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River rises as double slalom star

She's a national champion in two codes in two different seasons. But River Mutton may have to choose one slalom sport over another to achieve her Olympic dream. Suzanne McFadden reports.

River Mutton is the teenage queen of New Zealand slalom – both in white-water and on snow.

She lives on the banks of the Kaituna River, east of Rotorua, that’s renowned as a mecca for white-water paddlers. Each morning, she runs down a track to the end of her garden at Okere Falls, and slides her kayak into the river, sharpening her canoe slalom skills for an hour before she goes to school.

In the winter, Mutton heads south to Wanaka, where she can train on the slopes of Treble Cone, honing her talents as a slalom skier.

She doesn’t favour one of the fast and furious pole-weaving sports over the other. Since she was young, she’s dreamed of becoming a double Olympian. “I really like the sport side of skiing, but I really enjoy the environment of kayaking,” she says.

But then she gives a hint as to why one code may have a slight edge: “To be honest, I like summer more than I like winter.”

At 16 years old, Mutton has reached a point in her fledgling career where she needs to make some tough decisions. And one of them is whether she has to drop one of the sports she shines in, to focus on the other.

“I guess it comes down to weighing up what’s more realistic. It’s kind of hard,” she says, especially when she's a champion of both. “I always said I wanted to be a dual Olympian. But maybe it's not so realistic anymore. I definitely want to make the Olympics in one of the sports - I’m just not sure which one yet.”

Mutton – known by those close to her as Rivey or Riv – was last year crowned the New Zealand under-16 champion in both canoe slalom, and slalom and giant slalom skiing. She’d also been the under-14 champion in both sports before that.

When you’re a national champion, it presents a raft of opportunities to represent your country and compete on the world stage. But when you’re a rising star in two sports, and you’re still at high school, that can also equate to a mountain of expenses.  

So this year, with her parents’ blessing, Mutton has chosen to focus on one sport, and one event in particular – the world junior canoe slalom championships in Italy.

That decision has meant turning down a place at a Youth Olympics event held in Barcelona this week, as well as invitations to train on ski slopes in the Northern Hemisphere.

“I had a few ski offers to go overseas and train that I didn’t take up because they were smack-bang in the middle of my kayaking season,” Mutton says.

They also fell at the start of her Year 12 studies at Rotorua Lakes High School. In the last couple of years, when Mutton has spent time alpine ski racing in Canada, the United States and France, she has taken schoolwork with her. “It’s a bit of a struggle to motivate myself when I’m away, I can tell you that,” she says.

With university on her mind, she wants to hunker down in the classroom this year. But she figures she would do a degree by correspondence, “because I don’t want to be tied down to one place.”

Mutton, who started skiing at two, can’t cast her mind back far enough to when she first sat in a kayak. “I’m pretty sure that when I was old enough to walk, my parents put me in a boat and sent me floating down some rapids,” she laughs.  “I think my brother, Zack, was just a couple of months old they put him in a boat and floated him down the rapids… I don’t even know if he could swim.”

The Mutton children weren’t sent down the creek without a paddle. Their father, Kenny - considered a “kayak genius” - was always at their side.

He was the European freestyle kayak champion in 2000, and has a bronze medal from the world freestyle championships. Today, he runs a kayaking business on the river, and also designs his own brand of boats, called Waka, which are manufactured in Italy. He coached the kids when they were younger.

Next week, Zack Mutton leaves to train in canoe slalom in Europe, where he hopes to compete in World Cup events. He represented New Zealand at the past three world junior championships, finishing eighth in the K1 last year.

Mutton admits she’s learned much from her brother over the years, watching him navigate the often-turbulent Kaituna. “Sometimes we train together, but usually we argue,” she admits.

The siblings are in this year’s national performance squad alongside Olympians Mike Dawson and Rio silver medallist Luuka Jones.

River Mutton is also a national champion at slalom and giant slalom on skis. Photo: supplied

River’s introduction to skiing also came as a toddler, during family trips to Mt Ruapehu. But her interest in racing was sparked when her mother, Amanda, who is a doctor, took a job in Wanaka, and Mutton joined the race team at Treble Cone.

She’s not sure why she’s been drawn to two sports that require astute weaving through gates. “I like slalom in skiing because it’s all about quick reflexes. And slalom is the racing part of kayaking,” she says. “I guess there’s a little bit of a crossover;  good core strength definitely helps in both. And you can bring a little experience in racing to both sports.”

The only time she feels fear is when she’s paddling over a large waterfall for the first time.

She decided to focus on kayaking this year because she wanted to gain more experience in the sport. And she chose the world junior championships in Ivrea (an hour from her father’s factory near Milan) because she knew it would give her the best competition. She had to pull out of last year’s team for the worlds because of other commitments.

The Mutton family have had to look hard at how they balance River's international sporting life, and their bank accounts. Dad Kenny says it’s frustrating at times: “Sometimes it’s more expensive than it needs to be." And Amanda says she’s proud of how her daughter has “graciously accepted not going to various events.”

“Sometimes it’s a little disappointing, especially not going to the Youth Olympics in Barcelona, which would have been a cool experience,” River says. “But if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had enough money to go to the junior worlds.”

She’s tried to fit in part-time jobs to earn money towards her trip, but it’s not simple slotting work in around school and two training sessions a day, six days a week.

"In some ways it’s a disappointing that she’s missed out on other opportunities," Kenny says. "But I don’t think there’s a rush; she has plenty of time on her side.”

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