Olympics

Beating the boys has Luuka on course for Tokyo

Olympic silver medallist Luuka Jones will be out to beat her coach at the national canoe slalom championships on the Tarawera River this weekend.

Not every athlete in their prime would make this their objective, but for Jones, needs must.

Jones’ coach isn’t a pot-bellied 55-year-old who paddles for fun. Scotsman Campbell Walsh is a former world champion and 2004 Olympic silver medallist himself. And Jones is aiming to post a faster time than he does at the nationals, near Kawerau.

It’s challenges like this - and seeing how close she can get to “the boys” - that are all part of 30-year-old Jones’ training and competitive regimen while she’s at home in New Zealand. And it must be working - Jones is fitter and stronger than ever in her build-up to next year's Tokyo Olympics. 

Without the luxury of having rival top international women paddlers in her own country, Jones has to be innovative.

It’s not ideal, but she’s used to it, and she’s found ways to work around it.

“If there was a strong group of girls in New Zealand, it would obviously push me,” Jones says. “So I have to do a bit of guesswork as to what my form is. I measure myself against the boys and do some competitive sessions with them.”

She looks at the times of her female rivals in international events where she’s not competing, and does her calculations to see where her own times would place her.

Three years on from her stunning second placing at the Rio Games, it’s qualification time again. If she makes it to Toyko 2020, it will be her fourth Olympics.

So Jones is off to Europe shortly, content that she’s in top shape to prepare for her Olympic qualifying event in Spain at the end of September.

Truth be told, it will be a significant surprise if she doesn’t qualify for both the K1 and C1 disciplines when she races at the picturesque La Seu d’Urgell course in the Pyrenees.

Unlike the men’s white-water racers in New Zealand, where several are vying to be top dog, Jones is far out on her own as New Zealand’s top true international women’s paddler.

“I feel really good at moment,” the Tauranga athlete says. “This is the first off-season I’ve had training full-time at an international white-water venue. I moved up to south Auckland at the end of last year and I’ve been training at Wero [Whitewater Park] every day.

“It’s been amazing. I’m making a lot of strength gains at the gym, and doing exercises I’ve never been able to do before in terms of core and balance.

“I am five kilos lighter than I was in 2016, and I’m more consistent on the white-water. I’m in good shape physically and mentally, so I’m quite excited about the season.”

Jones’ Olympic triumph was an ambition 20 years in the making. Having started kayaking at 10, she was in Year 7 at Otumoetai Intermediate when she set herself her goal of winning an Olympic medal.

Her determination can’t be questioned. She was 21st at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, as New Zealand’s first female Olympic slalom canoeist, and 14th in London four years later, before stepping onto the dais in Rio. Persistence, you could say, was her friend.

There’s a symmetry to competing for her Tokyo spot at La Seu d’Urgell, in the far north-eastern tip of Spain. That was where she first contested a world champs in 2009. And some story it was too.

This was back before the sport, and paddlers, had any real Government funding support, and backpacking, scrimping and saving were the order of the day.

Jones was travelling to a training camp in Spain with a friend when their car broke down on the French side of the Pyrenees.

“We ended up hitch-hiking over the mountains with our kayaks and all our gear,” she recalls with a laugh.

 “Then we saw this guy walking his dog. He had a slalom t-shirt on so we trusted him.

“We bundled into his car, and he drove like a maniac over the Pyrenees.” They dropped off their gear, and he drove them back to their car, which they discovered hadn’t been fixed. “So he let us stay in his house for about three weeks. Crazy,” Jones says.

Luuka Jones celebrating after nailing the silver medal in the K1 canoe slalom final at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

There’s a busy season ahead on the other side of the globe for Jones.

There are two World Cup events - in London and Bratislava, Slovakia - in June, then the World Cup final in Prague in September, followed by the world champs.

Before all that, she has two weeks training in Nottingham, a stop in Cardiff, a training camp in Spain – and another two after the worlds. And she’ll squeeze in a quick visit home to break up the campaign.

Boats secure Olympic spots, not athletes. Countries are allowed three boats per event.

But providing Jones – ranked No 10 in C1 and No 18 in K1 (her medal-winning category) – finishes inside the top 15 nations at the world champs, it will be job done for Tokyo. And if she qualifies in one, she can automatically compete in the other.

No special advantages come out of her outstanding Rio performance. “It’s a clean slate.”

There are slight differences in the classes. C1, which she only took up after Rio, uses a one-sided blade and paddlers take up a different position in the kayak.

While she initially suspected she was more naturally suited to that form, a difficult past year has changed her thinking.

“I didn’t enjoy it. It was really tough. I got to the end of the season and it was time to decide whether to keep going with C1,” says Jones. She decided she would. 

“Other girls have been doing it a lot longer than me and there’s still a decent gap between Jess Fox and me.” Fox is the brilliant Australian rated the world’s best woman paddler.

“At the moment I’m definitely stronger in the K1, so I just have to put my head down and keep working.”

With the Olympics starting to sharpen into focus, does Jones spend much time reminiscing about August 11, 2016, when she beat all bar Spain’s Maialen Chourraut in Rio?

“I do a few school visits and talk about my build-up to Rio. It’s a cool story and sometimes I look fondly back at it,” she says. “But now I think of it more as a learning experience, what went well and what should I replicate for Tokyo. But I’m definitely more forward focused.”

She remembers the “weird calm experience” of Rio. She puts that down to having done so much preparation, loving the location and course, and having a calm mindset. That’s to say, she had crossed all t’s and dotted all i’s. She had done all she could.

Among Jones’ favourite quotes is one from basketball legend Michael Jordan. It’s the one in which the six-time NBA champion talks of having missed more than 9000 shots in his career, lost almost 300 games, been trusted to take game winning shots and missed.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed,” Jordan said.

To Jones, it’s about embracing failure, and that resonated in 2016 before the Olympics.

“Before that, I had just had terrible races,” she says. “So it’s about bouncing back, learning from those experiences rather than dwelling on them, or going out and being afraid of failing again.”

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