A promising young kayaker's dreams of going to the Olympics have been threatened after his custom-made, $4500 kayak was stolen from a riverbank yesterday.
Without the kayak, Rotorua's Zack Mutton will not be able to race in the team trials for the New Zealand canoe slalom team, missing out on vital points needed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Mutton has been kayaking since before he could walk and has been aiming to go to the Olympics for as long as he can remember.
For the past month Mutton has been training for the New Zealand team trials, the first step to qualifying for the Olympics.
Yesterday morning was no different as Mutton went to Okere Falls to train.
Once finished, Mutton put his kayak on the riverbank and went to get his car. When he returned the custom-made kayak was gone.
"I was gutted.
"Next week is the team trials for the national team. It's significant because we have to qualify top three in New Zealand to go and race in the world championships. If I'm not able to race I miss out on points for the Olympics.
"I've trained for the last few years to get there. It's my whole life."
When the Rotorua Daily Post spoke to Mutton he was out searching for the kayak.
The 3.5m kayak was made for him in the Czech Republic a month ago.
"This was custom-made for me. Every kayak is cut to the style of the paddler, the weight of the paddler, the personal preference of the paddler.
"It's useless to others but it's priceless to me."
Mutton said having to race in a different kayak would affect his performance.
While to the untrained eye, differences between kayaks are minimal, for Mutton they are significant.
"It could be the difference between winning or coming dead-last.
"Next week if I don't have a kayak I've no chance. It makes a huge difference," he said.
"I've dedicated my life to this sport. The Olympics have been a goal ever since I was very, very young and I felt on track. I was ranked number three in the world this year.
"If I don't have my boat I don't really have a chance to race properly."
The carbon, black kayak retails at roughly $4500 and Mutton said it would be easily recognisable if someone used it or tried to resell it.
"If anyone sees it in the river they'd know it was mine."
Mike Dawson, who competed in canoe slalom in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, has been training with Mutton and said he could succeed on the national and global stage.
In 2017 Mutton placed eighth in the K1 at the World Junior Canoe Slalom Championships.
At last year's championships, in his last year of eligibility for the under-18 class, he finished fifth in the highly competitive K1 final.
Dawson said getting the kayak to Mutton had been a challenge in itself.
"He's spent the whole season trying to get a kayak that fits him right."
It was bought from a company in the Czech Republic which usually has a six-month waiting list but they rushed Mutton's boat through production and sent it to Holland before it made its way to New Zealand.
Dawson said the theft of the kayak would hamper Mutton's Olympic hopes but not make them impossible.
In order to make the Tokyo Olympics 2020 team Mutton would ideally make the New Zealand team and race in three races at the world championships.
Points are awarded based on finishing positions and Olympic selection is based on points.
If Mutton can't get those points at the world championships, he's at a significant disadvantage compared to those who do.
"It's massive, it's going to affect his whole Olympic campaign," Dawson said.
"We have initial selection in a week. If we don't find this boat a year or two years of training is out the window.
"It's not impossible [to make the Olympics] but for those guys wanting to go to Tokyo you want a chance to race at big pinnacle events beforehand."
Dawson said Mutton was certainly up and coming, if not already there.
"When you look at the calibre at the Junior World Championships, for him to be in the top five there is pretty phenomenal.
"He's paddling really well. I've been watching him training and I think he's got a really good shot at the senior team and I think he has a chance to succeed on a global stage."
Jeanette Maclennan co-managed the team which attended the Junior World Championships last year and agreed Mutton had potential.
He is the youngest in the high-performance squad, she said.
"I'm very disappointed for Zack because I know how hard he has worked to get where he's got to now and how important it is for him to have his kayak.
"Your own boat is very important to put you in a place you feel like you can perform your best."
Canoe Slalom New Zealand chief executive Graeme Maw said the theft was shocking.
"Zack is one of the top juniors in the world. This year he moves into the senior competition and next week's competitions are the selection for this year's world championships. This year's world championships are kind of the gateway to the Olympic Games.
"If he wants to have an early run at the Tokyo Olympics it's pretty important for him to be putting his marker down."
Maw said Mutton was one of the high-performance athletes in the men's K1 slalom event.
"If people know anything we'd be incredibly grateful. He's a tremendous young man as well as a very good kayaker. Hopefully somebody knows something."
New Zealand team selection races are being held on January 19 and 20 at Mangahao Power Station in Manawatu and January 26 to 28 at Vector Wero White Water Park, Auckland.
New Zealand can send three K1 male athletes to the world championships and just one to the Olympics.
A police spokeswoman confirmed police had reports of a kayak stolen from Okere Falls some time between 10.30am and 12pm yesterday.