With almost three decades of experience in the sport, Kiwi canoe slalom judge Kellie Bailey is on her way to Tokyo to get her own feel for the water before next year’s Olympics. 

Like the All Blacks, Kellie Bailey is hitting Japan this week at the top of her game.

Unlike the men in black, who face England in the World Cup semifinal in Yokohama, Bailey’s trip to Japan is just a prelude. But it’s building towards bigger things to come.

The experienced canoe slalom official and event manager is one of the international technical officials at the Tokyo Olympic test event this week.

It gives both officials and Olympic-bound kayakers, like Rio silver medallist Luuka Jones, the chance to get used to the water on the distinctive Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre course in central Tokyo.

“These events are just as important for the officials as they are for the athletes,” explains the Wanaka-based Bailey, who has been chief judge for Canoe Slalom New Zealand for six years.

“It’s good to familiarise yourself with the course, the surroundings and the culture, so that when you arrive at the Olympics, you aren’t distracted and you can just concentrate on the task at hand.”

Tokyo will be Bailey’s second Olympics, after also judging at the Rio Games in 2016. She has spent the past eight years building up overseas experience, officiating at World Cup rounds and both junior and senior world championships, and has been supported with a number of Prime Minister’s Scholarships.

She was recently the chief judge at the extreme slalom world championships in Prague.

Luuka Jones trying out the new Olympic canoe slalom course in Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images. 

Her selection for Tokyo is a big deal: while World Cup rounds feature officials nominated by their national associations, the selection of Olympic judges is entirely merit-based.

Bailey has been involved in the sport for the best part of 30 years. Her husband, Roy, was competing when they first met and their children, Jess and Holly, have also had a heavy involvement.

Kayaking has always played a major role in their lives and, while her children have drifted away from the competition side, Bailey has only increased her involvement.

“One of the big things that keeps me in the sport is the fantastic team of officials we’ve got in New Zealand. I could take that team to any event, anywhere in the world and be absolutely confident they would do an amazing job,” Bailey says.

“They form such a professional, cohesive unit and I’m really looking forward to working with them in 2021, when we host the junior and under-23 world championships in New Zealand.”

She’s also been a long-time committee member and has seen first-hand the remarkable growth in a sport that was once the epitome of minority.

Kellie Bailey made her Olympic debut as a judge at the 2016 Games in Rio. Photo: Dscribe Media/Jamie Troughton.

Now she enjoys seeing Kiwis compete strongly on the international stage, such as Jones’ recent bronze medal at the world championships in Spain.

“When Luuka got her medal, it was incredibly humbling and exciting, and I really had to breathe deeply and make sure I was concentrating on my job,” Bailey admits.

“I don’t recognise many of the top international paddlers – I probably wouldn’t know [top Slovenian paddler] Peter Kauzer if I passed him on the street – but it’s good to keep that distance.

“We’re also part of a big judging team and at every gate, there might be five or six pairs of eyes on it. So while it’s a real privilege to be there at such amazing moments as those, you’ve also got to ensure you do the job properly and take it seriously.”

Bailey says it’s also been gratifying to see the growth of the sport in New Zealand.

“I believe in the sport, and I believe in the lifestyle it allows the athletes to have and the opportunities it gives them,” she says.

It’s hard not to be involved in sport amid the natural wonderland of Wanaka, Bailey admits. Kiwi multisport star Braden Currie is one neighbour and triathlete Nicky Samuels is another; high performance athletes seem to seep out of the stunning flora and fauna with startling regularity.

This weekend’s test event will feature three New Zealand paddlers – Jones, K1 male Finn Butcher and C1 male Ben Gibb, while Tauranga-raised Jane Nicholas will race for the Cook Islands.

It comes just weeks after the official opening of the NZ$100 million Kasai course, which is Japan’s first-ever artificial canoe slalom venue.

Built by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, it drops nearly 5m over its 200m length, and has seating for more than 7500 fans. It’s also dwarfed by a monstrous ferris wheel, part of the Kasai Rinkai amusement park next door.

Jamie Troughton is a freelance journalist and photographer with more than two decades' experience writing about sport.

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