Jones jubilant after last-gasp win

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Luuka Jones celebrates her Waka Kayaks Boatercross win at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Luuka Jones waited four long days, ironically until her least favoured event, before climbing to the top of the podium at the Whitewater XL kayaking event in Auckland.
The Rio Olympic canoe slalom silver medalist took out the Waka Kayaks Boatercross final at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park today, after a series of frustrating finishes in her K1 and C1 finals.
It capped a huge week for the sport, with the $60,000 event the biggest kayaking championship ever staged in New Zealand, and Jones was delighted to share in the spoils.
“I saved it to the last day of the competition but I was really fired up,” Jones said. “The boatercross is the event that I’m least likely to win and I was even a little bit scared but after a couple of runs, my anaerobic strength came through and I could get the speed off the start.”
That speed took her to an early lead in the four-boat final, holding off Dutch paddler Martina Wegman, top Frenchwoman Nouria Newman and world extreme champion Sandra Hyslop (Great Britain).
Newman had some consolation, crowned overall women’s K1 champion for the event, with Australia’s Rosalyn Lawrence second and Jones third.
German Stefan Hengst also got off to a great start in the men’s final, powering off the 5m start ramp and edging clear of Czech Republic star Vavra Hradilek and Kiwis Mike Dawson and surprise finalist Carl Whitehead.
“It was pretty hard racing guys like Vavra and Mike and I was a bit nervous at the start because they’re so strong and can go so fast,” 22-year-old Hengst said. “I was stoked to be in front at the start and hold it, while they were fighting each other for position.  I could just pick my own lines.”
The result pulled him into second-place overall in the men’s K1 overall standings, sandwiched between two more Czech paddlers, winner Ondrej Tunka and third-placed Vit Prindis.
German Franz Anton won the overall C1 title, ahead of Matej Benus (Slovakia) and France’s Cedric Holy, while Lawrence led an all-Australian C1 women’s podium, with Noemie Fox and Kate Eckhardt second and third.
Jones was ecstatic with the inaugural event’s success and has high hopes for next year.
“Everyone who’s come out has absolutely loved it.  They’re all posting on social media and everyone who didn’t come is getting massive FOMO (fear of missing out)!  Friends have been messaging me from overseas saying how gutted they are not to be here and they’re all fired up to come out next year.”

Whitewater XL Boatercross results:
Women: Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 1, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 2, Nouria Newman (France) 3, Sandra Hyslop (Great Britain) 4.
Men: Stefan Hengst (Germany) 1, Vavra Hradilek (Czech Republic) 2, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 3, Carl Whitehead (New Zealand) 4.

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Fitting tribute for French paddlers

