Photos by Jamie Troughton // Dscribe Media
In late November more than 250 of the world's best kayakers descended on the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in South Auckland, New Zealand, to compete in the WhitewaterXL New Zealand Invitational for a share of the event’s $60,000 purse, one of the richest purses in whitewater kayaking history.
Sponsored by New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Auckland Tourism, and other New Zealand government agencies, the inaugural event drew special interest from the world's top slalom kayakers, with the majority of cash events directed toward their specific skills.
"The WhitewaterXL concept is the ideal way to put the New Zealand kayaking scene on the international stage," says race director John Snook. “With the new park, New Zealand has become a world-class training venue for paddlers and rafters and this event was 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 were excited to be able to host it,” he adds.
Featuring top 10 shoot-outs, the unique format featured a range of C1 and kayak slalom disciplines, including individual and team races and even a boatercross event.
"The Vector Wero Whitewater Park is the latest addition of Olympic-standard courses in the slalom world and set the scene for one of the largest cash purses ever seen in whitewater as athletes raced across four days of intense competition," says local competitor and Olympian Mike Dawson, who went home with third in boatercross and third in slalom. "It was a progressive event, combining Olympic discipline slalom with extreme-style racing. And it's one of the few kayak events with equal prize money over all the classes."
Eight-gate Sprint Slalom
In the first event, an eight-gate slalom course, the format featured a qualifying race through eight gates with the top eight competitors going through to quarterfinals, semifinals and a final. For the women, New Zealand's own Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones was the best of locals, grabbing a couple of podium finishes, though she ended up 0.29 seconds behind British paddler and fellow Olympian Lizzie Neave in the women's K1 final.
"It was a really fun race format – something I'd never done before – and all the athletes really enjoyed it," Neave says. "The course was slightly smaller than what I'm used to training on but was still technically challenging."
In women's C1, it was paddlers across the pond winning top honors, with Australians Noemie Fox and Rosalyn Lawrence squaring off in the final, where Fox's time of 79.82 took her to the top. Jones took third in the C1 division, her first attempt at the discipline in more than four years.
In the men's C1, German Anton Franz came through for the win, heading off Frenchman Cedric Joly by 0.35 seconds, after Rio silver medalist Matej Benus of Slovakia touched a gate and incurred a penalty in the semifinal. That allowed another Frenchman, Edern Le Ruyet, to come through for third.
For men's kayak, two-time world Sickline extreme champion Joe Morley of Great Britain clocked the fastest time in the opening run, only to later fall to the slalom paddlers. In the end, Czech Republic star Via Prindis soared to first, staving off Stefan Hengst of Germany by 2.97 seconds, after Hengst picked up two touches.
In the more traditional 18-gate slalom event, featuring two qualifying runs, France's Nouria Newman won the women's K1 title, with a 0.39-second lead over Australia's Rosalyn Lawrence, despite a two-second gate-touch penalty. It proved a happy end to a tough day for her and her teammates after they learned one of their physiotherapists had died in an accident in France overnight.
"It was hard to get the news that morning before I raced, and I was definitely thinking of him when I was racing," Newman says. "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 favorite Luuka Jones clipping three gates and finishing fifth.
Jones, the Rio Olympic silver medalist, announced earlier that she'd be pursuing C1 towards the Tokyo Olympics and could at least draw comfort from her results in that class, taking second behind Australian Rosalyn Lawrence.
"It was an awesome few days of racing and there's a lot to take from it, especially with the way my C1 went," Jones says. "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."
For the men, German Franz Anton (C1) continued his epic battle with Slovakian Matej Benus, the silver medalist in Rio, with the pair separated by just 1.01 seconds in the final, ahead of Frenchman Cedric Joly. In men's kayak, Czech Republic star Ondrej Tunka topped the podium after the closest race of the evening, against Germany's Stefan Hengst, who put down a clean and blistering 84.79-second 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," says Tunka, who bested him by just 0.14 seconds to win at 84.65. "I was pretty tired after a hard week of racing but this has made everything feel great!"
For the local Kiwis, Mike Dawson had a hectic travel schedule catch up with him in the K1 final, picking up a 2-second penalty and finishing seventh in 95.41, just ahead of fellow Kiwi Finn Butcher.
In the final day's boatercross event, which would also determine the overall crown, it was Germany's Stefan Hengst powering off the five-meter start ramp and edging clear of Czech Republic star Vavra Hradilek and Kiwis Mike Dawson and surprise finalist Carl Whitehead to take the top prize.
"It was pretty hard racing guys like Vavra and Mike," says Hengst, 22. "I was a bit nervous at the start because they're so strong and can go so fast. 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 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.
For the women, all eyes were on local favorite Luuka Jones, who waited four long days to top the podium. The Rio Olympic canoe slalom silver medalist won the final after a series of frustrating finishes in her earlier K1 and C1 events. "I saved it to the last day of the competition but I was really fired up," Jones says. "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 strength came through and I could get the speed off the start."
