Kayaking: Meeting the whitewater challenge

By David Leggat

Slalom canoeist Luuka Jones ready to take on the best at London Olympics Luuka Jones is attracted to slalom canoeing by the adrenalin rush and the challenge of no course being the same. Photo / APN
Slalom canoeist Luuka Jones ready to take on the best at London Olympics Luuka Jones is attracted to slalom canoeing by the adrenalin rush and the challenge of no course being the same. Photo / APN

Luuka Jones doesn't like to dwell on her Olympic Games debut in Beijing four years ago.

Then 19, having qualified as New Zealand's first woman canoe slalom athlete for sport's biggest stage, she finished 21st.

"It all seemed a bit of a dream," she said. "Looking back on Beijing, I cringe a little bit. I wasn't very well prepared. I've come a long way."

The Luuka Jones of 2012 is a vastly different athlete - physically, certainly, but also wiser and more prepared from a mental perspective.

This week Jones and fellow whitewater paddler Mike Dawson were confirmed for London in July. It's Dawson's first Games, but Jones will go armed with experience and confidence.

"If you stood me side by side [with the Jones of 2008] I look like a completely different athlete," she said.

"My whole physique has changed. The training I've been doing over the years has made me a lot fitter and stronger. I've halved my body fat percentage, am lifting three times as much and technically I've come on in leaps and bounds as well."

Tauranga-born Jones is now based at the Waiariki Institute of Technology's sports academy in Rotorua, as is Dawson. She pays tribute to the work of trainer Jane Borren in getting her into shape.

Let's clear this up too. That first name? It's from the son of her mother's favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn. The second u was added "so it sounded more like a girl's name".

Jones qualified New Zealand as 14th-best nation for London - just one athlete per nation is allowed, in a likely field of about 21 - at the world championships in Bratislava, Slovakia, last September. Dawson got New Zealand in as 11th-best country in the men's event.

They train on the Kaituna River, 15 minutes from Rotorua, where a whitewater course with slalom gates is set up at Okere Falls. Jones calls it the mecca for slalom canoeists, drawing competitive and recreational paddlers from around the globe.

"There are opportunities to take it to the next level, paddle off waterfalls, that sort of thing. You really have to be on your game, otherwise you get punished."

She hopes the tough regime pays off when they get to the Lea Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire, about 30km north of London.

They have trained there, and know what to expect.

"It's a really big whitewater course, quite challenging. I'd say it's one of my favourites."

Dawson left for Sydney this week to train on the 2000 Olympic course at Penrith. Jones follows him next week. They'll contest the Australian Open and Oceania champs, then have a short time at home before heading to Europe in April.

They are regular travellers across the globe for World Cup and world championship events, know the calibre of opponents they will face and appreciate that is the best yardstick available.

"When you're training with people better than you, you're always aiming to beat them, and that makes you better."

So, having first dipped her toes in the discipline at 14, what's the appeal of the sport for Jones?

"It's different. No whitewater course is the same. The gate sequence is set on the day and you've got to work so hard to try and be as technically good as possible. But mostly for me it's the constant challenge and also the adrenalin of it."

Race day unfolds like this: a course consists of 20 to 25 gates, which the leading women will complete in between 90 and 110 seconds. The men are about 10s faster. Each competitor has two qualifying runs, the faster one counting. The top 15 make the semifinals, which are judged on one run, the top 10 making the final.

Jones knows being bumped and shunted along a 300m course which has 15cu m of water pumped into it every second involves a degree of luck, but it's also about how athletes adjust to a specific setup they are not allowed to practise on beforehand.

Jones will meet up with her European coach, Briton Andrew Rastin, when they get to England and from there it is full steam ahead.

The two New Zealanders will get plenty of opportunities to train on the Olympic course. Nothing will be left to chance.

Then it's all down to one day.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 26 Jul 2014 10:05:32 Processing Time: 377ms