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Kayakers tackle NZ's most extreme whitewater event

Record kayakers take on New Zealand’s most extreme whitewater event

Ten times national slalom kayak champion and former Olympian Donald Johnstone satisfied his hunger to take back the winning title at New Zealand’s premiere extreme kayak event on the weekend – the Wairoa Extreme.

The Tauranga roading contractor and member of the 1992 Olympic team missed out on the title last year after claiming first in 2000 and 2001 and was out to prove he is still king of the tumultuous Grade 5 section of the Wairoa River he calls his local run.

“It’s my premiere event for New Zealand,” said Johnstone. “It’s got the excitement, the adrenaline, the winning or the not winning and being hungry – and I was extra hungry for it this year after missing out last year.”

The Wairoa Extreme is a sudden death, head-to-head race to reach the bottom of a 150m section of Grade 4 and 5 rapids named the “rollercoaster” and “waterfall” and touch a rock at the finish line. Johnstone, 39, was the last man standing out of a record field of 64 paddlers who raced on Sunday. For the first time the race also featured a separate women’s class of 12 paddlers.

Hot on Johnstone’s tail in the final was 21-year-old Tauranga paddler Johan Roozenberg who also finished 2nd at the time trials held on the Saturday.

“I’m still young enough to kick some youth,” laughed Johnstone. “The competition is hard and I also like the fact that we’re racing whitewater. It’s not over until one person tags the flag and it can turn around in a matter of seconds. A couple of times I had some slow entries into the eddy, but you have to capitalize on someone else’s mistake – apart from just hammering it!”

Some of the world’s best whitewater kayakers paddling at the event included Hamilton’s extreme kayaker Ben Brown (24) and Germany’s Arnd Schaeftlein, who has spent summers based at Okere Falls, near Rotorua, for the past 10 years.

“This event allows people to see kayaking the way it should be presented,” said Schaeftlein. It’s very spectacular, there are not many rules, no federation – it’s just a bunch of people who have the same ideas and lifestyles coming together for a weekend to have a good time.”

Helen Brosnan of Taupo took first place against Kelly Wood of Rotorua in the women’s event with an explosive final that saw both caught in the bottom eddy before paddling free to a split second finish. “I thought I was going to be throwing cartwheels [in the eddy] but I somehow got to the rock first even though I think Kelly deserved to win. It’s a lot of luck in this race and I’ve had a lot of luck today,” she said.

Since its inception in 1998 the race has become the best and most popular whitewater kayak event in New Zealand, with local and international paddlers having to compete for one of 64 places (the technical limit). The Wairoa Extreme coincides with a water release from a nearby dam, which has 26 controlled releases every season.

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