There’s unfinished business for four-time Olympian whitewater paddler Luuka Jones, who wants to learn from her mistakes in Tokyo, aim for Paris 2024, and try out an exhilarating new boat for size.
It took Luuka Jones a while to stop kicking herself – her own words – after falling short in her quest to make the podium again at the Tokyo Olympics.
But now, two months on, her head is clear. The Kiwi paddler, who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has made up her mind. She wants to go to her fifth Olympic Games in Paris 2024, but she wants to do something different.
“Where you get hit in the face by someone else’s paddle – that’s how extreme,” she laughs.
Right now, Jones is in Bratislava, Slovakia, in a bubble with the world’s top paddlers getting race ready for this week’s canoe slalom world championships.
She’s racing in the K-1 slalom, her favoured event, where she was heartbroken to finish sixth in Tokyo, and the new Olympic event in Paris, the extreme slalom.
Jones has decided to call it a day in the C-1 canoe event, which made its debut at last month’s Olympics, and where she finished 13th.
“I have no regrets,” the 32-year-old Jones says. “It was cool as a project to learn the class and try to perform in it at the Olympics.” (For canoe, she had to adapt to kneeling in the boat and using a single-bladed paddle).
“I started off well in the class, but then I kind of hit a roadblock and never improved like I wanted to. I went into the Olympics knowing I wasn’t a medal contender, which for me isn’t as motivating.
So Jones has thrown herself into another project, this time learning the ropes of extreme slalom.
“Before Tokyo, I was thinking I wouldn’t continue afterwards. But I’m still improving in kayak slalom and now with the introduction of extreme slalom, I’m quite motivated to do well in that. So I’ll keep going for a bit longer and see how it goes,” she says.
Where K1 is a solo paddler on the course racing against the clock, extreme slalom has four paddlers racing head-to-head down the whitewater course.
It’s a frantic, no-holds-barred, fight to the finishline, where paddlers have to negotiate buoys upstream and down, carry out a compulsory eskimo roll – a complete 360-degree flip of their boat – all while using tactics to beat their opponents.
“It’s quite crazy. I’m still getting my head around it,” Jones says. “When you’re racing head-to-head, sometimes there’s not enough room for everyone in one eddy to get around the gates.
“It’s quite a physical sport. You’re just having to hustle people the whole way and make tactical decisions in the moment.”
But Jones is getting the hang of it quickly. So far, she’s had two international extreme slalom races, and won a silver medal at the World Cup in La Seu, Spain, earlier this month.
Jones won every round of qualifying at that World Cup and was just pipped by Martina Satkova of the Czech Republic for gold, after a four-boat pile-up at the last gate in the final.
“That was a good debut. But last weekend [the World Cup in Pau, France] I got knocked out in the first round because I made some tactical errors,” she says.
“Two people from each round go through to the final. So, you don’t have to win each round, as long as you’re second. In the last race I was racing to win, instead of being patient and content with second place. There’s a lot of discipline needed as well.”
As women’s extreme slalom makes its debut at the Paris Olympics, Jones jokes it could see the female paddlers break from an Olympic tradition.
“Off the water, all the slalom paddlers are friends, because you’re always racing your own race,” she says. “But now we’re physically racing against each other and we can have quite an impact on someone else’s races result. So it will be interesting to see how we are towards each other in a couple of years’ time.
“It’s a tradition when a new event is introduced to the Olympics – like the women’s C1 was in Tokyo – we all get a photo together with the Olympic rings. But I’m wondering if we’ll get a photo together for extreme slalom – we might not be able to look at each other.”
Before the Tokyo Games, Jones’ fourth straight Olympics, she was seriously thinking it would be her swansong. But she’s had that change of heart.
“I feel I have unfinished business,” she says. “I was in the form of my life, and having won a medal in Rio, I guess I had high expectations.
“I’ve learned from a lot of mistakes I made leading into Tokyo. And I’m just keen to give it another shot. With what I’ve learned and being in good form, I’m sure I’ll be a much-improved athlete in Paris.”
