One of the more intriguing entrants at the 2021 NZCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships next week is Julius Petersen – an athlete better known as one of the country’s finest waka ama exponents.
The 26-year-old South Auckland paddler is a multiple-winning national waka champion and in 2016 featured in the gold medal-winning six-man Vaka Manu crew at the IVF World Waka Ama Sprint Championships in Australia.
Yet after Julius was invited to undergo testing by Canoe Racing NZ in late-2018 at AUT Millennium of Auckland’s North Shore, it opened the door to new and inspirational journey into the world of kayaking.
“I had nothing to lose by attending and the strength and conditioning coach said I’d had some good results in the strength testing there,” he explains. “I didn’t expect that and the next day I was given the chance to sit in the kayak. I thought, man, I’m keen – this shouldn’t be too hard.”
Yet when he arrived down at Lake Pupuke he was given a rude awakening.
“I was really surprised how difficult it was,” explains Julius. “The top kayakers made it look so easy and effortless, but I was humbled how hard it was. At first I couldn’t leave the pontoon without flipping out. But this created a fire in me. I wanted a new challenge and to pursue something new.”
More than two years after first sitting on a kayak, Julius is all set to make his debut at a canoe sprint regatta. Planning to compete in the K1, K2 and K4 200m events at nationals next week he is unsure how the experience will go, but hopes it will act as positive next step on his journey which he hopes will one day lead to international recognition.
Following in the footsteps of his father he took up the sport of waka ama paddling at the age of 13. He was no world beater in his early years, yet thanks to the influence of his inspirational coaches, Mark Malaki-Williams and Brad Anderson out of the Manukau Outriggers Canoe Club he has blossomed into an outstanding paddler.
“I was a late bloomer,” he admits. “I was never a strong, fit, talented kid. But Mark and Brad taught me the importance of having a strong work ethic and throughout my life held on to that hard-working mentality.”
Success followed both nationally and on the international stage until in 2018 his chance call up to the CRNZ testing weekend, which was to change the whole direction of his paddling career.
Keen to improve he quickly came under the coaching guidance of Gavin Elmiger and Julius quickly embarked on learning the craft by regularly training sessions Lake Pupuke.
“Gav has been a driving force as to why I enjoy the sport,” adds Julius. “He has really shown me the importance of having fun with my paddling. Physically and technically waka and kayak are completely different. But the biggest challenge adapting to kayaking was getting the balance and stability right. Even two years on from first sitting in a kayak, I’m still learning every week.”
After spending the first year building confidence in the boat last year he started training with the men’s squad at the North Shore Canoe Club – where he singles out both Olympic-bound Samoan canoe sprinter Tuva’a Clifton and masters world champion paddler Garth Spencer for their advice and support.
He has continued to combine kayaking most mornings with waka ama training most evenings, but there is little doubt his main future aspirations lie as a kayaker.
“My general focus is on kayaking, which is something I really want to pursue, he explains. “I just aim to keep on showing up. Gav has told me to try not to focus on medals, but just have fun and improve every session.”
Next week Julius is all set to make his competitive kayaking debut at New Zealand nationals on Lake Karapiro – but he is wisely reluctant to make too many predictions.
“I just want to get among it and see what the buzz of racing in a canoe sprint regatta is like,” he explains. “I’m ready to get out, compete in some races and just enjoy the experience.”
In the longer term, however, Julius, who combines 13 to 14 sessions per week with working full-time in construction, harbours some big ambitions.
“One day I want to race internationally in kayaking,” he vows. “I’ve watched the videos and the top guys racing, and that is my motivation.”
So why would he encourage other waka paddlers to switch and give kayaking a go?
“It is a new environment and an opportunity to learn something new,” adds Julius. “It’s motivating to start something as a beginner and kayaking has been a great way to develop my overall conditioning.”