While everyone else was digesting turkey and all the trimmings this past weekend, some of the world’s best kayakers descended on the world’s newest artificial whitewater course at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in South Auckland, New Zealand, which hosted one of the world’s richest kayaking events in the $100,000 WhitewaterXL New Zealand Invitational. Read on for full results and the low-down…
In all, nearly 250 of the world’s best canoe and kayak slalom paddlers competed in the inaugural event, sponsored by the the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED).
“The WhitewaterXL concept is the ideal way to put the New Zealand kayaking scene on the international stage,” says race director John Snook. “New Zealand now has become a world-class training venue for paddlers and rafters and this event will be the perfect way to showcase that to a global audience. We’ve been exporting our top whitewater talent around the world for years and the sport has been screaming out for an event like this for years so we’re excited that we were now able to host it.”
The WhitewaterXL format featured a range of different cano and kayak slalom disciplines, in kayaks, canoes, teams races and boater-cross. Following is a blow-by-blow recap.
BoaterCross: Jones Jubilant After Last-gasp Win
Luuka Jones waited four long days, ironically until her least favored 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 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.
Fitting tribute for French paddlers at WWXL
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!”
International Paddlers Shine
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 agonizing 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 Anton Franz 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.
Olympic pioneer opens up WWXL kayaking
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.
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