After excellent results at the Australian championships in 1972, New Zealanders Bernard Fletcher and Tom Dooney, along with Don Cooper, were nominated for the 1972 Munich Olympic team. While they did not win medals, they were highly placed. They returned to New Zealand to report, coach, and advise on future selection, leading to improved standards.
New Zealand canoeists had outstanding success in international competition during the 1980s. The 1984 Olympics in particular were a triumph, with New Zealanders Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson, Paul MacDonald and Grant Bramwell winning gold medals for a four-man, a double and two singles canoe events.
In 2012 Lisa Carrington won the Olympic 200-metre singles in London. Four years later at the Rio games Carrington defended her Olympic title and also won a bronze medal in the 500-metre sprint. By 2017 Carrington had also won five consecutive world 200-metre singles titles, and a total of 11 world championship medals.
Canoe racing is now the most diverse of the competitive sports:
- Flat-water racing is an Olympic sport over distances of 200, 500 and 1,000 metres.
- Marathon racing, contested at world cup and championship level, takes place over at least 15 kilometres for women and 20 kilometres for men.
- Ocean ski racing has evolved from surf ski racing, a surf lifesaving sport. The competitors paddle purpose-built ocean skis – a 7-metre sit-on craft.
- Slalom racing, another Olympic sport, takes place on artificial white-water courses. Luuka Jones won a silver medal in the women's K-1 event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Mike Dawson won bronze in the extreme K-1 slalom at the 2017 world championships.
Canoe Racing New Zealand and White Water Slalom New Zealand are the governing bodies of these sports.
In canoe polo, two teams of five compete to score the most goals by getting a ball into a goal above the water. It is sometimes called ‘basketball on water’. The New Zealand Canoe Polo Association promotes the sport.
A relatively new sport, freestyle kayaking takes place in white water and involves a range of acrobatic moves with names like ‘flying’, ‘air loop’ and ‘flip turn’. Events are organised by the New Zealand Freestyle Kayak Association.
Canoes to the rescue
For many years swimmers have been rescued by surf lifesavers using canoes, as they are light and easy to handle. Some of New Zealand’s famous Olympic kayakers – for instance Paul MacDonald and Ian Ferguson – have also been champion surf lifesavers.
Waka ama are traditional Polynesian outrigger canoes. Waka ama racing is controlled by the New Zealand Māori Polynesian Canoe Sporting Federation/Ngā Kaihoe o Aotearoa. Clubs and school teams from around the country take part in events.
Dragon boating has its roots in Asia but has become popular around the world. Long, open canoes are paddled by a crew of 20, using single-bladed paddles. Dragon boat festivals are an annual spectacle in Wellington and Auckland.