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Nouria Newman on her way to victory in the women’s K1 at the Whitewater XL canoe slalom finals in Auckland. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Nouria Newman took a giant step towards an inaugural Whitewater XL overall crown on a poignant day for the French team at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today.
Newman collected the women’s K1 title in the canoe slalom finals, with only her favoured boatercross to come as the wildly successful four-day event draws to a close.
Her 0.39sec win over Australia’s Rosalyn Lawrence, despite a 2sec touch, proved a happy end to a tough day for her teammates after they learned one of their physios had died in an accident in France overnight.
“It was hard to get the news this morning and a bunch of emails this afternoon and I was definitely thinking of him when I was racing,” Newman said. “My run got better and better and I knew I had good moves, then I crushed gates 8 and 9 and that gave me confidence.  I was so grateful to have the French boys running down the course cheering at the end because I was so tired.”
British paddler Lizzie Neave was third, ahead of Martina Wegman, with home-town favourite Luuka Jones gutted not to deliver a win after clipping three gates and finishing fifth.
The Rio Olympic silver medalist announced this week she’d be pursuing C1 towards the Tokyo Olympics and could at least draw comfort from her results in that class this week, adding a second behind Australian Rosalyn Lawrence tonight.
“It’s been an awesome few days of racing and there’s a lot to take from it, especially with the way my C1 went,” Jones said.  “It is tiring doing both and it adds a different element to racing but it’s a positive one and I was really happy with my C1 run today.”
The international paddlers again dominated the finals, with Newman and Lawrence joined by German Franz Anton (men’s C1) and Czech Republic star Ondrej Tunka (men’s K1) atop the victory dais.
Anton continued his epic battle with Slovakian Matej Benus, the silver medalist in Rio, with the pair separated by 1.01secs in the final, ahead of Frenchman Cedric Joly.
Tunka’s win was the closest of the evening, however, after another German Stefan Hengst put down a clean 84.79sec time early in the final.
“I heard Stefan’s time before I raced and knew I had to risk everything to be better and I’m so happy to win,” Tunka said, after clocking 84.65 in his run. “I was pretty tired after a hard week of racing but this has made everything feel great!”
Mike Dawson’s hectic schedule caught up with him in the K1 final, picking up a 2sec penalty and finishing seventh in 95.41, just ahead of fellow Kiwi Finn Butcher who continues to match it with the world-class field.
After a shoot-out win last night, Tunka is also in a great position to win the overall Whitewater XL title with just the boatercross to come tomorrow, while Newman is also fired up.
“The boater cross is going to be a proper fight with all the fast river racers turning up, like Nikki Kelly and Sandra Hyslop.  The slalom paddlers will also be fast and I bet Luuka will crush it and be right up there.  It’s a gamble and maybe my strategy will be to not hit anyone and sneak in between people rather than punch them!”

Whitewater XL canoe slalom final results:
Women:
C1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 109.97secs 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 119.95 2, Noemie Fox (Australia) 120.54 3, Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 122.69 4, Alex Broome (Australia) 149.79 5.
K1: Nouria Newman (France) 99.57 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 99.96 2, Lizzie Neave 101.06 3, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 102.69 4, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 104.87 5.
Men:
C1: Franz Anton (Germany) 89.92 1, Matej Benus (Slovakia) 90.93 2, Cedric Joly (France) 91.07 3, Edern Le Ruyet (France) 94.67 4, Callum Gilbert (New Zealand) 100.52 5.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) 84.65 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 84.79 2, Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 85.54 3, Joe Morley (Great Britain) 89.80 4, Tim Anderson (Australia) 91.77 5.

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Benus banks cash, vows to return

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Slovakia’s Matej Benus showed his C1 class on the second day of Whitewater XL at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

As New Zealand’s new canoe slalom course bared its teeth today – along with Auckland’s weather – Slovakian Matej Benus responded with a grin of his own as he finally broke his Whitewater XL drought.
The Rio Olympic C1 silver medalist claimed the second of the quick-fire shoot-outs on the second day of competition at Vector Wero Whitewater Park, as the event builds into tomorrow’s televised canoe slalom climax.
Despite picking up a 2sec touch, he was still 2.65secs ahead of first-day champion German Franz Anton on the tough 18-gate course, further buffeted by wind and rain.
It made up for a disappointing first day, when a minor error cost the warm favourite an early shot at pocketing some of the $60,000 prizemoney up for grabs this week.
“I made a small mistake yesterday and there are a lot of good athletes here so it was enough to put me out of the running,” Benus explained.  “Today I was concentrating pretty hard because Franz and the other guys are pretty fast here.  I’m happy – I didn’t win money in the last two races so I’ll be able to call my wife and tell her the good news finally!”
Many of the world-class athletes struggled to handle the Vector Wero course, with only three K1 paddlers – Michal Smolen (United States), Katarina Macova (Slovakia) and New Zealand’s Luuka Jones posting clear runs.  Smolen was runner-up to Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) in the men’s K1, ahead of Kiwi Finn Butcher, while Jones matched Butcher’s best local finish with third in the women’s K1.
Benus, who has been coming down-under in the European winter for most of the last decade, using Penrith’s 2000 Olympic course as a base, was pleasantly pleased by the Auckland venue.
“I’m surprised that it’s this good and I’m probably going to come back in March with my training group.”
That’s significant news for the sport in this country, as his training group also includes Rio gold medal-winning C2 brothers Peter and Ladislav Santar.
While Slovakia shivers in sub-zero temperatures, 29-year-old Benus has used the Whitewater XL event as a scouting mission.
“I’m not here for the money – I’m here because it’s a beautiful country. I was last here maybe eight years ago and I love it here and I can’t wait to come back in March.”
Australian Kate Eckhardt took out the women’s C1, more than 6secs ahead of compatriot Rosalyn Lawrence, although Lawrence made amends in the K1 final, 0.65secs ahead of Great Britain’s Lizzie Neave. Although both Lawrence and Neave picked up penalties and Jones ran clean, the Kiwi’s 102.32secs time was still 1.41secs behind the winner.
Tunka, meanwhile, was conservative in his first run of the day but left nothing in the tank in the final. Despite picking up a touch, his 86.95sec raw time was comfortably the quickest, finishing an adjusted 0.57secs ahead of Smolen.  Butcher was also quick, though picked up two penalties to drop him back.
Tomorrow’s action will feature New Zealand’s top juniors, followed by semifinals and finals of the canoe slalom competition, while the spectacular Boatercross racing will headline Sunday.

