but overall I’m thrilled how it’s gone so far and I think I am more naturally talented in C1 than K1. There are some things I do more naturally in C1 and there are definitely learnings I can take from C1 into K1, with some of the lines I naturally take, which I could be taking in K1.”
She’ll have young paddlers Kensa Randle and Courtney Williams for company in the K1 class, with Kelly Travers also lining up in the C1.
Dawson said the New Zealanders had learned a lot from their Rio campaign and had applied it to the world champs.
“Luuka, myself and a lot of the Kiwi team have spent a lot of time here building up for the event – it’s something we saw worked really well in Rio so we’ve tried to capitalise on that by making Pau our home base ahead of the worlds,” he explained. “I’m loving paddling here and really enjoying my time on the water – it’s awesome to be in a sport that after 13years you can still have an amazing time at the events.”
Competition starts on Tuesday night (NZ time) at the venue, with most members of the New Zealand squad in action in teams racing, before the men’s K1 and women’s C1 get underway on Wednesday night.
NZ team: Men: Callum Gilbert (BOP), Mike Dawson (BOP), Finn Butcher (Otago). C1: Shaun Higgins (BOP), Patrick Washer (BOP), Ben Gibb (BOP).
Women: K1: Luuka Jones (BOP), Kensa Randle (Otago), Courtney Williams (BOP). C1: Jones, Kelly Travers (Auck).