Steve Gurney has spent more time paddling whitewater than some folk have spent breathing but the 54-year-old was relishing becoming a river rookie over Easter.
With nine Coast to coast titles and an array of extraordinary adventure races behind him, the Queenstown-based legend had a weekend out of his comfort zone, competing at the New Zealand canoe slalom championships in Tekapo for the first time.
And despite some middling results – he missed a gate in his first run and rolled in his second – he came away delighted at his experience in the burgeoning sport.
“I used to do a little bit of slalom in my university days, before I got seduced by the dark side of long-boat racing and the Coast to Coast, but things have changed a lot since then so my old boat just did not cut it when I turned up at a slalom event at Tekapo last year,” Gurney explained. “It looked pretty fun though and I was getting a bit bored with the long endurance paddling, plus living in Queenstown means I’m surrounded by rivers and great whitewater paddling, so I bought a second-hand modern slalom boat in November and I’m giving it a go – with disastrous results so far!”
Laughing that “things can only get better from here!”, Gurney has flung himself into his new sport with typical gusto, hanging eight slalom gates up in trees on the Kawarau River near his home and spending a fortnight trying to develop a six-pack, getting his core in shape.
“The major difference is the endurance – I’m used to paddling for hours and this is all over in three minutes. That means a whole new muscle usage but what I absolutely love is the skills. The top paddlers here are just incredible and the people here are really friendly… I’m hoping they can still teach an old dog new tricks.”
Gurney was one of a number of Central Otago paddlers competing at the championships, amid a swelling number of masters. The sport has enjoyed steady growth recently, helped immeasurably by Luuka Jones’ Olympic silver medal, with Gurney inspired by the young faces he saw both on the river bank and on the water.
“That’s the thing that makes my heart sing and gives me goosebumps – seeing all these young kids here. I sat around the camp fire with a bunch of 15-year-olds last night and they were just thriving, connecting with nature and paddling rivers. They’re going to grow up to be lovely, lovely adults.”
As for Gurney, he’s targeting a trip to Japan for the next Masters Games, having missed the figurative boat for the Auckland event last year, knowing exactly what he needs to work on.
“I’ve got the endurance – I just need to get the speed and the skills!”