Results:
Men:
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech) 88.95secs 1, Michal Smolen (United States) 89.52 2, Finn Butcher (New Zealand) 91.33 3, Vit Prindis (Czech) 95.41 4, Vavra Hradilek (Czech) 97.42 5.
C1: Matej Benus (Slovakia) 92.11 1, Franz Anton (Germany) 94.76 2, Cedric Joly (France) 1:01.09 3, Ben Gibb (New Zealand) 1:07.83 4, Shaun Higgins (New Zealand) 1:10.96.
Women:
C1: Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 1:20.95 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:27.31 2, Noemie Fox (Australia) 1:37.37 3, Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 1:45.58 4, Haylee Dangen (New Zealand) 1:51.61 5.
K1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:00.91 1, Lizzie Leave (Great Britain) 1:01.56 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 1:02.32 3, Nouria Newman (France) 1:04.12 4, Martina Wegman 1:08.74 5.

Overseas paddlers star at WWXL

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Germany’s Franz Anton on his way to victory in the men’s C1 final at Whitewater XL. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

International paddlers took a clean sweep of finals on the first day of the Whitewater XL canoe slalom championships in Auckland today.
Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones was the best of locals, grabbing a couple of podium finishes, though she was an agonising 0.29secs behind Great British paddler Lizzie Neave in the women’s K1 final.
The format featured a qualifying race through eight gates on the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park course, with the top-eight going through to quarterfinals, semifinals and a final.  Neave, an Olympian on her home course in London in 2012, loved the experience.
“It was a really fun race format – something I’d never done before – and all the athletes really enjoyed it,” Neave said.  “The course is really good run – it’s slightly smaller than what I’m used to training on but it’s still technically challenging and really good for training and racing on.”
Jones also grabbed third in the C1 division, her first attempt at the kneeling, single-bladed discipline in more than four years.
Australians Noemie Fox and Rosalyn Lawrence squared off in the C1 final, with Fox’s time of 79.82secs nearly 3secs clear of her compatriot.
In the men’s C1, German Franz Anton came through for the win, heading Frenchman Cedric Joly by 0.35secs, after Rio silver medalist Matej Benus (Slovakia) touched a gate and incurred a 2sec penalty in the semifinal.  That allowed another Frenchman, Edern Le Ruyet, to come through for third.
Czech Republic star Via Prindis triumphed in the men’s K1 final, meanwhile, heading Stefan Hengst (Germany) by 2.97secs, after Hengst picked up two touches.
Tomorrow’s format will see more traditional 18-gate course, with two runs of qualifying for Saturday.
The top-10 from the first qualifying run will contest for another cash shootout tomorrow night, with 30 more paddlers from the next run joining them in Saturday’s semifinals.

