In the space of a year, New Zealand canoe slalom star Luuka Jones has gone from a half-drowned, last-placed wreck to an Oceania C1 silver medalist.
Just 15 months after adding the C1 discipline to her arsenal, she’s now within touching distance of the sport’s undisputed queen, Jess Fox, having finished second to the Australian at the Oceania championships at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland.
Jones was just 2.71secs behind Fox; a far cry from the 2017 final at the same venue when Fox won by a massive 13secs and the Kiwi rolled after missing a gate and finished more than 6mins off the pace once all her time penalties were added up.
"Last year, I nearly drowned in the C1 and was basically just trying to make it to the bottom upright!” says Jones.
“This year, to come second and to be right in the mix was really good - any race where I’m getting closer to Jess is a good race and I’ve still got a bit of time until the Tokyo Olympics to keep improving in C1 and hopefully not drop off too much in K1.”
Her C1 improvement saw her make a series of world cup finals last year, although she saved her best result for an historic fourth-placing in the K1 at the world championships in France.
Fox picked up her fifth world title in the same race - she now has three C1 world titles and two K1 crowns - and has been a keen follower of her Kiwi rival’s progress.
“Luuka’s really pushing it in C1 and she paddles a C1 a lot like a K1, in that she attacks it a lot more,” says Fox.
“I’m a bit more open and try for wider lines to keep my boat speed, whereas she’ll come right in and get right up close to the gate. She’s an exciting paddler to watch and she had some great results in the world cups last year.”
Fox and Jones both picked up touches in yesterday’s final, with Fox clocking 109.42secs and Jones 112.13, while another Australian, Rosalyn Lawrence, was third in 116.39.
It was a relief for Fox, who missed a gate in yesterday’s K1 final - ironically, so did Jones - and ended up eighth.
“I was disappointed with the K1 but the speed was there - it was just some technical errors that cost me dearly. I put it behind me and came back well today and put down some good paddling in the C1.”
It was a good day for the Australian team, with Lucien Delfour holding off defending champion Michal Smolen (United States) to win a tight men’s K1 final.
The top six men all posted clean runs, with Delfour’s 88.89sec effort just 0.04secs in front of Smolen, with Mathieu Biazizzo (France) 0.39secs further back.
“I did the Whitewater XL at the end of last year which was super-early in the season but it gave me more time on this course,” says Delfour.
“It’s one of the hardest courses in the world - it’s not big but it’s so technical. You’ve got to find balance and smooth paddling, which luckily suits me - I try not to paddle too hard, otherwise you just waste energy.”
The fairytale finish was nearly provided by Tauranga’s Jack Dangen, the only New Zealander to make the final.
The 19-year-old has only come back into the sport after having a year off to start his building apprenticeship but posted the fastest qualifying time at last week’s New Zealand Open and backed it up in style this week, finishing seventh.
It could’ve been even better too, picking up a touch on gate 15 which dropped him back a spot and cost him momentum.
“I had a really good first run last week and tipped over some of the top guys so I knew that I could do it,” says Dangen.
“I’ve been going pretty fast in training, though there’s a difference between going fast in training and laying it down in a race. I can nail moves way better on the river but the next step is taking it onto the course, at a more consistent level.”
He’ll now wait to see whether he’s made the New Zealand senior team, which will be confirmed this week to compete in world cups and world championships later on in the year.
Mistakes kept New Zealand’s other leading paddlers out of the final, with Mike Dawson, Zack Mutton, Finn Butcher and Callum Gilbert filling spots 13-16 after the semifinals.
Women’s C1: Jessica Fox (Australia) 109.42, Luuka Jones (New Zealand) 112.13 2, Rosalyn Lawrence (Australia) 116.39 3, Noemie Fox (Australia) 120.17 4, Sage Donnelly (United States) 123.95 5, Kelly Travers (New Zealand) 131.99 6, Kate Eeckhardt (Australia) 135.27 7, Alison Borrows (Australia) 142.93 8, Claire Jacquet (France) 164.15 9, Martina Wegman (Netherlands) 261.18 10.
Men’s K1: Lucien Delfour (Australia) 88.89 1, Michal Smolen (United States) 88.93 2, Mathieu Biazizzo (France) 89.32 3, Daniel Watkins (Australia) 89.84 4, Ondrej Tunka (Czech Republic) 90.08 5, Titouan Dupras (France) 93.26 6, Jack Dangen (New Zealand) 93.67 7,
Yves Prigent (France) 94.60 8, Timothy Anderson (Australia) 94.92 9, Benjamin Pope (Australia) 96.64 10.
JTPIX_OceaniaCS3-3004: New Zealand’s Luuka Jones on her way to second in the women’s C1 final at the Oceania canoe slalom championships at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media
JTPIX_OceaniaCS3-3135: Australian Jess Fox on her way to victory in the women’s C1 final at the Oceania canoe slalom championships at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media
JTPIX_OceaniaCS3-3405: Australian Lucien Delfour on his way to victory in the men’s K1 final at the Oceania canoe slalom championships at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland today. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media