Jones took an early lead in the four-boat final, holding off Dutch paddler Martina Wegman, top Frenchwoman Nouria Newman and world extreme champion Sandra Hyslop of Great Britain.
Overall, racers were ecstatic with the format.
"It was hard racing that much in four days but there were so many different chances to win," says Germany's Stefan Hengst, who won the event-ending boatercross and finished second overall, sandwiched between two Czech Republic paddlers.
Remarkably London Olympic silver medalist Vavra Hradilek didn't feature on the overall podium. Instead, it was Ondrej Tunka who led the way, winning Friday night's slalom shoot-out, then edging Hengst by 0.14 secondss to win the live-televised slalom finals on the Saturday. The 26-year-old was part of the world championship-winning Czech K1 team in London last year and has been a solid performer on the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup series over recent seasons, though his main motivation to come down under was for adventurous, rather than competitive, reasons.
"This was my first time in New Zealand," Tunka says. "I've always wanted to see New Zealand and being able to do the Whitewater XL event here was a huge bonus."
Tunka's Czech teammate Vit Prindis was third overall, after winning the opening day's eight-gate shoot-out, which doubled as boatercross qualification. Hradilek didn't go home empty-handed, proving his versatility by winning the Kaituna Timetrail the previous week, on the Kaituna River near Rotorua. "It's a beautiful country and there was an awesome crew," Hradilek says. "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."
For the women, Newman's second-place showing in boatercross was enough to earn her the overall win for the women in kayak, with Australia's Rosalyn Lawrence second and Jones third.
Although four paddlers – Newman, Great Britain's Lizzie Neave, Australia's Rosalyn Lawrence and New Zealand's Luuka Jones – shared the wins over the four days, Newman's win in the slalom finals on the Saturday, combined with lesser placings, gave her the win overall.
Neave won the opening night's eight-gate final and picked up two thirds, while Lawrence won Friday's K1 shoot-out and add a silver on Saturday. She also captured Saturday's C1 crown and picked up enough overall points to head off compatriots Noemie Fox and Kate Eckhardt.
Jones, the Rio Olympic K1 silver medalist, also dabbled in both classes as she signaled her intention to try both in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. While juggling C1 and K1 did her few favors in the overall standings, she did manage to win Sunday's boatercross, using her slalom power to hold off Dutch paddler Martina Wegman, Newman and world extreme champion Sandra Hyslop (Great Britain).
"I saved it to the last day of the competition but I was really fired up," Jones says. "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."
Jones was ecstatic with the inaugural event's success and has high hopes for next year. "Everyone absolutely loved it," she says. "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."
The most competitive division came in men's C1, where German Franz Anton and Slovakia's Rio silver medalist Matej Benus engaged in a split-second battle.
Anton eventually took overall honors, while Frenchman Cedric Joly was third.
Benus, who has long trained at Penrith's 2000 Olympic course, was pleased with the venue and event. "I'm probably going to come back in March with my training group," he says of a group that includes Rio gold medal-winning C2 brothers Peter and Ladislav Santar. "I didn't come for the money - I came because it's a beautiful country."
The last word went to Jones, however, who was ecstatic at being able to host such a world-class field in her own country for the first time, praising organizer John Snook and his team for making Whitewater XL happen.
"John and his team have pulled off something massive – the event has been such a big success and everyone who's come out has absolutely loved it," Jones says.
Whitewater XL results:
Thursday (Eight-gate top-10 shoot-out):
C1: Noemie Fox (Australia) 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 3.
K1: Lizzie Neave (Great Britain) 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 2, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 3.
C1: Anton Franz (Germany) 1, Cedric Joly (France) 2, Edern Le Ruyet (France) 3.
K1: Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 2, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 3.
Friday (Canoe slalom top-10 shoot-out):
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 Neave (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.
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.
Saturday (Canoe slalom finals):
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.
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.
Sunday (Boatercross finals):
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.
Overall Whitewater XL championship:
C1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1, Noemie Fox (Australia) 2, Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 3.
K1: Nouria Newman (France) 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 3.
C1: Franz Anton (Germany) 1, Matej Benus (Slovakia) 2, Cedric Joly (France) 3.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 2, Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 3.
Sidebar: Kiwi Legend Kicks Off Games
Donald Johnstone was New Zealand's first-ever canoe slalom Olympian, finishing 25th at the Barcelona Games in 1992. So it was only appropriate that he kicked off the kayaking action of the Whitewater XL event on the opening day. (Owen Hughes, Mike Dawson and Luuka Jones, who won the Olympic silver at Rio, are the only other Kiwi whitewater Olympians). Johnstone, now 53, showed he's still got game by finishing 23rd in the opening qualifying round. "This facility is a game-changer and a great gain for our sport in New Zealand," he says. "And it gives our base of boaters an international course to train on and race on. But I found it quite hectic out there – the river is busy with all the features through the mid-section."
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