Results:
Women:
C1: Noemie Fox (Australia) 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 3.
K1: Lizzie Leave (Great Britain) 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 2, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 3.
Men:
C1: Franz Anton (Germany) 1, Cedric Joly (France) 2, Edern Le Ruyet (France) 3.
K1: Bit Prindis (Czech Republic) 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 2, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 3.

Olympic pioneer opens up WWXL

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Kiwi canoe slalom pioneer Donald Johnstone heads down the Vector Wero Whitewater Park course during the opening day of Whitewater XL in Auckland. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Donald Johnstone kick-started things 24 years ago so it was appropriate he was back in the thick of the kayaking action on the opening day of Whitewater XL in Auckland today.
Johnstone was New Zealand’s first canoe slalom Olympian, finishing 25th at the Barcelona Games in 1992. There’s been only three since to paddle at that level – Owen Hughes, Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson – with Jones’ silver medal at Rio this year the undoubted highlight.
In a year of firsts for the sport, the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park has opened in Manukau, which is also hosting the first major event this week with the four-day Whitewater XL.
Johnstone, now 53, showed he’s still got game by finishing 23rd in the opening qualifying round, missing out on tonight’s quick-fire head-to-head racing but comfortably making Saturday’s televised canoe slalom finals.
The Bay of Plenty local is thrilled to be racing a world-class course without having to go overseas.
“This facility is a game-changer and a great gain for our sport in New Zealand, especially in light of what Luuka achieved in Rio, and it gives our base of boaters an international course to train on and race on,” Johnstone said. “Mike and Luuka are doing really well lifting the profile and I really hope they just keep hammering it out, because this is their time.  They just need to savour the flavour!”
Johnstone retired soon after his Olympic appearance but came back to the sport recently to prepare for next year’s World Masters Games.  He paddled Vector Wero for the first time last month and admits it has its challenges.
“I found it quite hectic out there – the river is busy with all the features through the mid-section – so I’ve really been enjoying the training on there this week. I’m pretty fired up about the masters games, though there are a lot of overseas guys coming over  as well, which will make things interesting.”
There were a number of Olympians present in the opening round, including 2012 K1 silver medalist Vavra Hradilek (Czech Republic) and Rio C1 silver medalist Matej Benus (Slovakia), although it was two-time world extreme champion Joe Morley (Great Britain) who clocked the fastest time in the opening run.
Jones qualified for both the K1 and C1 finals, having announced she’ll chase spots in both boats at the Tokyo Olympics, with women’s C1 to be added for the first time.
“Before the Games, I’d already been thinking about it, and then when I got back I started training in a C1,” Jones explained. “To try and go there competing in two classes is another big challenge.”
Another Olympian racing today was former canoe sprinter Mike Walker, who finished fifth in the K2 1000m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with Steven Ferguson.  Walker started his paddling career in slalom and is also targeting the World Masters Games, having been out of the whitewater scene for 17 years.

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Son rising rapidly in Mutton ranks

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Rotorua paddler Zack Mutton (right) powers past Callum Parker, on his way to third place in today’s Kaituna Timetrial, a qualifying event for this week’s Whitewater XL. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Making the podium amid a world-class field of kayakers is one thing – but Zack Mutton was more stoked with finally beating his dad.

The 16-year-old Okere Falls paddler took third-place in Sunday’s Kaituna Timetrial, headed only by Olympians Vavra Hradilek (Czech Republic) and top Kiwi Mike Dawson.

It continued a rich vein of mighty Mutton performances in the event but also represented a changing of the guard… for now at least.

Zack’s father Kenny went in as defending champion, having won the 2015 edition and the 2012 title, while also picking up podium spots in 2013 and 2014.

But the 45-year-old former freestyle guru and kayak designer could ‘only’ clock 6mins 37.52secs for the forearm-burning classic, good enough for seventh overall and 5secs adrift of his jubilant eldest son.

“It’s been a goal for a while but to finally get him was a pretty good feeling,” Zack Mutton said.  “He hasn’t been training very much and has been looking after my little brother but I’m sure this will fire him up to train more.”

