By David Leggat

Canoe slalom paddler Callum Gilbert got an inkling of what competing at an Olympics would be like in 2016; now he’s determined to push one better and get himself to Tokyo next year.

Mike Dawson had been top dog in the men’s K1 class for years but Gilbert pushed him hard to the point where one strong performance in his final chance at the Oceania championships might have got him across the line.

‘’At the New Zealand Open I had a really good run and happened to win,’’ the 23-year-old said.

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‘’Then the night before the race in Australia it was quite tense for me. It all started to sink in and we both ended up racing quite poorly. It was a lot closer than I expected that’s for sure.’’

And it gave Gilbert a good inkling of what might have been.

Now, with the retirement of the trailblazing Dawson, there’s a spot for the best of a group of young, talented canoeists to grab.

By Gilbert’s estimation there’s about four who are of roughly the same standard, Alexandra’s Finn Butcher perhaps the closest challenger a year out from Tokyo.

But try suggesting to Gilbert that his nose might be marginally in front of his rivals and there’s a swift response.

‘’I don’t think so. There’s really fierce competition in New Zealand and we’re on similar levels. It comes down to the race on the day.

‘’The attitude between us is really positive, we’re all happy to help each other out, support each other and that’s what’s really important.’’

Gilbert calls Okere Falls, 20km north of Rotorua in Bay of Plenty heartland, home – that’s when he’s in New Zealand. His parents have a bach there by the Kaituna River, which is highly convenient for someone who hankers to be on the water at every opportunity.

This year he’s decided to spend as much time in Europe as he can, at least six months, getting in a pile of training and trying to get familiar with a lot of the leading venues.

He made a substantial step up at a World Cup event in London in June, when he finished fifth in the K1 discipline.

‘’I missed the New Zealand team last year so I’ve worked really hard to try and be better. All the way through the race in London I couldn’t believe what was happening.

‘’It wasn’t until afterwards I had a moment to reflect how good the result was.

‘’Hopefully it cements how well training is going and when things come together it can be really good.’’

Gilbert gave up his day job as a software engineer to focus fully on his paddling. He speaks highly of his employers support but felt it wasn’t fair on the company with the amount of time he would be away on the water.

Qualification for Tokyo comes in two stages; the world champs in La Seu d’Urgell in September where the top 18 nations qualify a spot in each of the two K1 and C1 categories, then there’s the Oceania championships in Auckland in January.

Gilbert is in no doubt what a trip to the Olympic Games would mean.

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