Callum Gilbert took down the world champion and a host of other world-class kayakers at the Oceania canoe slalom championships in Auckland on Saturday, but he was more concerned about where it puts him in the New Zealand frame.
The 22-year-old from Tauranga was the top qualifier in the men’s K1 on the first day of racing at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park, posting a faultless run of 84.37secs to edge top Australian Lucien Delfour by 0.56secs.
Mathieu Biazizzo (France) was third in 85.48, Kiwi Olympian Mike Dawson fourth in 85.62 while reigning world champion Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) was fifth, picking up a 2sec penalty touch to finish in 86.64.
Gilbert burst onto the world cup scene two years ago, making the semi-finals at every round he attended, but endured a frustrating year last year.
“We did a lot of thinking about what could be going on because every run seemed to be the same story but in the end, we decided not to over-analyse things too much, put it down to experience and just get on with it,” he says. “It’s been a long season of tough runs and it was nice to finally have a good one.”
While Dawson’s world championship performance (he finished seventh) means he’s already pre-selected for the international season, Gilbert is locked in a battle with fellow under-23 paddlers Finn Butcher, Alex Hawthorne, Zack Mutton and Jack Dangen for national team selection.
“Our selections are quite tough this year - usually in the past we’d have a pretty good idea of who’d be in there but this year is still completely up in the air. It makes it very excited racing and it’s good to see where New Zealand is heading.”
Adding to the burgeoning New Zealand ranks was an impressive effort from Rotorua 14-year-old George Snook, who made in through to the semifinals with a clean 98.83 time.
In the women’s racing, Luuka Jones had the second-fastest raw time in K1 qualifying, though she picked up two 2sec penalties to drop her back to third in 98.40secs, behind Australian Rosalyn Lawrence (95.63) and France’s Camille Prigent (96.82). World champion Jess Fox (Australia) was fourth, also picking up a penalty but breaking the minute-barrier with a 99.o00sec effort.
Jones also impressed in the women’s C1, qualifying second, although Fox showed why she’s won three world championships in the kneeling, single-bladed discipline by posting a time more than 7secs faster than the talented New Zealander. Fox’s younger sister Noemie was third-fastest, with Kiwis Jane Nicholas and Kelly Travers sixth and seventh respectively.
International paddlers dominated the men’s C1 qualifying, with Casey Eichfeld (United States) recording 92.76secs, a second quicker than Frenchman Kilian Foulon, with Australians Ian Borrows and Brodie Crawford and Czech paddler Lukas Rohan rounding out the top-five. Ben Gibb was the only Kiwi in the top-10, qualifying sixth-fastest with a clear run of 99.90secs, although compatriot Patrick Washer went nearly a second faster in winning the repechage round.
Today’s schedule sees semi-finals and finals for both the women’s K1 and the men’s C1, with the men’s K1 and the women’s C1 finishing on Monday, alongside the first Oceania boatercross (extreme slalom) championships, which features four boats racing down the course at once.