On her worst days Luuka Jones could barely get out of bed. Even going for a short walk left her gasping for breath.

She had heart palpitations, chest tightness, excessive fatigue and anxiety. And the worst part was, she had no idea when or even if it would end. At one point she convinced herself she had recovered, and headed to Europe for the canoe slalom season.

She didn’t last long. A couple of training sessions, and it was back on the plane and back to New Zealand to try and recover.

This was 2022 for the Rio Olympic silver medalist. A case of Covid which she thought she could shake off in days ruined almost her entire year.

“When your life is based around being fit and healthy and pushing your body to the limit, this was something completely new,” Jones said.

“I really missed the endorphins you get from going out and exercising and I felt like I had lost my identity a little bit. The most difficult part was that there was no finish line. There was no certainty that I would be better in a few weeks, months, or whether I would ever fully recover.

“I tried a lot of different things. I saw a breathing physio, did hyperbaric chamber therapy for eight weeks, and had a series of B12 injections. I only started training properly again in November last year. Overall, it was pretty awful.”

There was no certainty that I would be better in a few weeks, months, or whether I would ever fully recover.

This was not the start to her fifth Olympic campaign that she had dreamed of. She had made her mind up some time ago that Paris would be her swansong, the moment to bring the curtain down on a glittering career that had earned her an Olympic silver medal and a world championship bronze medal.

The dream was becoming a nightmare. Everything she tried made no difference, until finally, near year’s end, Jones felt strong enough to get back on the water. A handful of events, including a K1 silver medal in the4 Australian Open in Penrith, gave the 34-year-old hope the worst was behind her.

But then in the lead-up to the New Zealand selection trials she caught Covid again.

“I am experiencing some of the same symptoms of fatigue and chest tightness that I experienced last year,” Jones said.

“I have had many minor setbacks (injuries etc) since coming back in November.”

Ever the optimist, Jones says her year from hell gave her more time to spend with her partner, the chance to do some DIY around the house (when she could get out of bed!), do some landscaping and some renovations on their house in Rotorua.

But all the time Jones was pining to hear the sound of the water splashing on her kayak.

Sometimes we lose sight of the simple joy of being out on the water

“Because I was forced into a place where I couldn't really exercise, I was very grateful when I got back on the white water again,” she said.

“We do an amazing sport, but when you are always chasing improvements, sometimes we lose sight of the simple joy of being out on the water. I feel like I came back with a new perspective and appreciation for what I do.” 

Why is Jones so determined to keep going, after a year which would force most people to walk away?

Because if she makes it to Paris she will join a select group of just four athletes who have competed at five Olympics. Only Czech Stepanka Hilgertova, who appeared at six Games, has been to more.

Given where the sport was in New Zealand when Jones first started, to last so long and to have been so successful is an incredible achievement in itself.

“When I stop and look back on my career so far, I am really proud of what I have achieved and where I came from,” Jones said this week.

“We really had to pave our own way as kiwis in canoe slalom, and if you told me at 18 years old that I would be a World Championship, Olympic and World cup medallist, I wouldn't have believed it.

There are times where I felt very lonely or isolated being overseas for up to six months a year

“However the nature of being an athlete is that we are constantly chasing the next goal, so I often feel like I could have and can achieve more. If I qualify for Paris, it will be my last Olympics and last major race. This makes me really appreciate the final years of a career and sport that I have pursued for most of my life.”

It’s a pursuit that comes with enormous sacrifices, especially for athletes from the Southern Hemisphere who often have to spend more than six months away from family and friends.

Jones prefers not to dwell on what she has missed because of her choice of career. One thing is certain, she would not change anything.

“I went to a performance summit in New Zealand recently, and one of the presenters said that "high performance sport comes with a very personal price. Be prepared to pay it without guilt. If you can't, then do something else,” Jones recounted.

“This resonated with me. High performance sport does come with a personal price, but I have always been willing to pay it. I have missed weddings, funerals, and other important events because I am often away or training.

“There are times where I felt very lonely or isolated being overseas for up to six months a year, in my pursuit to be better. I have always been willing to do anything to be the best canoe slalom paddler I could be.”   

The inclusion of kayak cross on the Olympic program has been a massive incentive for Jones to keep going. She was one of the first to really embrace the concept when it first started, and wants to be there in Paris when it makes its Olympic debut.

She experimented with canoe in Tokyo when it made its first Games appearance, but is happy to put the single-bladed paddle back on the rack, and to concentrate on the kayak and kayak cross. Even before she got Covid twice, she knew racing three events would be a challenge.

So this year will be a challenge for Jones. After last year’s disastrous trip to Europe, she is filled with some trepidation about what lies ahead.

Now, I find it more difficult to spend long periods of time away, or to miss those important occasions

But if everything does go to plan, and Jones gets to her fifth Olympics, she will be happy to then pull down the curtain. The challenge for many athletes is knowing when to say enough is enough, but Jones is approaching her retirement with the same determination which has taken her to where she is today.

“Canoe slalom has given me so much and I am extremely grateful for that,” Jones said.

“I have met many incredible people, who have supported me, inspired me or helped me grow as a person. I have seen the world and have memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.

“Now, I find it more difficult to spend long periods of time away, or to miss those important occasions. I feel I have found a good balance and perspective in what I am willing to sacrifice, and what I am not. Perhaps you can only know what balance is when you have experienced what it isn't.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics Luuka JONES

Canoe Slalom
Kayak Cross
#ICFslalom #ICFkayakcross