Canoeing: Rookie in hectic race to start

By Kelly Exelby


It's wholly appropriate Josh Utanga's penchant in flatwater canoeing is the sprint events, where the flurry of blades and churning water pushes paddlers along the course in a matter of seconds.

Utanga has been in a K1 for just a couple of years and just weeks ago his race against time to make the Cook Islands team for the London Olympics reached a dramatic conclusion when he got the nod.

Now his Tauranga-based parents, Nga and Sandra, are in their own race to get to London, hurriedly booking flights and getting UK-based friends to secure tickets to the canoe events at Eton.

Utanga, 24, threw his allegiance behind the Cook Islands, with his paternal grandparents hailing from the Pacific Island nation. The Cook Island connection is being used by another Tauranga kayaker, whitewater paddler Ella Nicholas, with both paddlers sponsored by the International Canoeing Federation through a development programme funded by the International Olympic Committee.

Utanga, just 10 weeks after switching from his surf ski to a K1 racing boat, lined up in his first race at the world championships in Canada in 2009, competing alongside New Zealand champion Steve Ferguson and Beijing gold medallist, Aussie Ken Wallace.

Since then he's been to world championships in Poland and Canada, as well as criss-crossing the globe in search of competition to make up for his lack of time in the boat.

Utanga's father said it was while driving home from the national surf lifesaving championships in Gisborne a few years ago that his son, who as an 18-year-old packed up and left home to live on the Gold Coast, first raised the possibility of a switch to flatwater and tapping into the Cook Islands link.

"He knew surf athletes who moved between surf and flatwater; the likes of Lisa Carrington, Scott Bicknell and Tenealle Hatton, and was keen to have a crack. I was surprised but quietly thrilled he wanted to pursue the Cook Islands connection." A subsequent call to the Oceania canoe federation coincided with a push to get more Pacific Islanders on to the water.

Utanga was good enough on a surf-ski to grab second in the open men's ski race at the national championships a few years back, but getting knocked out in the semifinals the year after fuelled his flatwater ambition.

"That's the thing about surf - you can have the best race in the world and finish last, or you can paddle horribly and win. You just can't do that in kayaking," he told the Bay of Plenty Times.

But the road to London hasn't been paved with gold. There's been behind-the-scenes political machinations and scant outside funding support, meaning travelling and competing has been hand-to-mouth. But for parents who have supported him to the hilt, emotionally and financially, it's likely the closest Utanga would have got to his Olympic dream would have been on TV.

"I've always believed in him," Nga said, "but the journey's been a rocky one. He must have given up about nine times, literally sick of living on struggle street, and even though he picked up with the IOC scholarship in 2010, mum and dad have been his SPARC on many occasions, just about fully funding his whole Olympic preparation.

"He's done the journey by himself - no manager, no coach - and we've begged, borrowed or hired canoes wherever he's been, although I've just forked out $4000 for a new one for London.

"There's been times he's come to me and told me he's giving up. My answer has always been I'm cool with that, but at age 40 are you going to pull that [missed opportunity] out of the closet. Josh hates it when I say that because he knows he will, so there's the answer.

"Giving up is the easy option.

"Mind you the same's applied to me. I'd given up hope of going to London to watch Josh compete and Sandra turned around and asked if, when I was 60, was I going to regret not going. I said 'probably' and she said 'there's your answer'. It's costing us a lot of money to get to the UK (neither have travelled further than Australia before) but we'd regret it if we didn't."

Utanga qualified the Cook Islands a spot in the K1 200 at the Oceanias in Penrith in March, beating former world champion Ben Fouhy by .10s and got the K1 1000 berth via the ICF quota when Australia and New Zealand decided not to send a paddler.

Support has come from the unlikeliest of places, with the Australian Institute of Sport on the Gold Coast opening its doors to the rookie paddler, who has also linked up with the best Aussie sprinters in Perth to train and has rounded off his preparation at the AIS base in Italy.

"The Aussie paddlers on the Gold Coast have used Josh as their rabbit, letting him go then chasing him, but he's got to train alongside Kenny Wallace and is really an adopted Ocker."

Nga believes a semifinal (top-18) finish in his specialist 200m will spell success for Josh in London, with the Rio Olympics a far better prospect should he continue on for another four years.

"The plan has always been Rio - London's a bonus - and canoeists don't get their man-strength until they're 28 or 29. The surf-ski background has advanced him but technically the kayaking's quite different."

Locally, Utanga has been backed by Mike Sharp and the team from HOBEC, who have sponsored his paddles for several years at $800 a throw, while Bodyzone gym has opened its doors whenever he's back in town. The Cook Islands have also embraced their eight-strong team of athletes, even if Utanga's selection was only rubber-stamped a matter of weeks ago.

"It's been stressful the waiting game and Sandra has shook her head at times wondering why I've hung in there, handing over the cash, listening to the tantrums and playing amateur psychologist. But's he's there now and fired up to do well, so it's all up to him."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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