Roaring artificial pumps circulate millions of gallons of water through concrete channels and carefully sculpted river features. Specialized teams prepare for the worst and a conveyer belt returns paddlers to the top of the course for another try after every run.

This is the experience of a modern-day Olympic slalom kayaker.

In preparation for the Rio Olympics, Mike Dawson (NZL) and Joe Clarke (GBR) left the safety of artificial slalom courses behind. Instead, they saddled up on a helicopter and took their fiberglass slalom boats to New Zealand’s remote Whataroa River. Red Bull built a slalom course on a steep boulder garden in the heart of the canyon to test the athletes’ skills.

According to Clarke, “In a place like this, you have to be able to sort your own sh-t out. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own.” This is the kind of focus that the athletes hope to channel at the Rio Olympic course this summer.

— Mike Dawson is nominated for Male Paddler of the Year at the 2016 Canoe & Kayak Awards. Check out Dawson’s expedition to some of Angola’s un-run rivers in this C&K exclusive two-part digital feature.

— See how other Olympic paddlers are training in our ROAD TO RIO story series.