Courtney Williams added a little piece of New Zealand kayaking history while her fellow Kiwi K1 paddlers also hit form at the ICF canoe slalom under-23 and junior world championships in Italy overnight.
Williams became just the second New Zealand female to make the semifinals of the under-23 division at the championship - after Kensa Randle in 2017 - when she qualified 18th-fastest in the first heat. She laid down a clean run of 99.39secs on the Ivrea rapids, putting her straight into Saturday night’s top-30 semis without needing a second crack at it.
The 20-year-old Tauranga paddler then watched on with pride as teammates Finn Butcher (eighth), Jack Dangen (18th) and Callum Gilbert (25th) all emulated her feat in the under-23 men’s heats.
“We are all super happy with how we all went - it was a pretty good day!” Williams says, adding that new coach Shaun Pearce had made a massive difference to her preparation.
“Shaun is always positive and finds something good in a training sessions even when I don’t. He has taught me so much in such a short period of time and I’m so happy New Zealand took him on as a coach.”
Part of her preparation for these championships was competing in the first three senior World Cups of the season, as part of a development plan she’s been working on with Pearce.
Although her best first-round performances were a pair of 56th-placings, it showed her how the world’s top paddlers went about preparing for racing.
“Getting the chance to compete at the World Cups definitely helped, as far as race experience against the best in the world goes, and we’ve been working hard in training at delivering a full run in races. I’ve also been learning different ways to walk the course and trying to look more throughly at what the water doing in and around the gates and that really helped today.”
Butcher’s outstanding 81.42sec run was just 1.68secs behind top qualifier and home crowd favourite Marcello Beda, with Dangen just a further 1.14secs behind. Gilbert’s 83.77sec effort put him just behind second-seeded British paddler Bradley Forbes-Cryan, who was 23rd-fastest, but in front of top seed and two-time defending champion Jakub Grigar (Slovakia), who qualified 27th.
All three Kiwi men posted clean runs too, although Butcher had the satisfaction of knowing he could go even faster.
“I knew the run was going well once I got to the end but there was a couple of places that weren’t super fast,” Butcher says.
“I fell a little low into Gate 11 and then was off the poles in another up-stream gate but overall, it was pretty sweet. The times were tight and the standard is pretty high in the under-23s at the moment so it’s going to be tough on Sunday but I’m really looking forward to it.”
He too was delighted by the overall success of the team, paying tribute to a small but raucous group of New Zealand supporters - including his ‘second family’, Central Otago kayaking stalwart Gordy Rayner and his partner Mary Tritt - cheering from the banks of the Italian river.
The other two New Zealanders in action were under-23 C1 paddlers Patrick Washer and James Thwaite; Washer’s first run time of 91.85secs including a 2sec penalty and was just 2.01secs outside the top-20 automatic qualifiers, while he finished his second run in 19th, again just outside the cut-off. Thwaite’s two runs left him 49th and 31st respectively.
The focus in tonight’s racing shifts to the under-18 division, where Zack Mutton, Damian Torwick and George Snook line up in the men’s K1, Jack Egan, Charlie Bell and Stewart Bloor compete in the men’s C1, River Mutton, Casey Hales and Lotte Rayner have the women’s K1 and Hannah Thomas and Rayner the women’s C1.