Whitewater XL 2016 – Vector Wero Whitewater Park, Auckland (NZ)
Paddlers rave about Whitewater XL – Words & Photography: by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media
It started with a flourish and ended with a bang, while the four-day Whitewater XL kayaking event in New Zealand also pointed the way forward for the future of canoe and kayak slalom.
The inaugural $60,000 event attracted some of the best paddlers in the world, enticed into the Southern Hemisphere by the promise of late spring weather and the intrigue of a new artificial course at Auckland’s Vector Wero Whitewater Park.
While the course attracted plenty of positive feedback from athletes, it was the unique format of Whitewater XL that attracted most attention, with slalom, boatercross and top-10 shoot-outs keeping everyone busy.
“It’s been pretty hard racing this much in four days but there were so many different chances to win,” young German K1 paddler Stefan Hengst explained, after snatching the event-ending boatercross, which pitted four paddlers against each other over a series of elimination rounds.
Hengst finished second overall, sandwiched between two Czech Republic paddlers, although remarkably London Olympic silver medalist Vavra Hradilek didn’t feature on the overall podium.
Instead, it was Ondrej Tunka who led the way, taking out Friday night’s canoe slalom shoot-out, then edging Hengst by 0.14secs to win the live-televised canoe slalom finals on the Saturday.
The 26-year-old was part of the world championship-winning Czech K1 team in London last year and has been a solid performer on the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup series over recent seasons, though his main motivation to come down-under was for adventurous, rather than competitive, reasons.
“This is my first time in New Zealand and it’s such a beautiful country – it’s perfect to come here for winter training for us,” Tunka explained. “I’ve always wanted to see New Zealand and being able to do the Whitewater XL event here is a huge bonus.”
His Czech teammate Vit Prindis was third overall, after winning the opening day’s eight-gate shoot-out, which doubled as boatercross qualification.
Hradilek didn’t go home empty-handed, proving his versatility by winning the Kaituna Timetrail the previous week, on the Kaituna River near Rotorua.
He’s been coming to New Zealand each summer since 2009, staying with good friend and top Kiwi Mike Dawson.
“It’s a beautiful country and there’s an awesome crew around,” Hradilek pointed out. “The vibe around the kayaking community makes me come back every summer, even though there has been no artificial training facility here until this year.”
Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Nouria Newman displayed equal parts consistency and class in winning the women’s K1 title. Although four paddlers – Newman, Great Britain’s Lizzie Neave, Australia’s Rosalyn Lawrence and New Zealand’s Luuka Jones – shared the wins over the four days, Newman took out the canoe slalom finals on the Saturday and earned enough minor placings to win overall.
Her 0.39sec win over Lawrence on the Saturday came despite a 2sec touch and proved a happy end to a tough day for her teammates after they learned one of their physios had died in an accident in France the previous night.
“It was hard to get the news this morning and a bunch of emails this afternoon and I was definitely thinking of him when I was racing,” Newman said. “My run got better and better and I knew I had good moves, then I crushed gates 8 and 9 and that gave me confidence. I was so grateful to have the French boys running down the course cheering at the end because I was so tired.”
Neave won the opening night’s eight-gate final and picked up two thirds, while Lawrence’s all-round paddling skills were particularly impressive. Not only did the Australian win Friday’s K1 shoot-out and add a silver on Saturday, she also captured Saturday’s C1 crown and picked up enough overall points to head off compatriots Noemie Fox and Kate Eckhardt.
Jones, the Rio Olympic K1 silver medalist, also dabbled in both classes as she signalled her intention to try both in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. While juggling C1 and K1 did her few favours in the overall standings, she did manage to win Sunday’s boatercross, using her slalom power in the four-boat final to hold off Dutch paddler Martina Wegman, Newman and world extreme champion Sandra Hyslop (Great Britain).
“I saved it to the last day of the competition but I was really fired up,” Jones said. “The boatercross is the event that I’m least likely to win and I was even a little bit scared but after a couple of runs, my anaerobic strength came through and I could get the speed off the start.”
