Teenage masters of whitewater

River Mutton. Photo: Jamie Troughton

Two names New Zealanders can expect to be hearing a lot more in media coverage of World and Olympic competitions in coming years are those of canoe slalom siblings Zack and River Mutton.

The name of Mutton is more than familiar already in the world of whitewater.

Father Kenny is a legend wherever brave souls gather to ride the rapids.

There’s a good chance a fair few of them are doing so in a vessel he crafted, and they may even have learnt the requisite skills from him as well.

Son Zack has been established in the sport of canoe slalom for a number of years, distinguishing himself at a string of Junior World Championships.

Now it’s daughter and kid sister River’s turn to add further lustre to the name.

She has just set this year’s junior worlds in Italy alight for New Zealand, becoming the country’s first medallist in an individual paddler event at that level when she scored bronze in the extreme slalom final.

Not bad for her first global outing.

A glance at the Mutton family bio suggests it’s no great surprise they excel in the tumultuous waters of the canoe slalom course.

The family home is at Okere Falls, on the Kaituna River, between Rotorua and the sea.

It’s a river perfect for whitewater paddling, and the sport’s adherents flock to the area.

Top exponents have long made a pilgrimage there to train - providing more inspiration for the aspiring Muttons.

The water runs almost literally through their home – follow a path down the back garden and you’re there – and paddling runs in their blood.

Kenny’s CV includes European freestyle kayak champion in 2000.

He put Zack and River in their own boats almost before they could walk, and they’ve since spent more hours paddling from their back garden than they could possibly remember.

Eighteen-year-old Zack got his first experience in European whitewater racing at the age of 14, and made the national junior slalom team the following year.

The Olympics is definitely the goal for him; 2020, 2024, he’s got a few to go for, he says - he’ll just keep training and see what happens.

The course ahead is not quite so clear for 16-year-old River.

Canoe slalom competes with her other great sporting love: weaving through gates of a different sort on the ski slopes.

It’s handy to have summer and winter covered, and in an ideal world she’d be representing the country at the Olympics in both ski and canoe slalom.

Reality is setting in though and it looks like the summer sport might just be winning out.

Opportunities to train on European ski slopes during our summer had to be passed up to focus on the whitewater in Italy.

And now she’s a medallist, looks like she may just have made the right decision.


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