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Utanga paddles after his dream

Wednesday 30 June 2010 | Published in Regional

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Utanga paddles after his dream

They reckon it takes 60,000km of slog to make a world-class kayaker, so young Cook Islander Josh Utanga has been doing some serious catching up.

Every morning before training on the Gold Coast, the former Otumoetai (Tauranga, NZ) surf lifesaver paddles just over 2km from his home on the canal system to get to the Mermaid Waters training centre.

That’s an extra 4km a day, rain, hail or shine.

Considering he’s been in a K1 boat for only 12 months, every little bit counts – especially if he’s to realise his dream of getting to the 2012 London Olympics.

To help him on his path, the 22-year-old has thrown his allegiance behind the Cook Islands, with his paternal grandparents hailing from the Pacific island nation.

“It’s a good challenge although it’s a bit lonely and it takes a lot of sacrifice,” Utanga said. “But the big goal is to make it to the Olympics – you can’t pay money to get there and to earn my patch would be pretty sweet.”

The Cook Islands connection is being used by another Tauranga kayaker, white water star Ella Nicholas.

Both paddlers have been sponsored by the International Canoeing Federation through a development programme.

The ICF supports aspiring athletes from countries such as Nepal, Uganda and Sri Lanka by staging training camps and helping athletes get to events.

That’s how Utanga, just 10 weeks after switching from his surf ski to a K1 racing boat, came to be lining up in his first race at the world championships in Canada last year, alongside New Zealand champion Steve Ferguson and Olympic champion Aussie Ken Wallace.

“I got flogged,” Utanga admitted with a laugh.

“But it was a pretty amazing experience. Kenny Wallace came up next to me and said gidday and told me how he started and give me some tips and I managed to break 4mins for the 1000m for the first time.”

He even made it into the semi finals, after finishing sixth in his heat. But to be competitive on the world stage, he’d need to lower his personal best by another 25-30secs.

That’s fine by him, however.

He’s loving the discipline of flat-water kayaking after the vagaries of surf lifesaving, where he was good enough to grab second in the open men’s ski race at the national championships two years ago.

Getting knocked out in the semi finals last year convinced him to look for something fresh.

“That’s the thing about surf – you can have the best race in the world and finish last, or you can paddle horribly and win. You just can’t do that in kayaking.

“I don’t have to contend with Mother Nature like in surf lifesaving, so as long as I nail every stroke and get up to the finish knowing I’ve given it everything, the results should take care of themselves.”

Utanga’s next big milestone will be at this year’s world championships in Poland, where he wants to nudge a time of 3:50 for the 1000m.

“I wanted to do something in which what I put in was what I got out. There’s nowhere to hide in kayaking and it’s another shelf up, and I’ve just learned so much in the last year.”