More than 100 teenaged kayakers are playing a waiting game in the aftermath of Eastern Bay of Plenty’s tumultuous flooding this week.
The New Zealand secondary school whitewater championships is due to begin on Monday but today’s practice day was cancelled because of high river levels on the Tarawera River in Kawerau.
The river was running as high as 85 cubic metres a second (cumecs), had dropped to 65cumecs today but organisers were hoping it would get down to normal levels of around 30cumecs by Monday.
“We’ve got eight competitors from Australia, as well as a large contingent from the South Island, who were all on their way when the flooding hit during the week and were understandably a bit apprehensive,” race director Liz Fowler explained. “Everyone’s relaxed about missing the practice day today though – we’re all very aware we’re just here for fun, while just down the road in Edgecumbe, people have lost their homes and most of their possessions.”
There’s a record field of 101 paddlers taking part, with strong showings from Auckland, Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki bolstering the traditional strongholds of Bay of Plenty and Central Otago.
The secondary school titles will be followed by the New Zealand canoe slalom championships at the same venue over Easter, with officials nervously eyeing long-range forecasts of another sub-tropical depression hitting New Zealand.
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).
New Zealand’s big guns failed to fire on the final day of the Oceania canoe slalom championships in Auckland, though two rising stars managed to salvage home-town pride.
Kiwi Olympians Mike Dawson and Luuka Jones both rolled in their respective finals on the tough Vector Wero Whitewater Park course, ruining their chances of challenging for a title.
Instead, Australian Jess Fox continued her imperious form, winning the women’s C1 final by an astounding 13secs, while American Michal Smolen snatched the men’s K1 title from Olympic champion Joe Clarke (Great Britain) in a thrilling final.
New Zealand’s best performances, meanwhile, came from Callum Gilbert and Finn Butcher, who finished fourth and sixth in a world-class men’s K1 field.
Smolen had something to prove after his semifinal run, where he qualified fourth-fastest.
“I had quite a rough semifinal and needed to fix a few things in the final but ended up having a really good run, just from top to bottom,” Smolen said.
His time of 86.17secs was 1.83secs faster than Clarke, although the Englishman did have the satisfaction of clocking the fastest time of the day, 86.02 in the semifinal.
Australian Lucien Delfour was third, just ahead of Gilbert (91.32), with world No 3 Mathieu Biazizzo sandwiched in fifth between Gilbert and Butcher.
“I was pretty solid on the way down and everything was pretty close to what I wanted to do,” Gilbert said. “I’ve been focussing on consistency for the last year and it’s good to see it coming into play in these selection races, plus it’s wicked to race on a world-class course with a world-class field.”
Butcher’s raw time of 87.92 was the third-fastest of the final but three touches dropped him back, while Dawson made an early mistake but then came storming back, only to roll in a hole after gate 17 and collect two touches.
Jones, meanwhile, found the C1 final a step too far after a torrid week of illness. She missed the eighth gate entirely, then rolled halfway down.
Up front, Fox put on a masterclass, finishing in 102.62secs despite picking up a touch on the very first gate.
“I hit gate 1, which could’ve made it a bad start, but I think it actually fired me up and made me attack it a bit more, because I knew I had that 2sec time penalty,” the reigning world champion said. “I was really happy with the run after that and I executed the plan that I had in my head.”
Fellow Aussie Roslyn Lawrence was second, 13.07secs distant, with Kate Eckhardt and Fox’s younger sister Noemie completing at Australian clean sweep of the first four spots. Kelly Travers was the best New Zealander in eighth.
The next big event on the canoe slalom calander is the Australian Open in Penrith later in February, with Fox fired up for a big performance on home water after winning both K1 and C1 titles this weekend.
“For me, the job’s done – that was part of our selection series and winning here got me on the Australian team in both C1 and K1, so now I can let loose and attack at the Australian Open.”
C1 women: Jessica Fox (Australia) 102.62 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 115.69 2, Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 117.80 3, Noemie Fox (Australia) 120.54 4, Sona Stanovska (Slovakia) 124.12 5, Alison Borrows (Australia) 132.15 6, Alexandra Broome (Australia) 136.35 7, Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 136.52 8, Demelza Wall (Australia) 148.73 9, Claire Jacquet (France) 167.06 10, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 433.40 11.
K1 men: Michal Smolen (United States) 86.17 1, Joe Clarke (Great Britain) 88.00 2, Lucien Delfour (Australia) 89.26 3, Callum Gilbert (New Zealand) 91.32 4, Mathieu Biazizzo (France) 91.44 5, Finn Butcher (New Zealand) 93.92 6, Martin Dougoud (Switzerland) 94.48 7, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 113.12 8, Quentin Burgi (France) 142.25 9, Tim Anderson (Australia) 144.38 10.
