Callum Gilbert's canoe slalom fortunes have come full circle, a year after suffering the biggest setback of his young career.

The 22-year-old Tauranga paddler has finished as the leading qualifier for the New Zealand team after selection events in Manawatu and Auckland during the last two weeks.

With the recent retirement of Mike Dawson, a spot at the 2020 Olympics looms large on his horizon.

Selectors will confirm the three-man K1 team next week, with Gilbert, Rotorua teenager Zack Mutton and Alexandra's Finn Butcher the frontrunners based on their selection results, but Gilbert was just jubilant at having turned a big corner.

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"Training has been going really well for the last couple of months and I was excited to see how my performances would stack up. Obviously, I'm really happy with where they have put me and it's a great first step towards the Tokyo Olympics," he said.

Gilbert's clear 93.07s run last weekend not only confirmed his top ranking spot, it also gave him his first New Zealand Open title, edging Butcher by more than 3s and finishing ahead of seasoned international competitors Michael Tayler (Canada) and Michal Smolen (United States).

He was also more than a second clear of Mutton at the Mangahao Open the previous week, again posting a clear run with no penalties, with Jack Dangen third.

All of which was in stark contrast to his domestic season last year, which saw him crash out of the New Zealand senior team after several years' solid international results.

"I've made a few changes since last year and committed more to the training plan and philosophy that I have been following over the last couple of years. The next step will be trying to build on these performances for the upcoming European season and really trying to produce some more clean and fast runs over there."

Both Gilbert and Butcher expressed surprise and disappointment at Dawson's retirement, which came after 15 years on top of the New Zealand slalom scene.

For the past 12 months, the New Zealand men's team has been working with a dedicated coach and training together, using the likes of former triathlon star Hamish Carter to work on high performance plans together.

Now the young tyros will be without their senior statesman, although they'll still have the benefit of full Canoe Slalom New Zealand support during the European World Cups series and the World Championships in Spain in September, where they'll try to qualify an Olympic spot for New Zealand.

Rotorua's Zack Mutton impressed during Canoe Slalom NZ selections. Photo / Stephen Parker
Rotorua's Zack Mutton impressed during Canoe Slalom NZ selections. Photo / Stephen Parker

Meanwhile, three-time Olympian Luuka Jones, who was pre-selected for both the K1 and C1 spots on the New Zealand team, won both C1 selection finals and also comfortably took out the K1 final in Mangahao, finishing 10s clear of Kensa Randle and Courtney Williams.

She missed a gate at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park last week, however, picking up a 50s penalty which dropped her from second to 10th in the K1 final, won by Frenchwoman Camille Prigent.

The big surprise was the performance of teenager Hannah Thomas, who switched nationalities from Great Britain to New Zealand last year after moving with her family.

She had a dream run in her final, collecting only one 2s touch to finish third, behind Dutch star Martina Wegman. Williams was fourth, while Jane Nicholas - now competing for Cook Islands - was fifth.

Patrick Washer dominated the men's C1, winning both rounds, while Ben Gibb, Oliver Puchner, Jack Egan and Shaun Higgins all shared the minor placings.

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