Olympics: Jones rewarded for sacrifices

Nothing has come easy for Tauranga paddler Luuka Jones, the first New Zealand woman to be selected to compete in slalom kayaking at an Olympic Games.

The Beijing Games next month represent just a step towards her long-term goal of winning at the 2012 London Olympics. And along the way, she's also aiming for a world title.

Jones, 19, who has mostly clawed her way up to her present world ranking of 16th without the services of a fulltime coach, told NZPA that confirmation yesterday of her selection for next month's Olympics had made worthwhile all her sacrifices and hard work over the last two years.

She started canoe slalom at the age of 14, finishing third at the secondary schools slalom nationals in her first race.

"That sparked off the passion for the sport and way of life for me," Jones said.

Remarkably, the former Otumoetai College student has done it without a coach in New Zealand.

Tim Baillie, a member of the British Olympics team, will be her coach for Beijing.

She had qualified New Zealand a boat for Beijing at the Oceania championships in Australia in March, but still needed to prove she was capable of a top 16 finish to meet the New Zealand Olympic Committee's selection criteria.

She did that with a last-gasp effort at a round of the World Cup series at Tacen, Slovenia, this week by making the semifinals.

" I feel quite overwhelmed and my selection is still sinking in for me really," she told NZPA from Augsberg, Germany, where she is preparing for the final World Cup round this weekend.

For Jones, whose mother named her after the son of legendary actress Audrey Hepburn, the journey has been a hard and lonely one.

Two years ago, she recognised she needed to go overseas to advance her athletics career and headed for Britain's national water sports centre in Nottingham.

"It has been financially challenging," Jones said.

" It was quite hard mostly because of the fact that slalom kayaking in New Zealand doesn't get any funding and I didn't have a coach in New Zealand.

"It is very satisfying to have done this given the fact I have not had fulltime coaching ... it is quite an achievement to train by myself and prove myself without a coach.

"I had to work very hard at three jobs to save up for my first trip to Nottingham last year from May to December," Jones said.

"This year, I got a sponsor for my airfares but I still have to work outside of training in Nottingham to keep going."

However, there are no regrets.

"Moving to Nottingham was one of the best decisions I made," said Jones, who will return to Nottingham after the Olympics to train for another few months.

There were no problems being accepted into the kayaking fraternity at the centre.

"I just arrived there and made friends with them," she said disarmingly.

"They are really nice and friendly and always willing to help me out, for which I am grateful."

For a person who says the sky is the limit and always makes a total effort even when the odds seem entirely against her, Jones said she would be content with making the semifinals in Beijing next month.

"On a personal level, I know that if I have a good run and go as fast as I can, then the outcome will be a good one.

"The course at Beijing will be very different from what I am used to -- the water is really, really big and there are tricky features (but) I am looking forward to it very much."

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