The ‘perfect storm’ of a new venue and a silver star could be about to break canoe slalom into New Zealand’s sporting mainstream.
As the leading Kiwi paddlers took on a world-class international field at this weekend’s Oceania championships at Auckland’s Vector Wero Whitewater Park, off the water the governing body is gearing up to bring through the next wave.
Canoe Slalom New Zealand (CSNZ) was the biggest winner in last month’s national funding announcement, receiving $450,000 for each of the next two years. Previously, Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson had received individual campaign funding, which their national body has now been entrusted with. Sport New Zealand also contributed a one-off grant of $250,000 for gates, timing equipment and infrastructure at Vector Wero.
It means rising stars Finn Butcher (Alexandra) and Tauranga’s Callum Gilbert will receive High Performance Sport New Zealand funding for the first time, with Gilbert celebrating as the leading Kiwi K1 qualifier in today’s heats.
Rio Olympic silver medalist Jones, who progressed to the C1 and K1 semifinals despite battling a chest infection, is delighted to see Gilbert and Butcher rewarded for solid world cup seasons last year.
“It was always a goal before the Olympics to help the sport and I’m stoked that I’ve been able to help,” Jones said. “It can be pretty hard to compete at the highest level in sport with limited support so it’s great to see some of our talented younger paddlers getting funding.”
The challenge now is for CSNZ to go from amateur status to a semi-professional sporting model, with chairman Chris Pascoe explaining the sport would soon be employing a high performance manager and a coach.
“We have been working with the national funders for four years and making a bit of traction but it’s just been a perfect storm in the last year, with Vector Wero opening and Luuka winning silver,” Pascoe said. “If Vector Wero hadn’t opened, it never would’ve happened and if Luuka hadn’t won silver, it probably wouldn’t have happened either, but just as importantly, if High Performance Sport New Zealand didn’t have faith in our organisation, we also wouldn’t have been in this position. Our big problem is that we’ve now gone to another level but our committee members are still doing huge voluntary hours each week on the administration of the sport.”
With encouragement from the national funding bodies, Canoe Slalom and Canoe Racing New Zealand have begun talks to look at sharing some high performance and administration resources, while CSNZ is also considering introducing a board of directors.
With the new funding having kicked in from the start of this year, current national coach Aaron Osborne is in place as acting high performance manager, while that role and the coaching role are advertised.
Dawson, who has self-funded large parts of his kayaking career, is delighted to see his sport taking a big step forward.
“Slalom has everything they need to mount a gold medal campaign now,” Dawson said. “It hasn’t put us on a par internationally but it’s definitely given us the opportunity to bridge that gap and prove that with more support, we can produce better results. With better results, we can get more support so it’s the start of a really positive movement for slalom.”
Meanwhile, Australian star Jess Fox dominated the opening day of the Oceania championships, more than 5secs ahead of her nearest rivals in the K1 class and 6secs clear in the C1 heats.
Great Britain’s Ryan Westley was the fastest qualifier for tomorrow’s C1 semifinals with a 90.23sec run, while United States Olympian Michal Smolen clocked 86.68secs for the fastest K1 men’s time.
Tomorrow’s racing will see semifinals and finals in men’s C1 and women’s K1, with champions decided in women’s C1 and men’s K1 on Monday.
For full results, see here
Ten months ago, a jet-lagged Joe Clarke arrived in New Zealand packing a couple of handy international results and a seemingly implausible plan to set up and train on the world’s most extreme canoe slalom course.
Tomorrow, he’ll line up at the Oceania championships in Auckland as an Olympic gold medalist and kayaking super-star.
The 24-year-old Red Bull-sponsored Great British paddler has had his world turned upside down by his win in Rio but he’s delighted to be back down under, where his Olympic journey began in earnest.
“It’s great to be back in New Zealand and I’ve got lots of fond memories – coming back as Olympic champion, it’s hard not to have a lot of love for the place,” Clarke said.
Clarke’s unorthodox Olympic buildup was the brainchild of top Kiwi paddler Mike Dawson, who wanted to recreate the mental pressures they would both face in Rio by substituting the massive crowd noise and public expectation for the roar of glacier-fed rapids and crucial life-and-death moves.
Together, they helicoptered into a remote gorge on the Whataroa River south of Hokitika and, amid the giant boils and schist boulders of the grade-5 Grand Finale rapid, set up slalom gates with home-made plastic poles and twine.
Their week-long expedition worked; Clarke had the run of his life inn the final in Rio, while Dawson finished 10th, the best-ever result by a New Zealand male.
