The Olympic hopes of Rotorua kayaker Zack Mutton have been restored after his stolen kayak was found in Rotorua, stuck in a tree.
Smart Environmental contractors found the boat yesterday at Ōkere Falls, just 48 hours after Mutton was told he'd made the World Championship team in his bid for Olympic selection.
The 18-year-old's custom-made $4500 kayak was stolen from the Ōkere Falls riverbank on January 11.
After a frantic search, the family offered a $1000 reward for its return.
When Mutton was told the kayak had been found yesterday afternoon, he was "stoked" but couldn't help but laugh.
"The timing of it was crazy after all the organising to borrow other kayaks and try them out, and now that all the world cup qualifying races are done, but I was really happy. It was a huge relief, there is a lot of money and work tied up in it."
The boat was in "perfect condition".
Smart Environmental Rotorua area manager Scott Brown said a truck driver was working on Trout Pool Rd near the public toilets yesterday.
"He saw something shining in a tree and it turned out to be a kayak."
The Muttons suspect the kayak was planted in the trees after widespread calls for its return.
"We definitely looked in the trees where it was found, in the days after the kayak first disappeared."
Mutton's mother, Amanda, said a handful of people had searched the trees.
"There is absolutely no way we wouldn't have seen it."
The 3.5m carbon kayak was made specifically for Mutton in the Czech Republic late last year.
The manufacturer normally has a six-month waiting list.
When the kayak was first stolen, Mutton told the Rotorua Daily Post "It's useless to others but it's priceless to me.
"Every kayak is cut to the style of the paddler, the weight of the paddler, the personal preference of the paddler."
He borrowed another kayak from a Czech friend, Vit Prindis, for qualifying races over the past fortnight, hoping he could make do.
Mutton said he was "pretty nervous and unsure" about the replacement because it normally took one month to get used to a new kayak.
He felt his life-long hopes of making it to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, were dashed.
"I paddled a lot more than normal, to test boats then pick one and get the feel of it. I was paddling two times a day instead of one."
In spite of the setbacks, Mutton crossed the line first in his first qualification race on January 19.
"It was definitely very stressful and became a massive head game trying to stay positive but I was able to do it. It was such a nice relief that I could still be fast."
During subsequent races, he gained enough top spots to keep him in contention for the Tokyo Olympics.
"Now I can race the world champs and get extra points for selection to the Olympics. It gives me a very good head start."
Mutton tried to look on the bright side, during the stressful and expensive ordeal.
He said it had made him a mentally stronger athlete.
"In some ways, it's a good thing. I always struggled to get used to a new boat but this forced me to adapt. But I won't be letting it out of my sights again. I almost sleep with it."
The two other New Zealand men selected are five years older than Mutton.
Canoe Slalom New Zealand chief executive Graeme Maw said the return of Mutton's kayak was great news.
"He paddled really really well over the selection races. I know he made a really conscious effort to be in the right mental headspace."
Jeanette Maclennan co-managed the team which attended the Junior World Championships last year.
She was "very happy" to hear Mutton had risen above the challenges.
"The kayak will be immensely helpful for him in the next phase of his campaign. He has a very well-deserved place on the team. He has worked really hard and has been very resilient. I am really proud of him."