Mike Dawson pulled the curtain down on an extraordinary 15-year canoe slalom career this month but don’t expect the two-time Olympian to hang up his paddle just yet, as Jamie Troughton writes.
If Mike Dawson’s retirement plans are anything to go by, it’s no wonder he needs a break.
Next month, the canoe slalom champion gets married in Rotorua, to long-time girlfriend and Dutch kayak star Martina Wegman.
In March, he’s heading to Antarctica for a two-week paddling expedition sponsored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. He’ll support Wegman’s Olympic bid in Europe later in the season and, chances are, he’ll find some hell-ridden, croc-infested jungle gorge to explore by year’s end.
For the first time in 20 years, however - including the last 15 on the international stage - there’ll be no sleek, carbon-fibre boat to nurse through airports around the globe.
The 32-year-old also packed away his slalom paddle for good this month, retiring as one of New Zealand’s greatest and most-influential minority athletes.
The 15 years on the world stage included 11 world championships, two Olympic Games and countless World Cup appearances.
And in that time, alongside the nine New Zealand titles, he’s helped nurse the sport in this country from a quirky, underground pursuit for rapid-crazed chargers to a semi-professional vocation complete with nutrition, performance plans and psychological support.
“It’s mind-blowing how far the sport has come,” Dawson muses.
“I remember looking up to a few gnarly older dudes when I was young and the sport was developing in the early 2000s, when we were struggling for international results. Now there are young rippers everywhere, we’re pushing it and performing on the world stage, we’ve got a high performance programme established and a lot of people are following the sport.
"We’ve got world-class coaches, an Olympic-standard course and a progressive, ambitious governing body.”
Measuring Dawson’s career through results is a futile gesture, though there have been some amazing moments. He finished 10th at the Rio Olympics, seventh at the 2017 world championships (where he also grabbed a bronze in extreme slalom) and was the fastest qualifier at the 2015 world champs in London.
But just as memorable was the way he fundraised for Rio by writing a cook book, then distributed the excess proceeds to slum-dwelling street-kids in the Olympic host city.
Or his mum Kay, an internationally-ranked official, handing him a 2sec penalty at the 2012 London Olympics.
The way he subsidised his slalom career with cash prizes won in some of the world's most extreme river races. Or his unbridled, chest-thumping joy, leaping into the Deodoro Olympic Park canal to celebrate compatriot Luuka Jones’ historic silver medal in Rio.
“Luuka winning silver was an amazing moment because we both started at the same place, on the banks of the Wairoa River in Tauranga, and worked away for such a long time traveling to Europe to try and get better and better,” Dawson explains.
“And to see that at an Olympics and know that New Zealand could make it on the world stage in canoe slalom was awesome. Rio was so special - I was there because New Zealand got behind me and helped to support my campaign and there were so many positive vibes going on.
"Our team environment was incredible and we just had such a great dynamic - I remember there was no fear and we were free to race as well as possible, to not leave anything out there.”
With a bit more luck, Dawson could’ve joined Jones at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing too but his disappointment in narrowly missing qualifying turned out to have its own silver lining.
Having thought long and hard about what he needed to do, he enlisted his dad Les as a full-time coach and manager and leaned on his great friend (and soon to be best man), Czech kayak star Vavra Hradilek, for support.
He began regularly making world cup semifinals and finals, comfortably qualified for London and discovered he really did belong in the upper echelon of the European-dominated sport.
“It was amazing to be working with Dad and delivering fast runs and good results throughout that season, then I got to share the Olympic experience with my folks and watch Vavra win an Olympic silver.
"That was pretty special - we’d trained so much together and he’d basically given me the Czech training plan and helped to get me up to that level.”
It was at the London Olympics that Dawson texted then-High Performance Sport New Zealand boss Alex Baumann, asking for a meeting with he and Jones.
The pair laid it on the line, paving the road to Rio success four years later:
“We sat down and basically said that without some HPSNZ support, we couldn’t compete. Up until that point, we had been running our campaigns solo, just trying to get to each race.
"HPSNZ saw the potential and started the ball rolling, while in the background, there was a whitewater park (Vector Wero) getting built in Manukau and Canoe Slalom New Zealand was undergoing huge changes. It was a pretty exciting time to be involved.”
Ironically, London was also the scene of one of his biggest laments, finishing 15th after a torrid semifinal.
“I wish I had had more faith in my ability to win races in 2012. I thought I needed to do something special but ended up risking it all and made a huge mistake despite being fast enough - but it was a huge learning curve and a whole lot of fun."
Since he announced his retirement on social media, tributes to Dawson have been flooding in.
Pioneering Kiwi paddler Donald Johnstone, our first canoe slalom Olympian, told Dawson he was integral to the growth of the sport.
“It was awesome you kept New Zealand slalom on the international map and grew a competitive succession by being that guy at the top of the sport with high standards and dedication. You brought many internationals to our land, which in turn has allowed our sport to flourish.”
Former Great Britain star and now New Zealand coach Campbell Walsh was delighted to have been part of Dawson’s journey, as both a coach and a mate.
“You were a good athlete - never scared to push yourself physically, prepared way more than anyone ever thought you did, and did it with a well balanced mindset.”
And Slovenian double world champion Peter Kauzer summarised the live-wire Dawson’s zest on the international scene: “It's been fun having you around!”
Dawson’s retirement timing is deliberate; this weekend marks the start of the New Zealand selection events, with the Mangahao Open held in Manawatu, followed by next week’s New Zealand Open at the Vector Wero Whitewater Park.
A healthy crop of youthful talent will try and create their own legacy, led by Alexandra’s Finn Butcher, Tauranga’s Callum Gilbert and Jack Dangen and Rotorua teenager Zack Mutton.
All have followed the European trail blazed by Dawson and all are ready to start challenging for their own Olympic spots.
And that’s fine by Dawson, who fully subscribes to the notion of leaving something in a better place than when he found it.
“It’s been really exciting to be part of canoe slalom over the past 20 years but it’s also really exciting where it’s going - this is just the start of what will be an amazing decade for the sport in New Zealand.”