Mutton Snr knew this day was coming and greeted the news with a wry smile on the finish line.  His boy has had a rich diet of top-level coaching, not only of the paternal kind but also from Dawson and Hradilek, for each of the last seven summers as they trained at Okere Falls.

The international canoe slalom stars have taken the younger Mutton under their wings and he’s got a big future, within sight of his 17th birthday in March.  He finished 19th in the semifinals of the ICF junior canoe slalom world championships in Poland in July, despite having another three years in the age-group, crediting Dawson and Hradilek with much of that improvement.

“I definitely feel like I’m getting better but I’ve still got a long way to go.  They teach me so much – how to race, how to train, technique and even how to chill out.”

Dad has an immediate shot at revenge, however – the Kaituna race doubled as qualifying for this week’s Whitewater XL in Auckland, with the top-32 making it straight through to Sunday’s Boatercross finals at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park.

Poignant win for top Czech kayaker

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Czech paddler Vavra Hradilek on his way to victory in today’s Kaituna Timetrial, a qualifying event for this week’s Whitewater XL. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Czech kayaking star Vavra Hradilek overcame jet-leg, some fired-up locals and a fair dollop of emotion to win his second Kaituna Timetrial title near Rotorua today.

The 2012 Olympic canoe slalom silver medalist and 2013 world champion headed his good friend and top Kiwi Mike Dawson by just over a second on the spectacular run down the Kaituna River, which takes paddlers over a series of Grade 5 rapids and waterfalls.

Hradilek is in New Zealand for this week’s inaugural Whitewater XL event in Auckland, with the Kaituna race also doubling as qualifying for Sunday’s Boatercross final at Vector Wero Whitewater Park. But he’s also delighted to be back at his second home, at Okere Falls.

“I’m super-stoked to win, for sure, and it feels good to beat Mike on his home river but it’s just great to have that many people around and to be back on the Kaituna,” Hradilek said.

His time of 6mins 27.49secs helped him add to the title he won in 2013. He was just over a second clear of 2014 winner Dawson, who clocked 6:28.67, with the big surprise coming in third, where 16-year-old local Zack Mutton scorched home with two consistently fast runs, with the best of them a 6:32.29. Fellow Okere Falls product Jamie Sutton was fourth, with another Czech star, Via Prindis, fifth.

Dawson was the link that first drew Hradilek to New Zealand – they competed against each other as juniors in 2004 – but he’s since forged far deeper connections. He’s been coming to Okere Falls every summer since 2009, taking advantage of the Southern Hemisphere summer while his native Prague shivers amid snow and ice.

This trip is different for a few reasons; just three weeks ago, he had the premiere of Tenkrát v ráji, a major Czech movie he starred in. And earlier this week, he also got to paddle the stretch of river where hugely popular New Zealand representative Louise Jill drowned last year.

While Okere Falls is his second home, the close-knit kayak-centric community is like a second family and to say he hurt deeply when Jull died is a massive understatement.

“We paddled the lower gorges the other day and that was really emotional but I felt like something was up there. I was so scared but I really needed to do it. I’ll always remember her and she left a spirit which we’ve just got to carry on. That’s the most important thing about the community here.”

Having shown his form is right on target, Hradilek is now looking forward to a big week at Whitewater XL, with practice on Monday and Tuesday, a corporate raft day on Wednesday and competition going through Thursday to Sunday. He’s eager to see how the Vector Wero course behaves in competition for the first time.

“It’s a beautiful country and there’s an awesome crew around. The vibe around the kayaking community makes me come back every summer, even though there has been no artificial training facility here until this year. Now we’ll see how Wero goes and it’s fun to work on something new – I’ve never raced such a big race at this time of the year so it’s a different game.”

Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Nouria Newman completed an all-overseas podium in the women’s race, though her margin was even smaller than the men’s division.

