The Extreme Kayaking History Behind New Zealand's Only Slalom Canoeist in Rio

He didn't come away with a podium finish in Rio, but Kiwi slalom canoeist Mike Dawson has a extreme kayaking backstory.
August 11, 2016, 12:45am
Guy Rhodes/USA Today

He might not have taken away an Olympic medal in Rio this morning, but Kiwi kayaker Mike Dawson is a man definitely capable of keeping things in perspective.

Dawson finished tenth in the men's slalom canoe final in Rio de Janeiro, improving on his 15th place finish at the London Olympics four years ago.

The Rio Olympic course was a demanding one, with a strong potential for wipe outs. Yet it pales in comparison with some of the whitewater situations that Dawson has encountered over the last few years.

The 29-year-old Kiwi is one of the most accomplished extreme kayakers on the planet, always looking to push the boundaries.

Last year Dawson, who also competed at the 2012 London Olympics, took on a section of the White Nile based in in Uganda; a river route through Murchison Falls National Park that has only been attempted a few times in the last two decades.

In late 2015 Dawson also ventured into one of the most remote regions of Angola, facing snakes and landmines in the jungles as well as crocodile-infested rivers.

"You never know what is going to happen - and that is probably the thrill of it," Dawson told VICE Sport AUNZ in Rio, recently. "It's often impossible to know what is around the next corner or below the next drop."

Over the last few years Dawson has kayaked in almost every corner of the world, from a trip traversing the steep rivers of the Southern Alps of New Zealand to the fjords of Norway, described by some as a `Mecca' of kayaking.

But it was the foray into Angola – which was ripped apart by civil war for almost three decades between 1975-2002 – that was the most memorable.

_VIdeo of Dawson and Mann's kayaking trip to Angola in late 2015. _Credit: YouTube__

There was also the threat of old land mines and snare traps in the jungles, not to mention hippos and crocodiles in the rivers.

"That was an incredible trip – right on the edge," Dawson said.

"Often we couldn't do much scouting [of rapids] at all, it was just a matter of going for it. We were going down some pretty big water at times but you knew you couldn't fall out. You never knew what was underneath."

Dawson traversed the river with American kayaker Aaron Mann. Mann reckons they encountered seven or eight crocodiles; the biggest up to five metres long.

"We were always side by side – never single file – and if you saw any eyes in the water you just go," he said. "There is no hanging around. Sometimes you would see crocodiles slipping off the bank after you, which makes for a few nerves."

The duo dodged the crocodile charges, plus any hippo attacks and were fortunate not to come across any venomous snakes. They also narrowly avoided going off a massive waterfall, thanks to the warnings of a local farmer.

"He came running at me waving a machete," Dawson said. "It was quite threatening until I realised he was trying to help us."

Dawson and Mann were later offered shelter and food by the man and his family.

"These people had nothing but wanted to give us everything," Dawson said. "It was something I'll never forget. They offered us fresh fish, when you could tell they needed it more."

Video of Dawson preparing for the Rio Olympics, made by the NZOC. Credit: YouTube

Food has become a central theme of Dawson's Olympic oydssey. Faced with a NZ$40,000 shortfall in funding to complete his Rio preparations, Dawson wrote a travel cookbook called "Eat Like the Locals", with recipes from the myriad of countries he has visited during his career.

It sold well, allowing him to spent more than two months based in Rio, practising on the Olympic course at Deodoro Whitewater Stadium. However, that extra time in Brazil also inadvertently led him to another project.

"This stadium is close to several favelas and there is some pretty extreme poverty," Dawson said. "There are people who have absolutely nothing, who live day by day in an incredibly tough situation."

Together with Brazilian kayaker Pepe Gonçalves, Dawson headed out each day after training to give out food parcels to the poor and homeless of the city.

Dawson describes some heart wrenching situations, including meeting a teenage couple with an infant daughter who were living under a motorway overpass.

"They didn't have anything really," he said. "And in Brazil there isn't much support for people in that situation. You are pretty much on your own. But the reaction of the little girl, when she was given some fruit, some juice and other food…she was so excited. It helps to put everything in perspective.

"We are all here, enjoying this wonderful city and this amazing event. But for people like them, the Olympics won't touch their lives at all. It will basically pass them by, and that is quite sad."