A top-class international field is competing, but it's the Kiwi canoe slalom contingent keen to shine at this weekend's New Zealand Open in the Manawatu.

Rotorua-based paddlers Luuka Jones and Mike Dawson have already qualified for the London Olympics, as well as Tauranga-raised Cook Islands competitor Ella Nicholas.

They'll get an early taste of top-level competition on the Mangahao River near Shannon, with three of the top-12 world-ranked male paddlers racing and top Australian Rosalyn Lawrence headlining the female field.

Jones, who competed at the Beijing Olympics as a teenager in 2008, is relishing a long build-up to the Games this time around after qualifying her K1 boat during September's world championships in Slovakia.


"It's been such a change qualifying so early this time around," the 23-year-old said. "It means the same pressure isn't there when I race the selection races and I can just concentrate on technique and getting things right. In saying that, I haven't won the New Zealand Open title yet and it would be neat to do it this year."

Dawson's main rival this weekend will be good friend and world No 3 Vavrinec Hradilek, with the Czech paddler enjoying a month of training in Rotorua before flying out next week for Australia.

Like Jones, 25-year-old Dawson qualified with a semifinal appearance at the world championships and is keen to begin a new year on the right note.

"The Mangahao was home for a few years while I was studying and I'm hoping there is some decent flow this week," Dawson said. "It's a big year for me and a good performance at the New Zealand Open would be the perfect way to kick things off."

Hradilek won the New Zealand Open in 2010 and will be targeting last year's champion, Swiss paddler Michael Kurt, who has returned to defend his crown. Kurt is ranked seventh in the world, with Frenchman Pierre Bourliaud 12th and Canadian John Hastings 34th.

"I won it two years ago and it's the first big race of the year so it is important," Hradilek said. "Even though we've been doing some hard training lately, every time I line up, I'm racing to win and this week will be no different."

The New Zealand Open is an ICF ranking race and will be followed by next month's Australian Open and Oceania Open, both held in Penrith near Sydney.

A handful of Kiwis still have outside chances to qualify for London in the C1 class, although they will have to rely on results and satisfy New Zealand Olympic Committee criteria that demand athletes have the potential to finish in the top 16.

Other top paddlers confirmed for this weekend include top Czech K1 junior Karolina Galuskova and Argentina C1 racer Sebastian Rossi. Kayakers from Germany and Thailand will also take part.

Competitors will start the first of two qualifying runs on Saturday morning, with the main 10-boat finals on Sunday afternoon.