With a time of 6:46.92, Newman was just 0.60secs ahead of British paddler Sandra Hyslop, who won last month’s adidas Sickline extreme world title in Austria.  Martina Wegman (Holland) was third in 6:59.17, just ahead of leading Kiwi Nikki Kelly.

Newman only arrived in the country this week and she needed a 43sec improvement in her second run to capture the title.

“With slalom, we’re not used to racing for that long,” Newman explained.  “I’m happy I pulled off a good run but Sandra is really fast and that was really hard.  I had less energy in the second run but I had better lines into the rapids and I was a bit calmer.”

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Hines hunts charity cash at WWXL

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American Tracy Hines training on the Kaituna River this week, getting ready for Whitewater XL. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

With an accent from the deepest south of the United States and the heart of a kayaking adventurer, Tracy Hines has definitely added colour to the field for next week’s inaugural Whitewater XL.

What she really hopes to add, however, is a bit of cash to a crew of Ugandan orphans.

The 42-year-old C1 paddler arrived in New Zealand last week and has spent much of her time training on the Kaituna River near Rotorua.  She’s got a clear goal in mind for Whitewater XL, which will be held on the new Vector Were Whitewater Park course in Auckland from November 24-27, as the Alabama native takes a break from studying theology in Oklahoma.

“In order to do this race, I had to take a bit of leave for this semester – the school was really nice to give me leave but one of the reasons was because of what I plan to do with any prize money I pick up,” Hines explained. “During the course of the year, I made friends with a guy who has an orphanage in Uganda.  They’re trying to build a chicken house and grow some crops and one of my goals with this cash-purse race is to make a good donation to the orphanage.  I’ve been making donations already and have helped write some grant applications but I’d really like to give them some cash.”

Hines joins a star-studded cast of international paddlers at New Zealand’s biggest paddling event, which will feature a bevy of Olympic medalists and rising stars, as well as top Kiwis Mike Dawson and Luuka Jones.

It’s her second time in this country, having represented the United States at the world freestyle championships near Taupo in 1999, and she didn’t need much incentive to come back.

“Mike Dawson sent me a little note on Facebook and I clicked on it and saw this race here this summer. I hit the like button, then started searching for plane tickets.  I didn’t need any more convincing.”

Hines has enjoyed a rich and varied existence.  After discovering kayaking in Huntsville, Alabama, aged 16, she ran away from home at 18 to become a raft guide.  She later became a soldier in the US Army, completed graduate studies at Western State University and self-published two books.

In her spare time, she writes poetry and aims to become a chaplain at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

For now, though, she’s just drinking in all the land of the long white kayaking cloud can offer.

“Our team selections aren’t until May and it’s really cold in the States at the moment so I’m going to try and stay here through the colder months – through January and February – at least.”

 

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Tracy Hines, left, takes a break from training with Czech stars Vit Prindis and Ondrej Tunka (right) on the Kaituna River.

Top kayak stars arriving in NZ

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Czech paddlers Vít Prindis (left) and Ondrej Tunka training on the Kaituna River near Rotorua today, ahead of next week’s Whitewater XL. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

The first wave of international paddlers have arrived in New Zealand ahead of next week’s Whitewater XL, eager to get the jump on the deluge of world-class rivals expected in the next few days.

The inaugural Whitewater XL will be held at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland, combining canoe slalom, rafting and boatercross racing from November 20-27.

It has attracted more than 100 of the best kayakers on the planet, eager to test the Southern Hemisphere’s newest artificial course during the European off-season, as well as sample some of New Zealand’s world-renowned rivers.

That’s certainly the case for Czech Republic K1 pair Vít Prindis and Ondrej Tunka, who have based themselves on the Kaituna River near Rotorua for the last week and immersed themselves in the Okere Falls slalom scene.

“This is my first time in New Zealand and it’s such a beautiful country – it’s perfect to come here for winter training for us,” Tunka explained.  “I’ve always wanted to see New Zealand and being able to do the Whitewater XL event here is a huge bonus.”

