Rio 2016 Olympians and Paralympians show early form at 2018 Oceania Championships Grand Prix 2

10th February 2018 Sydney International Regatta Centre Oceania Championships & Grand Prix 2

Australia’s Olympic and Paralympic paddlers have shown some great early form on the first day of finals and second day of competition at the 2018 Oceania Championships Grand Prix 2 on Saturday, 10 February 2018 at Sydney International Regatta Centre (SIRC) in Penrith.

It was a day of comebacks and surprises with dual Olympian Steve Bird (WA) coming back from a year off with a bang and winning the men’s K1 200m, while Paralympic Champion Curtis McGrath (QLD) was pipped on the line by fellow Paralympian and Australian Canoeing 2017 Junior Athlete of the Year Dylan Littlehales (NSW) in one of the tightest races of the day.

The Oceania Grand Prix 2 is the first big hit-out of the international canoe sprint season and is considered a pre-selection event for national team selection trials coming up for Australia’s Olympic class paddlers in three weeks (4-5 March 2018) and for Australia’s Paracanoeists at Nationals from 6-10 March 2018.

Aiming for invitations to selection trials, the first Final A win of the day in calm and hot conditions was taken home by South Australian Charlie Kneebone-Ellis, who won the men’s C1 1000m.

Olympian and 2017 K4 World Champion Murray Stewart (NSW) followed suit in the men’s K1 1000m, while the under 18 race was won by New Zealand’s Sam Ferkins ahead of South Australian Jess Kneebone-Ellis.

In the men’s K1 200m Western Australian Steve Bird showed he is back in form after a year off by winning the event he competed in at both the 2016 Rio and 2012 London Olympic Games.

“It was a solid race even though I was caught a bit off guard at start. It’s my first year back and it’s interesting to be back racing others. I have been paddling really well at home and just had to find it here. I’m happy to get one out of the way and build towards selections in three weeks,” Bird said after the race.

The 29-year old took a break post the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and has been back in training since last September. He clocked a time of 0:35.73 ahead of South Australian Matt Goble (0:36.30) and Welshman Mark Stowe (0:37.12).

It is a hot field in the men’s classes with 2017 K4 World Champions Riley Fitzsimmons (NSW) and Jordan Wood (QLD) continuing their strong form from last year by winning the men’s K2 1000 in 3:13.04 and one second ahead of their 2017 K4 partners Olympic and World Champions Kenny Wallace (QLD) and Murray Stewart (NSW), who finished second in 3:14.11.

Finals in the men’s K2 500, K1 500, MK4 500 and MK2 200 are scheduled for Sunday, 11 February 2018.

In the women’s classes, Sunshine Coast’s Olympians Alyce Burnett (QLD) and Alyssa Bull (QLD) put up a strong performance in the women’s K2 500m winning with a two seconds margin over Olympian Cat McArthur (SA) and Jaime Roberts (WA) in 1:48.17. France’s Manon Jostens and Lea Jamelot finished third.

“Bully (Alyssa Bull) and I have been together for a few years now and we’ve swapped positions so I’m in the front now and she’s in the back. It’s our first season racing like that and it’s always good to come home with a win. But more importantly the other girls are pushing us hard and it’s never an easy win. The girls in Australia have done a huge step up so you certainly can’t be complacent,” Burnett said after the race.

Alyce Burnett, 2017 World Champion in the women’s K1 1000m, also took home the win in the women’s K1 200m after a straight set of wins in Friday’s heat and semi-final as well as Saturday’s final.

“200 metres is not my speciality and obviously I focussed on the 1000metres last year, but I have been really working on my speed and I’m feeling good in the K1. Hopefully that can transfer over into the K2 and K4,” Burnett said after her second win of the day.

“Conditions have been good, quite still and hot and to get a fast time we would want a puff of a tail wind so races here haven’t been the fastest times. But it’s always good to get a race in still conditions in and you can feel good in yourself rather than having to paddle against the elements,” she added about the conditions.

On Sunday, 11 February 2018, medals are still up for grabs in the women’s K1 500, K2 200, K1 1000 and K4 500.

In the Paracanoe men’s K1 200 18-year old Paralympian Dylan Littlehales impressed by pipping Paralympic Champion and dual 2017 Paracanoe World Champion Curtis McGrath on the line by .32 seconds. Great Britain’s Paracanoeist Tim Lodge finished third. Littlehales already created waves in Friday’s race for lanes when he led over McGrath.

“The conditions and weather were near perfect and it feels great to get one up over Curtis. He’s a great competitor and my next goal is to focus on the nationals and do the best I can,” Littlehales said after the race.

While Curtis McGrath (KL2 classification) and Dylan Littlehales (KL3 classification) are competing in different Paracanoe classifications internationally, it has been a big goal for Littlehales to catch his training partner and role model: “It’s great to train with the likes of Curtis, who is a great athlete and the goal I had ever since I started competing is to be able to beat him and I’m finally starting to get there.”

For Curtis McGrath the Oceania Grand Prix is the first competition of the year and he was happy about the competition: “I had Dylan at the start but he came through at the end and pipped me. As he’s getting older, he’s getting smarter and stronger and it’s great to have someone pushing you along the way. He’s finally taken over and that’s a good sign for Dylan and what Australian Canoeing can do. He pushes you along and makes you work every step of the way,” Curtis McGrath said after the race.

And about the goals for the season ahead he added: “Preparations have been going well and I just missed out on the last two regattas due to family circumstances (NSW and QLD State Championships) and this regatta is a good test to see where I’m at. The goal this year is definitely to defend my World titles. But we are still a fair way out from World Champs and even our Nationals are still a couple weeks away. I’m looking forward to another opportunity of racing and getting Dylan there.”

The Oceania Championships Grand Prix 2 has attracted 148 athletes competing in 89 events across the Olympic and Paralympic classes and Open, under 18 and under 16 age groups and is the first big hit-out of the 2018 international season, including competitors from New Zealand’s, France, Great Britain, South Africa, Denmark and Tahiti.

For Australia’s Olympic sprint paddlers the event is final opportunity to secure an invitation to the 2018 national team selection trials to be held at Sydney International Regatta Centre (SIRC) 4 – 5 March 2018. Paralympic selections will take place at the Australian Canoeing Championships at SIRC from 6-10 March 2018.

Racing will continue on Sunday, 11 February 2018 from 8 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.

See Saturday’s results here.

See all results & draw here

See the event program here

Live results can be followed here. 

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Photos by Phillip Wittke