If she’s successful, Jones will be only the third New Zealand female athlete to compete at five Olympics – with Barbara Kendall and Dame Valerie Adams.
“I was all-in. And I think when you put everything into sport, it’s not that healthy.”
Jones is confident it will be easier learning the techniques and tactics of extreme slalom than it was to master the canoe.
“I’m not having to learn a new way of paddling. I can transfer my skills across to paddling the extreme kayaks. They’re just kayaks that you’d paddle down the Kaituna River on a Sunday anyway, but a bit more dynamic,” she says.
Extreme slalom is contested in robust plastic creek boats, which at 18kg, are twice as heavy as the carbon composite kayaks Jones is used to.
The four paddlers start at the top of a steep ramp, more than 2m above the water, and have to be quick to react after splashing down. Jones will be able to practise her starts on the extreme ramp at Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland.
“It really helps, because there’s quite a technique to going down the ramp, landing well and getting out in front,” she says. “We just need to order some of the inflatable gates that they string up, because there’s quite a technique to being able to go around them, too. And there’s a lot of thinking involved about which gate you choose.”
She will also perfect her eskimo roll – the dunking completed under a roll gate across the course. “I don’t mind it actually. Though we spend our whole slalom careers trying not to roll, so we’ve had to start working on it again,” she says.
After these world champs, Jones will sit down with her coach, Campbell Walsh, and Mike Dawson, Canoe Slalom NZ’s high performance coach, who was also a bit of a gun in extreme slalom – winning a World Cup race, and taking bronze at the world championships in 2017.
“We’re already brainstorming how to improve in it as a nation,” Jones says. “We have a few paddlers who are already promising in the class. Finn Butcher won a silver medal at one of the first World Cups this year. As a nation, I think we can do really well in this discipline.”
While Jones doesn’t have huge expectations on herself this week – having tapered for the Olympics and not done the same physical preparations for these races – she’s still in “decent form”, she reckons.
“I feel quite energised. I’m really glad I came to Europe rather than flew home after the Olympics, because I would have spent more time dwelling on the fact I didn’t perform the way I wanted to in Tokyo,” she says.
She’s spent a couple weeks on holiday with friends in Germany and on her own in Prague.
“Even mentally, after the Olympics, I feel a little more relaxed. Before the Games I was, you know not caught up on outcomes… but I was thinking about the Games all the time. So it was a relief to get away from it all.”
The rest of her year has been rewarding. For the first time in her career she made the final in every World Cup event she competed in. In Pau, one of her favourite places on earth, Jones climbed onto the podium for finishing second overall in the 2021 World Cup women’s kayak standings (pictured below).
“Prior to this year, I’d only ever made two World Cup finals – which is crazy. I just have this mental thing around not making the finals,” Jones says. “Now I need to turn those finals into better performances.”
She’s due home at the start of next month, and she’s thinking of moving to Okere Falls, just outside Rotorua, for a while. “I need to take a month off to chill and hang out with my friends who I haven’t seen for a long time,” she says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Jones is also thinking about her future beyond kayaking. If she had her time over again, there one thing she would do differently before Tokyo.
“I would do more work mentally, to have more going on outside of kayaking. I put all my eggs into kayaking, and didn’t have any other projects outside of my sport to focus on,” says Jones (which is a great idiom, because Jones is ‘mum’ to several chickens).
“I was all-in. And I think when you put everything into sport, it’s not that healthy. At the Rio Olympics, I was a lot more healthy because I didn’t have any expectations. And I knew I’d have expectations in Tokyo, but mentally I didn’t deal with them that well.”
She’s completed a business degree and a graphic design course. “But I’m seriously thinking of doing something else over the next few years. To set myself up for a career outside of kayaking, but also to have some other things going on that are interesting, that I’m passionate about,” she says.
In the meantime, she’s putting the finishing touches on a vegetarian recipe book she’s been working on with her friend, Olympic silver medallist rower Brooke Donoghue, and performance nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij, who works with both athletes. The book will be out next year.