Tauranga kayakers taking on world's best in Europe

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TALENTED: Tauranga paddler Callum Gilbert is part of a strong Tauranga group competing in Europe. PHOTO:FILE
TALENTED: Tauranga paddler Callum Gilbert is part of a strong Tauranga group competing in Europe. PHOTO:FILE

A handful of New Zealand kayakers are hoping to build on a breakthrough Olympic performance at the fourth round of the ICF World Cup canoe slalom series in Prague this week.

The last two rounds were in the Czech Republic and Spain over consecutive weekends, with Olympian Mike Dawson spearheading a team also containing Callum Gilbert, Finn Butcher, Ben Gibb, Jane Nicholas and Kensa Randle.

Dawson became the first New Zealander to make an Olympic final in Rio, finishing 10th, while Luuka Jones went even better when she won silver a day later.

While Jones took a break back home, fellow K1 paddler Dawson knew that the challenge won't lessen down the Troja channel course.

"The field is looking world-class and there are a lot of guys who missed the Olympics who are trying to have great performances at the end of the season, mixing it up with Olympians coming back after a three-week break," Dawson said.

"I've slotted into the New Zealand training group and it's awesome to see the Kiwis paddling really well out here. They've spent a lot of time on the course over the last month and you can see that they're looking real competitive and quick on the water."

Gibb (C1) and Butcher (K1) will have familiarity on their sides, having based themselves in Prague over the Northern Hemisphere summer, although Gibb has been struggling with a rib niggle.

"The C1 field is looking strong, with some of the Olympic boats looking to cap off a good season and a lot of younger paddlers looking to make their mark on the senior level," Gibb said.

Butcher and Gilbert have had strong seasons so far, with bit turning in career-best performances on the world cup circuit.

Gilbert reached the semifinals in all three previous rounds and finished 18th at the junior world championships, while Butcher had made one world cup semifinal and finished 15th at the junior worlds.

Unlike Butcher and Gibb, Gilbert had just returned to Europe for the last two races.

"I've been home for five weeks, catching up on some study, but am feeling really fresh after returning to Europe and looking forward to the next World Cups," Gilbert said.

Nicholas also spent time in Rio, supporting siblings Ella and Bryden who were representing the Cook Islands in canoe slalom, while Randle also competed at the junior worlds.

Local Czech paddlers all loomed large for the rest of the field, following a dominant performance at this event last year. Last year, Jirí Prskavec (K1 men), Katerina Hoskova (C1 women) and Stanislav Jezek (C men) all won their respective titles in Prague.

However, the last nine K1 men's world cup races had been won by nine different men, while Germany's Ricarda Funk currently leads the women's K1 standings after winning the world cup race in Ivrea earlier in the season.

Following the world cup rounds, New Zealand would host the next big event on the world schedule, with the inaugural WhitewaterXL invitation event to be held in November at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland.

Dawson and Jones were among a handful of world-class ambassadors for the event, with several Olympic champions and a number of top Europeans already confirming their involvement.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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