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Road to Rio: Mike Dawson

The 2016 Olympian from New Zealand shares his views on how running rivers has prepared him for competing at the highest level

STORY BY JOE POTOCZAK / PHOTOS BY GRAEME MURRAY

For much of the whitewater paddling audience tuning in to the 2016 Summer Olympics, one of the most recognizable names stepping into a slalom kayak will undoubtedly be Kiwi paddler Mike Dawson, pictured above. This is in no small part due to his accolades as an extreme whitewater kayaker, navigating some of the most premier rivers around the world. But while Dawson has a lifelong passion for charging down the best the planet has to offer, he is just as dedicated to the high-performance atmosphere of slalom racing. So what exactly lures New Zealand’s men’s kayak representative away from remote river runs to the man-made stadiums of the slalom realm in order to race at the highest level? An addiction to competition:

"I love whitewater, and going on these missions to places people haven’t been, or few have been. Where you’ve got to step up and run rapids, and you know there are consequences. It’s a problem solving scenario. You’re just having a good time and working your way down rivers. But you don’t have that competitive element," says Dawson. "Where you have that one run to show what you are capable of. A chance to really express yourself in a controlled environment, and compete against guys that are doing the same. There’s something kind of addictive about that. The more you do it the more you want to do it."

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Earlier this year, Dawson teamed up with fellow Olympian Joe Clarke of Great Britain to embark on a project that would bring an unconventional approach to the modern form of Olympic slalom training. The pair took a helicopter ride into the remote west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where they set a slalom course on the steep and technical Whataroa River for two days. No crowds, no judges, just gates and the will of the wild river. A project planned out with Red Bull titled "Into the Wild."

For Joe Clarke, who ranked 17th overall in the ICF standings for 2015, the experience was something entirely new. Growing up in the slalom system in Great Britain, Clarke has spent his paddling career almost entirely on artificial courses. This was a large part why Red Bull hosted the project, to push Clarke (pictured below) outside his comfort zone. Preparing him for Rio by testing his skills in the uncontrolled environment that is a wilderness river. Placing him in a gorge that would require complete focus, removing him from the distractions of the city and of modern high performance sport – in other words, welcoming him to Dawson’s paddling world.

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When Mike Dawson isn’t training and competing on the international slalom circuit he can usually be found getting after some of the hardest whitewater out there. This is not to mention his home slalom training site in New Zealand, the Kaituna River. The Kaituna offers what Dawson calls, "a skate park for kayaks." While many run the Kaituna in plastic creek boats and playboats, the Olympian is regularly out there shredding the class III-IV whitewater in his composite race boat – hucking a 7-meter waterfall, boofing drops, and surfing waves, "It’s something we have that no one else in the world has," Dawson adds of his training site unique to the way most of the top level competitors approach the sport.

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Now heading for Rio, Dawson hopes his time paddling in nature’s playground provides him with an edge in the competition, but while many see only the podium as victory, Dawson has a slightly different definition of Olympic success.

"For me it’s a bit more about getting on the start line and getting that one chance at the biggest stage on Earth. To try and paddle as best I can and not shy away from the challenge. It’s like you came to that big rapid on a river, and you’ve got to make that line, and you attack it. And you do it or you don’t. You get one shot at the Olympics. One run. A chance to test yourself under that ultimate pressure. That’s the biggest thing for me. If you ask what a measure of success for the Games is. If I can do that at the Games it would be pretty cool."

C&K recently caught up with Dawson after he checked in to the Olympic village where he shared a few ways he believes time kayaking rivers around the world has prepared him for the challenge he faces at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro:

Fundamental river skills:
“When I was younger I always thought whitewater was holding me back in slalom. Like the more whitewater I did the more detrimental it was to my slalom paddling. When I made my big jump into slalom, I realized all the skills I’ve learned from paddling on a river: how to read a rapid – how to use a wave – how to boof a waterfall – how to catch an eddy – are wicked skills that a lot of people don’t have in slalom, because they’ve grown up on artificial courses and have never been on something unpredictable. You learn how to use the water. If you can believe these as beneficial, and start to use them in slalom then you are going to go faster because you’re not fighting the water. It’s no longer a sport, it’s more of an art. It’s more fluent and it’s more intuitive.”

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Complete mental focus:
“One of the ideas behind Into the Wild is that we are going to be sitting on a start line in a gorge in the middle of nowhere with freezing water, siphons, rocks, and big holes. You know if you don’t hit the line down there you could go into the siphon or you could get pinned in a carbon boat, that would just break up. In slalom the consequence is losing or making a mistake and it’s kind of an artificial consequence. It’s not really important at the end of the day. But if you do that on the river the consequences are pretty real. A lot of us have lost friends, and have had people drown and that’s the consequence of going for those lines. So that mental game when you drop into something big is the same as a slalom race, but it’s even more pure, it’s more intense, because you know that if something goes wrong you can be hurt or stuck somewhere that you don’t want to be.”

For the love of paddling:
“2012 was my first Olympics and we hadn’t had a New Zealand man go to the Olympics for a long time. So I was there and it was pretty cool, but I was trying to do too much. I was trying to go too fast. I thought I had to be faster than I was. In the end I got a 50 second penalty and was out of the competition. If I look back now, it was just in my mind about trying to be the best or fastest and racing the other guys, instead of just racing for myself. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last three years, is go out there and just race for yourself. Go for the feeling that you love. The feeling of why we all started kayaking. The power of the water, and jumping over the waves, and boofing, and the stuff that drew me to kayaking in the first place. If you have that feeling, and that flow on the water, then the runs are fast and they’re competitive and you don’t have to worry about the competition any more.”

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Follow the Canoe Slalom events at the RIO 2016 GAMES.

Read interviews with each athlete from the U.S. Olympic paddling squad in C&K’s Road to Rio series

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2016 C&K Awards
First Look: Rio Olympic Course