Olympic kayaker Mike Dawson and defending champion Sam Sutton will headline the Kiwi contingent at the adidas Sickline world extreme kayaking championships in Austria this weekend.
Sutton will be chasing a third consecutive title on the Ötztaler Ache River in Austria's Ötztal Valley, while it remains the only major extreme crown Dawson has yet to win, despite second placings in 2009 and 2011. The Waiariki Academy of Sport stars will be joined on the starting line by fellow New Zealanders Jamie Sutton, Wills Martin and Brendon Baily, although Sam Sutton admits this year could be wide open.
"So far the course has been very exciting with higher water levels than previous years, meaning it is much harder to stay online," Sutton, who set a course record of 55.84secs in his Bliss-Stick Tuna last year, said. "If the water levels continue to rise with the forecasted rain, it's going to take a very skilled paddler with some luck to win the event, or it might just be a lottery. Regardless, I'm hoping Mike and I can pull a 1-2 finish just like last year and keep that Kiwi domination flowing."
With their podium finishes last year, Sutton, Dawson and German Paul Böckelmann have automatically qualified for the top-48, with 150 of the world's best extreme paddlers having to get through two qualifying runs first. That field includes Olympic whitewater slalom silver medalist Vávra Hradilek - the Czech paddler who spent last summer training in Rotorua with Dawson - and bronze medalist Hannes Aigner (Germany).
The top-48 then race two rounds of knockout competition before the top-15 final. This racing is set against the backdrop of one of the most intimidating stretches of whitewater in Europe, 280m of grade five rapids down the infamous Wellerbrücke section of the river. Dawson knows exactly how tough the conditions will be, having trained at the venue over the last fortnight.
"There is a nasty recirculating hole just above the bottom drop, aptly named the Champions Killer, which has been holding down nearly two-thirds of the guys practicing their runs so far," Dawson said. "I had some carnage in training on Monday when I got swept under a rock halfway down. I got wedged under it pretty good before being submerged and pulled right under and coming out the other side - it was definitely a bit sketchy but at least I know not to try that again!"
It's already been a huge year for 25-year-old Dawson, who reached the semifinals of the slalom competition in London at his first Olympics. Building up to the games, he won two titles at the prestigious Teva Mountain Games in Colorado and since London, has had a whirlwind series of races taking him all over the globe.
He competed at the whitewater slalom world cup round in Prague, then won the European extreme championships in the Czech Republic, combining with the two Sutton brothers to also claim team gold. Dawson then flew back to New Zealand to pick up a visa so he could race - and win - an extreme race near ChongQing City in China, before heading back to Europe for the Sickline.
He'll round off the year by heading back to the United States with Hradilek and defending his title at the Green River race in North Carolina, before heading back to New Zealand for a well-earned break.
First things first, however - he's keen on adding Sickline success to his lengthy list of titles.
"Everyone is looking good and feeling good and Sam and I have been getting some good runs in. We've been practicing head to head so we've had some good crashes but its a good way to see who is faster."