The most competitive division came in the C1 men’s ranks, where German Franz Anton and Slovakia’s Rio silver medalist Matej Benus engaged in a world-class, split-second battle.
Anton eventually took overall honours, while Frenchman Cedric Joly was third.
Benus, who has been coming down-under for most of the last decade, using Penrith’s 2000 Olympic course as a base, was pleasantly pleased by the way the Auckland venue handled.
“I’m surprised that it’s this good and I’m probably going to come back in March with my training group.”
That’s significant news for the sport in New Zealand, as his training group also includes Rio gold medal-winning C2 brothers Peter and Ladislav Santar.
While Slovakia shivers in sub-zero temperatures, 29-year-old Benus has used the Whitewater XL event as a scouting mission.
“I’m not here for the money – I’m here because it’s a beautiful country. I was last here maybe eight years ago and I love it here and I can’t wait to come back in March.
The last word went to Jones, however, who was ecstatic at being able to host such a world-class field in her own country for the first time, praising organiser John Snook and his team for making Whitewater XL happen.
“John and his team have pulled off something massive – the event has been such a big success and everyone who’s come out has absolutely loved it,” Jones said. “They’re all posting on social media and everyone who didn’t come is getting FOMO (fear of missing out)! Friends have been messaging me from overseas saying how gutted they are not to be here and everyone will be fired up to come out next year.”
Whitewater XL results:
Thursday (Eight-gate top-10 shoot-out):
C1: Noemie Fox (Australia) 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 3.
K1: Lizzie Neave (Great Britain) 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 2, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 3.
C1: Anton Franz (Germany) 1, Cedric Joly (France) 2, Edern Le Ruyet (France) 3.
K1: Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 2, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 3.
Friday (slalom top-10 shoot-out):
C1: Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 1:20.95 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:27.31 2, Noemie Fox (Australia) 1:37.37 3, Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 1:45.58 4, Haylee Dangen (New Zealand) 1:51.61 5.
K1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1:00.91 1, Lizzie Neave (Great Britain) 1:01.56 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 1:02.32 3, Nouria Newman (France) 1:04.12 4, Martina Wegman 1:08.74 5.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech) 88.95secs 1, Michal Smolen (United States) 89.52 2, Finn Butcher (New Zealand) 91.33 3, Vit Prindis (Czech) 95.41 4, Vavra Hradilek (Czech) 97.42 5.
C1: Matej Benus (Slovakia) 92.11 1, Franz Anton (Germany) 94.76 2, Cedric Joly (France) 1:01.09 3, Ben Gibb (New Zealand) 1:07.83 4, Shaun Higgins (New Zealand) 1:10.96.
Saturday (Canoe slalom finals):
C1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 109.97secs 1, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 119.95 2, Noemie Fox (Australia) 120.54 3, Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 122.69 4, Alex Broome (Australia) 149.79 5.
K1: Nouria Newman (France) 99.57 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 99.96 2, Lizzie Neave 101.06 3, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 102.69 4, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 104.87 5.
C1: Franz Anton (Germany) 89.92 1, Matej Benus (Slovakia) 90.93 2, Cedric Joly (France) 91.07 3, Edern Le Ruyet (France) 94.67 4, Callum Gilbert (New Zealand) 100.52 5.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) 84.65 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 84.79 2, Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 85.54 3, Joe Morley (Great Britain) 89.80 4, Tim Anderson (Australia) 91.77 5.
Sunday (Boatercross finals):
Women: Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 1, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 2, Nouria Newman (France) 3, Sandra Hyslop (Great Britain) 4.
Men: Stefan Hengst (Germany) 1, Vavra Hradilek (Czech Republic) 2, Mike Dawson (New Zealand) 3, Carl Whitehead (New Zealand) 4.
Overall Whitewater XL championship:
C1: Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 1, Noemie Fox (Australia) 2, Kate Eckhardt (Australia) 3.
K1: Nouria Newman (France) 1, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 2, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 3.
C1: Franz Anton (Germany) 1, Matej Benus (Slovakia) 2, Cedric Joly (France) 3.
K1: Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) 1, Stefan Hengst (Germany) 2, Vit Prindis (Czech Republic) 3.