The kiwi kayaking community watched in hope as the New Zealand Men’s K4 took to the water at the World Championships in August as they sought to qualify a men’s K4 for the Olympics for the first time since 1992. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, with an unlucky draw meaning the men missed out on making the A final despite having the seventh fastest semi-final time.
Now that the dust has settled following the World Championships, we caught up with Canoe Racing NZ Lead Men’s Coach, Craig Mustard, to talk about the men’s squad and switching the focus from the K4 to the K2 as they continue their journey in the Paddle to Paris.
While the result in Duisburg ended the men’s K4 Olympic dream for now, it was not the end of the Paris 2024 Olympic campaign for the NZ men’s canoe sprint team, with the opportunity to qualify a K2 at the Oceania Championships in the new year. The team has been quick to refocus and reset their goals upon their return to New Zealand.
“Yes, it’s disappointing that we didn’t qualify,” says Mustard. “But we are extremely proud of the work the guys put in and because we came so close, now the belief is even higher that when we show up at the Olympic games, we are going to get even better results than last time,” he says, referring to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics where the men’s K2 crew of Max Brown and Kurtis Imrie finished fifth in an electric race.
Mustard, who took over as the men’s lead coach in February, says that the message he reiterates to the team is that the “goal hasn’t been denied, it’s just been delayed”, saying that it’s so relevant as the team shifts their focus to securing men’s K2 quota spots in February.
The Tikitapu Sprint event held early December was a good opportunity to “open the pool up” says Mustard. “That was seeing what athletes are out there in New Zealand that we believe have the potential to go all the way,” he explains. The next steps will involve funneling down the eight athletes spread between four K2 boats. Up to three K2’s will head across to Australia for the Oceania Championships in February where the team aims to qualify a boat for Paris.
With only one qualification spot up for grabs at this event, a NZ men’s K2 needs to be the first placed unqualified Oceania crew in the qualification race, placing higher than the likes of Samoa and the Cook Islands, to secure their Olympic berth. Australia have already achieved their K2 qualification through their fourth place result at the World Championships.
Assuming they are successful, the final step in the process is the crew trials and selecting the two athletes who will race in the K2. “So obviously we plan like we are going to the Olympic Games, but there are a few steps to go through yet.”
The boat comes first
Mustard concedes that one of the challenges is that the Cambridge-based squad is a group of men who are not only a team, but friends off the water, and they’re battling it out for two spots. “It’s a hard one. But we talk about it, and it’s about the boat coming first. It’s such a massive goal that we’re going after, and we need everyone’s support.”
The team has put in a lot of work off the water over the last few years alongside team psychologist Dom Vettise to manage these tricky dynamics and build and maintain the team culture and behaviors.
He is quick to point out that everyone plays a valuable role in the process. “We know we have eight people, and only two of those will be going to the Olympic Games. But those other six people are so crucial in keeping our training environment positive and productive.”
Depth in the squad
Reflecting on the progress since the Tokyo Olympics, Mustard says the depth within the men’s squad has really grown over the last four years. “It’s in a really healthy space – we’ve got these 23 and under athletes who are filtering into the high performance space at a very competitive level.”
He says it is a real testament to the work those athletes have put in, along with their coaches and clubs. “It’s also a big thank you to the current generation of men for stepping up and creating the belief, and also being so open to sharing their knowledge and experience to the next generation.”
Several of the men in the current squad have been in the pathway program right from club level as teenagers, and Mustard feels that the program has done a fantastic job of nurturing and developing those athletes into the paddlers they are today. “The standard is high, and the depth is really big, so the next Olympic cycle should be good.”
He stresses that while the next generation of athletes are at a “good level”, now is not the time to relax. “From a high-performance perspective, we continue to look at how we can support them to get better and take them further.” He says the coaching team is working to blend the younger paddlers with those who are more experienced. “By doing that, hopefully we continue to improve our performances and keep our fantastic team atmosphere and culture going.”
With the Olympic qualifiers less than two months away, the squad will have just a short break over Christmas to head home and spend time with their families before getting back into it in the New Year and completing the final block of training before heading across the ditch.
The 2024 Canoe Sprint Oceania Championships and Olympic Qualifier will be held in Penrith, Australia on the 16th-18th February. Stay tuned to CRNZ news and social media platforms for event schedules, daily updates and results.