This weekend’s Oceania titles at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park may not have the same intensity as Rio but Clarke still faces a quality field. France’s Mathieu Biazizzo, Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) and Australia’s Lucien Delfour are all ahead of him in the ICF rankings and he’s enthused beginning his season away from his London training base.
“I’m really looking forward to sitting on the start line again for the first time since the Olympics. I’m maybe not quite in the shape I was then, due to time off and media commitments, but you’ve got to start somewhere and it certainly beats cracking the ice at Lee Valley in the freezing conditions!”
Clarke’s presence adds to a star-studded lineup, with more than half the 140-strong field coming from overseas. Australian Jess Fox is the World No 1-ranked paddler in both C1 and K1, squaring off against New Zealand’s Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones in both classes, while Slovenia’s Matej Benus is the top-ranked C1 men’s paddler in the world at the moment.
It’s a huge occasion for a number of rising New Zealand paddlers to test themselves against the best, with Clarke predicting big things for the sport in this country, following Vector Wero’s opening last year.
“The course has got the potential to be a lot better and one of the best in the world, if configured differently, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction to help New Zealand excel in the sport.”
Entry to Vector Wero is free for spectators, with heats in both C1 and K1 starting on Saturday morning and Sunday and Monday featuring semifinals and finals.
Australian Jess Fox will lead a procession of world-class canoe slalom paddlers at this weekend’s Oceania championships in Auckland.
The 140-strong field has more than half coming from overseas to compete in the three-day championships at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau.
Fox is the reigning C1 world champion and created history in 2014, becoming the first paddler to hold C1 and K1 world titles at the same time. Her K1 rivals this weekend include 2009 world champion Jasmin Schornberg (Germany) and New Zealand’s Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones.
“There’s healthy competition between New Zealand and Australia for our summer races but add a few Czechs, French, Slovaks, Americans and Germans and it’s a great field that is definitely only positive for our preparation,” Fox said. “Although they are not in the same training phase as us, it’s still great to have some of the best international athletes here to compare ourselves to and lift our level.”
Fox won K1 silver at the London Olympics and bronze behind Jones in Rio. The 22-year-old has impeccable paddling pedigree – her father Richard, competing for Great Britain, finished fourth in the 1992 Olympics and won five world championship titles, while her French mum Myriam won two world titles. Younger sister Noemie is also competing this weekend, with Fox hoping New Zealand’s fickle summer finally relinquishes its steady sou-westerly air-flow.
“I’m feeling better and more comfortable after a few more sessions but the wind is one of the hardest parts. It’s definitely a very hard and physical course – the stoppers make it really hard to keep the boat speed and it’s unforgiving when you get a little bit off line, as it’s hard to bring it back.”
In the men’s field, Great Britain’s Joe Clarke returns to New Zealand for the first time since winning K1 men’s gold in Rio, having bolstered his Olympic preparations with an intensive training camp on the West Coast last year.
France’s Mathieu Biazizzo is the top-ranked paddler, however, ranked No 3 in the world by the ICF, with Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) and Australia’s Lucien Delfour also ranked above Clarke.
Delfour, fresh from winning the New Zealand Open on the Mangahao River near Palmerston North last weekend, rates the Vector Wero course as a massive challenge.
“It’s probably one of the hardest courses in the world at the moment, not because it’s big, but because it’s so technical,” Delfour said. “It’s great that New Zealand has an artificial course of that size and it’s high quality but it’s hard work physically – you’ve just got to power yourself all the way down.”
Slovenia’s Matej Benus is the top-ranked C1 men’s paddler in the world at the moment, returning to New Zealand after finishing second at the Whitewater XL in November. His keen rivals this weekend include Pierre-Antoine Tillard (France) and Ryan Westley (Great Britain), while Ben Gibb and Patrick Washer are the highest-ranked Kiwis in the field.
New Zealand-based Pacific Island paddlers competing this weekend include Fiji’s Daniel Tuiraviravi and Tauranga siblings Bryden and Ella Nicholas, who both represented the Cook Islands in Rio last year.
Entry to Vector Wero is free for spectators, with heats in both C1 and K1 starting on Saturday morning and Sunday and Monday featuring semifinals and finals.
Kelly Travers showed Luuka Jones she’s got a C1 fight on her hands, upstaging the Rio Olympian at canoe slalom’s New Zealand Open near Palmerston North today.
Travers took out the C1 (canoe) final on a wet and windy Mangahao River course by more than 7secs, preventing Jones from completing a notable double after earlier winning the K1 (kayak) final.
