Bay of Plenty kayaker Sam Sutton has won his third consecutive world extreme title at the adidas Sickline championships in Austria, beating 150 of the best paddlers on the planet.
The 24-year-old, whose partner Katharina Uhl is about to give birth to their first child, overcame uncharacteristic nerves on the 280m of grade five rapids down the infamous Wellerbrücke section of the Ötztaler Ache River. His time of 56.92secs, outside his record 55.84sec set last year, was still good enough to hold off veteran Slovenian paddler Dejan Kralj, who was 0.89secs adrift.
Top qualifier and London Olympian Mike Dawson, another member of the Waiariki Academy of Sport in Rotorua, had the chance to snatch the tile as the last paddler on the course but a slight error on the bottom "Champion's Killer" rapid cost him a chance of grabbing his first title at the prestigious event, dropping him to third 1.46sec behind his compatriot.
"I was pretty sure Mike was actually going to beat me because he's probably the strongest extreme racer in the world overall but he had a bit of bad luck on that last drop," a relieved Sutton said. "I came in relatively confident but I was definitely worried - I could just picture myself finishing second as I've been second the whole way through the race this weekend. I definitely didn't want my child to be born into the world when their dad's a loser so I'm pretty happy with this result."
Kralj, at 36 one of the oldest in the field, only just made the top-48 qualifiers and just squeaked into the top-15 final, though he turned it on in the final and held the lead until Sutton's run.
A trio of Germans, Jakous Stenglein, Fabian Doerfler and Tobias Kargl, filled out the top-six, while Sutton's younger brother Jamie was ninth, 4.20secs behind his older sibling. Olympic whitewater slalom bronze and silver medalists Hannes Aigner and Vavra Hradilek were eighth and 13th respectively.
The Sickline title remains the only major extreme crown Dawson has yet to win, despite second placings in 2009 and 2011 and now a third, though his disappointment was again tempered by Sutton's performance.
"No-one wants to come second or third but I'm stoked to be standing on the podium with some of my really good mates," the 26-year-old said. "If I was to finish second or third to anybody, it would be Sam and Dejan and to see Sam on top of the podium three times in a row is amazing."
And despite the fearsome rapids, the Tauranga-raised Rotorua resident found the event thoroughly relaxing after his Olympic campaign, where he finished 15th in the slalom.
"The Olympics is a whole different level of event - it's huge, it's got so much following, so much media and crowd and for me now to come here or to any other event is easy to stay relaxed and confident and that's something I've brought into this. It's almost like a little bit of a holiday to get back in the boat and back to racing and just enjoying being on the water again."
Sutton admits his latest title was the toughest yet, though he's already looking forward to having a crack at four in a row.
"It's probably the most difficult victory for me because I just wasn't feeling great and it's probably the highest level of competition we've ever had here," Sutton said. "It's also a slalom Olympic year, so everybody is extremely fast and to top it off, we probably had the strongest field ever.
Sutton paid tribute to his training buddies back at Okere Falls near Rotorua, crediting them for helping him continue his dominance.
"There's probably three dudes in New Zealand that could beat me and I'll probably go home to Okere Falls and race with a friend of mine on Wednesday and he'll probably beat me. I don't know what's up with New Zealand but it's just an extremely competitive environment and if you can win a race back home, you can probably win any international race."