Australian Jess Fox will lead a procession of world-class canoe slalom paddlers at this weekend’s Oceania championships in Auckland.
The 140-strong field has more than half coming from overseas to compete in the three-day championships at the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Manukau.
Fox is the reigning C1 world champion and created history in 2014, becoming the first paddler to hold C1 and K1 world titles at the same time. Her K1 rivals this weekend include 2009 world champion Jasmin Schornberg (Germany) and New Zealand’s Olympic silver medalist Luuka Jones.
“There’s healthy competition between New Zealand and Australia for our summer races but add a few Czechs, French, Slovaks, Americans and Germans and it’s a great field that is definitely only positive for our preparation,” Fox said. “Although they are not in the same training phase as us, it’s still great to have some of the best international athletes here to compare ourselves to and lift our level.”
Fox won K1 silver at the London Olympics and bronze behind Jones in Rio. The 22-year-old has impeccable paddling pedigree – her father Richard, competing for Great Britain, finished fourth in the 1992 Olympics and won five world championship titles, while her French mum Myriam won two world titles. Younger sister Noemie is also competing this weekend, with Fox hoping New Zealand’s fickle summer finally relinquishes its steady sou-westerly air-flow.
“I’m feeling better and more comfortable after a few more sessions but the wind is one of the hardest parts. It’s definitely a very hard and physical course – the stoppers make it really hard to keep the boat speed and it’s unforgiving when you get a little bit off line, as it’s hard to bring it back.”
In the men’s field, Great Britain’s Joe Clarke returns to New Zealand for the first time since winning K1 men’s gold in Rio, having bolstered his Olympic preparations with an intensive training camp on the West Coast last year.
France’s Mathieu Biazizzo is the top-ranked paddler, however, ranked No 3 in the world by the ICF, with Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) and Australia’s Lucien Delfour also ranked above Clarke.
Delfour, fresh from winning the New Zealand Open on the Mangahao River near Palmerston North last weekend, rates the Vector Wero course as a massive challenge.
“It’s probably one of the hardest courses in the world at the moment, not because it’s big, but because it’s so technical,” Delfour said. “It’s great that New Zealand has an artificial course of that size and it’s high quality but it’s hard work physically – you’ve just got to power yourself all the way down.”
Slovenia’s Matej Benus is the top-ranked C1 men’s paddler in the world at the moment, returning to New Zealand after finishing second at the Whitewater XL in November. His keen rivals this weekend include Pierre-Antoine Tillard (France) and Ryan Westley (Great Britain), while Ben Gibb and Patrick Washer are the highest-ranked Kiwis in the field.
New Zealand-based Pacific Island paddlers competing this weekend include Fiji’s Daniel Tuiraviravi and Tauranga siblings Bryden and Ella Nicholas, who both represented the Cook Islands in Rio last year.
Entry to Vector Wero is free for spectators, with heats in both C1 and K1 starting on Saturday morning and Sunday and Monday featuring semifinals and finals.