The 26-year-old was part of the world championship-winning Czech K1 team in London last year, while Prindis won double gold in the second round of the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in Spain earlier this year, capturing the K1 and slalom cross titles, with Tunka third in the latter.

Prindis also fought an enthralling duel with reigning world champion Jiri Prskavec and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Vavra Hradilek for the Czech Olympic spot in Rio, which Prskavec secured by just fractions of a second.

Hradilek is one of the event ambassadors for Whitewater XL, arriving tonight, although Prindis believes the race for the inaugural title is wide open.

“The racing will be really good and there are so many people who could win,” Prindis said.  “It’s also good to be able to see what the course is like and maybe come back again with a team to train here during our winter.  The Southern Hemisphere has a lot of options now and New Zealand is a great place with all its beautiful rivers and places like the Kaituna to train and build endurance.”

Prindis has been to New Zealand once before, with compatriot Ivan Pišvejc in 2012, but intends staying a little longer this time and exploring the South Island after Whitewater XL if the recent earthquake damage allows.  He’ll leave in mid-December, heading back to Prague to get some lung-burning, fitness-building cross country skiing in, while Tunka plans to stay until the end of January.

Aside from the Czech crew, a number of other top Europeans are competing, including British extreme paddler Joe Morley and Germany’s 2008 Olympic champion Alexander Grimm, while the United States and Australia also have big contingents.

Slovakia’s Michal Martikan, a multiple Olympic medal winner, headlines the C1 field, with his compatriot and Rio silver medalist Matej Benus expected to provide a stiff challenge.

Another Rio silver medalist, Kiwi Luuka Jones, will have a big field of K1 women challenging her, led by Britain’s Lizzie Neave, France’s Nouria Newman and Australian pair Noemie Fox and Rosalyn Lawrence.

A big field of rising paddlers will also tackle the Junior WhitewaterXL title.

The week of whitewater kicks off on Sunday with the Kaituna Time Trial in Okere Falls, qualifying paddlers for the boatercross event, with the opening ceremony and powhiri in Auckland later the same day.

Vector Wero will also host a corporate raft day on Wednesday, with teams of five each guided by one of the top Whitewater XL paddlers down the Manukau-based course.

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Czech paddler Vít Prindis.
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Czech paddler Ondrej Tunka.

Olympic stars to lead rafting challenge

 

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Czech kayaking star Vavra Hradilek. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media

Three Olympic silver medalists and a triple world champion will headline next month’s Ian Ferguson Cup corporate raft day, which kicks off the inaugural Whitewater XL canoe slalom festival in Auckland.
The week-long festival, from November 20-27, features some of the best whitewater paddlers in the world.  They’ll face off in a series of events at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau, beginning with the raft racing challenge on November 23.
New Zealand kayaker Luuka Jones, who won K1 silver at the Rio Olympics in August, will skipper one of the rafts hurtling down the world-class whitewater, alongside fellow Kiwi Olympian Mike Dawson.
Other rafters and event ambassadors include Slovakian Matej Beňuš, who won C1 silver in Rio this year, and Czech Republic star Vavra Hradilek, the K1 silver medalist from the 2012 London Olympics.
Rotorua brothers and professional raft guides Jamie and Sam Sutton will also control boats, after returning from the adidas Sickline world extreme kayaking championships in Austria earlier this month.
Sam Sutton, who finished second this year, won the world title three times in a row in a magical stretch between 2010-2012.
United States Olympian Ashley Nee, 14th in Rio, will be joined on the rafts by fellow international paddlers Ciaran Heurteau (Ireland) and Nouria Newman, a double world championship medal-winning French K1 and extreme star.
The raft day is named for New Zealand’s greatest Olympian Ferguson, who now runs the Vector Wero facility.  He won four Olympic golds in flat water kayaking, although he started his fabled career as a downriver whitewater racer in Taumaranui.
The raft racing will involve teams of five rafters, plus their whitewater guides, competing in sprint races and head-to-head challenges down the Vector Wero rapids.
For more information about the Whitewater XL festival, go to http://www.wwxl.co.nz