Despite picking up four penalty touches, Travers clocked 134.82secs for her final run. Jones was second with 142.09, while Australian Alison Borrows missed a gate, costing her 50secs, eventually clocking 184.61 for fifth.
After winning K1 silver in Rio last year, Jones has added C1 to her training and racing programme and 23-year-old Travers admits she’s relishing their upcoming battles.
“It’s definitely good to have a little bit of added competition and puts some added pressure on,” Travers said. “She’s one of the best in the world in K1 and transferring over to C1 appears to work quite well for her. It’s good for me to scale myself against her and is only going to keep pushing me forward.”
The New Zealand Open was the first of two big weeks for the sport, capped by next weekend’s Oceania Championships in Auckland at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park.
Earlier, Jones had picked up just one touch in a dominant K1 final display, clocking 109.75, with Frenchwoman Camille Prigent second in 114.11 and Amber Maslen (Great Britain) third in 119.53.
Another Olympian, Australian Lucien Delfour, took out the men’s K1 final with a clean 96.44sec run, just 0.08secs ahead of Martin Dougoud (Switzerland). Mike Dawson was the best Kiwi in fifth, hitting two gates at the bottom of the course to finish 4.64secs behind the winner.
It was a confidence-booster for Delfour, two weeks after being pipped in the final of the Australian championships, putting him in a good space before next weekend’s Oceania championships.
“I’m still trying to get my fitness back to where it was before and it’s taking a little while,” Delfour said. “There’s work to be done before next weekend but I was definitely happy with the win.”
Thibault Blaise (France) won the C1 men’s final, meanwhile, 2.26secs ahead of Australian Ian Borrows, with Ben Gibb the leading New Zealander in third.
K1: Lucien Delfour (Australia) 96.44 1, Martin Dougoud (Switzerland) 96.52 2, Michal Smolen (United States) 98.63 3, Pierre Bourliaud (France) 100.17 4, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 101.08 5.
C1: Thibault Blaise (France) 107.83 1, Ian Borrows (Australia) 110.09 2, Ben Gibb (New Zealand) 110.50 3, Patrick Washer (New Zealand) 117.00 4, Shaun Higgins (New Zealand) 119.85 5.
K1: Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 109.75 1, Camille Prigent (France) 114.11 2, Amber Maslen (Great Britain) 119.53 3, Courtney Williams (New Zealand) 121.28 4, Jane Nicholas (New Zealand) 123.43 5.
C1: Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 134.82 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 142.09 2, Jane Nicholas (New Zealand) 144.23 3, Haylee Dangen (New Zealand) 153.31 4, Alison Borrows (Australia) 184.61 5.
See full results here
Reigning world cup champion Mathieu Biazizzo (France) and top Australian Lucien Delfour are among the top international talent taking on canoe slalom’s New Zealand Open near Palmerston North this weekend.
It’s the start of a big week for the sport in New Zealand, with the Oceania Championships in Auckland next week at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau.
Top Kiwis Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson will spearhead the local charge this week on the Mangahao River, at the Mangahao Power Station near Shannon, with Rio de Janeiro K1 silver medalist Jones again testing herself in both the K1 and C1 classes ahead of a possible double tilt at Tokyo in 2020.
Jones announced her intention to race both classes at the inaugural Whitewater XL at Vector Wero in November and performed spectacularly on limited training, although Frenchwomen Nouria Newman took out the overall WWXL title.
Jones beat Newman at the New Zealand Open last year and the pair will resume their K1 battle this weekend, with Alison Borrows (Australia) and Czech paddler Veronika Vojtová adding depth to the women’s field. Vojtová won world championship gold in the K1 teams at London in 2015.
The men’s field is even deeper, with Biazizzo taking out the ICF World Cup series title in Slovenia and Delfour – who was born in French Polynesia but has competed for Australia since 2010 – finishing second in 2015.
Czech star and Whitewater XL champion Ondřej Tunka, sixth in the ICF World Cup series last year, has stayed in New Zealand training and will also line up, joining top United States paddler and Rio Olympian Michal Smolen.
Switzerland’s Martin Dougoud, France’s Pierre Bourliaud and Jaxon Merritt complete a classy top-10, alongside Dawson and rising Kiwis Callum Gilbert and Finn Butcher.
Gilbert goes into the New Zealand Open as defending champion, having beaten Dawson for the first time at the same event 12 months ago.
This weekend’s racing starts at 9am on Saturday, with semifinals and finals on Sunday.
Caption: Czech paddler Ondřej Tunka, on his way to victory in November’s Whitewater XL, will be one of the leading contenders at canoe slalom’s New Zealand Open on the Mangahao River this weekend. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media