Olympics

Luuka reaps success from partnership on and off water

Olympic silver medallist Luuka Jones is now preparing for her fourth Olympics in canoe slalom, with her partner and coach - one and the same - by her side. 

Any time Luuka Jones needs advice, support or encouragement in her pursuit of more canoe slalom success, she doesn’t have to look far.

Jones’ coach, Campbell Walsh, is also her partner.

The Scot is a two-time Olympian – who won a silver medal in the K1 event at the Athens Olympics in 2004 - a two-time European champion and has three world championship medals to his name.

He began coaching Jones in 2013 and they became a couple off the water after the Rio Olympics three years later, when she won her stunning silver medal.

Now Jones, 30, is preparing for her fourth Olympics – a feat only five other New Zealand women can boast.

Boardsailor Barbara Kendall, with her five visits to the Olympics (1992-2008), tops the list for New Zealand women, while marathon runner Lorraine Moller, discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina, table tennis player Li Chunli and shot putter Dame Valerie Adams have been four times. It’s certainly a special group Jones will join next year.

Buoyed by her K1 bronze medal at the world champs in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain, last month – New Zealand’s first outside Mike Dawson’s two extreme kayak medals two years ago – Jones is preparing her Tokyo 2020 campaign with Walsh by her side.

It’s an interesting dynamic, far from a unique arrangement, but certainly rare. And there’s no question that it’s working for the Bay of Plenty athlete.

“Campbell is a very good technician in the sport. He has a really good feel for the water,” Jones says.

“He was one of the top paddlers for a long time so he really notices things that can be done better. He’s also very honest.”

Walsh is not one to give out easily-won praise. “If you receive a compliment, it’s a genuine one,” she laughs.

Jones admits the pair have had to work at the relationship at times. Walsh has the advantage of having been at the top of the sport. So he appreciates athletes need time alone, or a sharp word or a bit of positive reinforcement, because he’s been in the same situation.

Luuka Jones on her way to her first World Cup medal, a bronze, in Bratislava in June. Photo: Getty Images. 

“I guess it’s hard to separate the two,” Jones says of their professional and personal relationships.

“If I’ve had a bad session, or one of us is annoyed about something to do with training, it’s hard not to bring it home. We work a lot on communication to try and resolve any issues as soon as they arise.

“One of the positives is because we spend so much time together, and Campbell knows me really well, I guess it’s quite seamless, really. We are on the same page and because we know each other so well, things can go unsaid.

“He knows if I’m overly stressed about something - even if I’ve not said it - or overly nervous at a race, he might be able to say something to help the situation.”

Jones, who competed at her first Olympics in Beijing at 19, said the pair had not received any strong suggestions from either within the sport’s hierarchy or New Zealand Olympic Committee bosses that the relationship might not be advantageous to her performances on the water.

But they thought it wise to seek some counsel in the early months.

“I feel it has been left up to us. After Rio, we did have discussions with sports psychologists about things, the pros and cons of the situation, and whether there was any danger of the programme falling apart,” Jones says.

“That always had to be considered, but in our sport there are quite a few examples [of coach/athlete partnerships].”

She cited Olympic cycling champion Sarah Ulmer, who was coached by her partner Brendon Cameron in the latter part of her career, including at the Athens Olympics when she won her 3000m individual pursuit gold medal.

The relationship is certainly working on a sporting level. Her silver medal in Rio provided one of the great memories of those 2016 Games. In the last four months, Jones has won her first World Cup medal, and first world championship podium placing.

Her results have been such that she has already secured not just a place for New Zealand in the K1 and C1 events in Tokyo, but nailed herself down for the events too. Her ninth-place finish in the tricky C1 class provided half of a top-quality championship double.

Jones is comfortably New Zealand’s best woman slalom paddler, and has been a trailblazer for women in the discipline - in a similar way to the outstanding Lisa Carrington in the flatwater kayak category.

She would almost certainly have won selection anyway through the trials process, but it’s been a cracking couple of months. Jones was chuffed to pick up bronze in Bratislava in late June to break her World Cup duck, and the world championship result iced the season nicely.

She has been competing at world championships since 2009 and the location of the worlds this year had significance for Jones, too.

The town of La Seu d’Urgell is situated in the Catalan Pyrenees pocket in Spain’s north east, 20km south of Andorra.

That was where she first contested the worlds “and I got two 50-second penalties in qualification and finished at the back of the field", she says. “So it’s nice to realise how far I’ve come.”

Campbell Walsh competing at a canoe slalom World Cup in 2012. Photo: Getty Images. 

While she’s spent a lot of time in the little Spanish town and likes the place and the people, it hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for Jones.

“It’s a shallow course and I’ve never really figured out the best way to paddle there. So when I heard the worlds were going to be there, and the Olympic qualification, I was a bit daunted by it,” she says.

“It’s never been my favourite course to paddle on; I’ve never got on that well with it. But we had some good training camps and I started to gel with it, and also we cut my boat smaller to paddle more dynamically.”

Sorry, say that again?

She felt her kayak was too big and causing some small inconsistencies. That’s all it was, a feeling, but it was niggling away.

“So Campbell cut it in half lengthways and [removed] a centimetre in places, which is quite significant, then joined it back together. You can feel when a kayak is a few millimetres bigger or smaller. That made a big difference.”

The volume was reduced, leaving it slightly narrower and with less depth. The results made it well worthwhile.

It’s intriguing to talk different medals with athletes. Does an Olympic medal sit higher in personal terms or one gained at a world championship?

The answer is not as clear-cut as might be assumed.

Jones gets the point. Olympic successes are how an athlete is measured by those not intimately acquainted with a sport. Often, though, the athlete will privately more highly value a world championship gong.

“I guess the Olympics are really prestigious and it’s the one everyone really wants to win. Everyone remembers it,” Jones says.

“Within our sport, one per nation can go to the Olympics [in each category], so it does cut down the fields significantly. At the world championships you have three per nation. It feels huge. Everyone is there.

“So it’s almost harder to win a world championship medal than an Olympic medal.

“But it’s been a goal of mine for so long to win a world medal. I didn’t want to finish my career with just the Olympic medal. Now I can say I have won World Cup, world championships and Olympic medals.”

And if that sounds like talk of starting to wind things down, you’d be wrong.

“There’s still more I want to achieve,” Jones says.

She has her next nine months mapped out until the start of the Olympics on July 24. Truth be told, she admits with a laugh, she’s had that sorted for a while now. It’s what you could call long-term planning even before the worlds, done while banking on qualifying.

Jones and Walsh are in Tokyo this week for a three-week camp, with a couple of races, including the pre-Olympic test event, then back home for a couple of weeks.

Then it’s back to Tokyo, with three more camps there next year and a couple of World Cup races in Italy and France before the Games start.

With qualification secure, and another couple of goals ticked off in the last three months, it’s all about dotting i’s and crossing t’s for an athlete in her prime, and in an all-round happy space.

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