Jack Dangen retired from kayaking at the tender age of 17 to start a building apprenticeship but two years later, he’s carefully constructed a near-perfect comeback.
The Tauranga K1 paddler has been named in his first New Zealand senior canoe slalom team and will compete at world cup and world championship level this year with the likes of Olympians Mike Dawson and Luuka Jones.
He sealed his selection with a sublime fortnight during the national selection events recently, culminating in a seventh-place at the Oceania championships in Auckland.
Without Jones’ historic Olympic silver medal in 2016, however, Dangen could’ve been lost to the sport.
“I’ve always enjoyed paddling but after I finished school, I realised I needed to get a career and some money behind me so I started building,” the former Tauranga Boys’ College star says.
“I had a good time and enjoyed life when I started my course but then I started missing kayaking when I saw other peoples’ results. Luuka getting silver was a big moment as it gave me a lot of encouragement and made me think I could really nail this.”
And nail it he did, after spending a year perfecting his paddling in Tauranga with former French C2 world teams champion Pierre Labarelle, training after work and heading to the Vector Wero Whitewater Park in Auckland on weekends.
He was the fastest qualifier at the New Zealand Open in Manawatu, then headed off Dawson, Finn Butcher and Callum Gilbert at the Oceania titles.
The results pushed Gilbert out of the senior team by the slimmest of margins, with Dawson having already pre-qualified because of his superb world championship performance last year.
It came down to Gilbert and his good friend Butcher for the last spot, with Alexandra’s Butcher narrowly getting the nod.
After making semifinals in every world cup in 2016, Gilbert is focused on the positives, which include selection in the under-23 world championship squad.
“It was a really exciting selection series, super-close and it came down to the last day, which was awesome,” says Gilbert.
“I’m still on the under-23 team and there are likely to be some spots available at a few of the world cups so overall the season won’t be too much different to previous years. I’m just as motivated and driven - if not more - than I was last year and looking forward to another European summer.”
Jones will lead the women’s team, pre-qualifying in both the K1 and C1 categories, with Jane Nicholas joining her in both disciplines and Courtney Williams rounding out the K1 team and Kelly Travers the C1 team for the world cups. Ben Gibb, Patrick Washer and Shaun Higgens have all been selected to race in the men’s C1 for the world cup series.
Dangen, meanwhile, is already back at work and planning for the upcoming season.
“I’ll keep the same goals as I had at the start of the season but will probably go back to a winter training block now, to get fit again and start peaking for Europe,” he says.
“I’ve got to see what the boss says but I’d love to do four or five of the world cups.”
Luckily he’s got his employer on his side. Belco Homes owners Mike and Kathy Bell are keen supporters of canoe slalom, with sons Charlie and Josh just named in the national performance squad.
Dangen - who is of Tuhoe and Ngati Porou extraction - has also had plenty of support from friends, family and the wider canoe slalom strategy; he picks out Tauranga locals Maryanne Washer, Sue Clarke and Roger and Claire Gilbert - Callum’s parents - for special mention, having got into the sport watching older sister Haylee competing at school.
But his grandfather Clive Dangen is perhaps his biggest fan. Having just turned 84, Clive lives in Papakura in Auckland and has hosted his grandson most weekends, training at Vector Wero, and provided all his airport transfers.
Work commitments mean Dangen will miss the next big international event of the season - this weekend’s Australian Open in Penrith - although there’s still a strong New Zealand contingent attending, amidst some of the strongest fields assembled in the Southern Hemisphere.
The first world cup of the year is in Slovakia in mid-June, with rounds in Poland, Germany, Slovania and Spain to follow, while the world championships will be held in Brazil in September.
New Zealand canoe slalom teams
World Cups squad
Men: K1: Mike Dawson, Finn Butcher, Jack Dangen. Reserve: Callum Gilbert. C1: Ben Gibb, Patrick Washer, Shaun Higgens. Reserve: Callum Gilbert.
Women: K1: Luuka Jones, Courtney Williams, Jane Nicholas. Reserve: Kensa Randle. C1: Luuka Jones, Kelly Travers, Jane Nicholas.
World championship squad
Men: K1: Mike Dawson, Finn Butcher, Jack Dangen. C1: Ben Gibb, Patrick Washer.
Women: K1: Luuka Jones, Jane Nicholas, Kensa Randle. C1: Luuka Jones, Kelly Travers.
Men: K1: Jack Dangen, Finn Butcher, Callum Gilbert. C1: Patrick Washer, Callum Gilbert, James Thwaite.
Women: K1: Courtney Williams, Kensa Randle, Claudia Paterson. C1: Claudia Paterson.
Men: K1: Zac Mutton, Damian Torwick, George Snook. C1: Jack Egan, Charlie Bell, Stewart Bloor.
Women: K1: River Mutton, Casey Hales, Lotte Rayner. C1: Lotte Rayner.
CSNZ National Performance Squad 2018
Mike Dawson, Jack Dangen, Finn Butcher, Callum Gilbert, Zac Mutton, George Snook, Callum Atkin, Damien Torwick, Jack Egan, Alex Hawthorne, Ben Gibb, Patrick Washer, Shaun Higgins, Josh Bell, Stuart Bloor, James Thwaite, Charlie Bell, Oliver Puchner, Luuka Jones, Kensa Randle, Jane Nicholas, Courtney Williams, Claudia Paterson, River Mutton, Casey Hales, Jaimee Wilson, Lotte Rayner, Kelly Travers.