Yeonsu Na is a 16-year-old slalom athlete who is reaching for the sky both on and off the water.

N had never heard of canoe slalom when his local school in New Zealand decided to have a talent spotting camp. But he thought it looked like fun, so he decided to give it a go. Now he is in Krakow, Poland, paddling at the ICF Junior and U23 canoe slalom world championships, competing for Korea.

“The region where I grew up in, slalom was quite popular,” Na said.

“There was a school trial, but I’d never heard of the sport. I knew it as kayaking, so I decided to give it a go. Miraculously I somehow got into the school program, and that’s how it started.

“It’s one of the best things I have ever done.”

Na had the choice of competing for New Zealand, where he has spent his entire life, or for the country where his parents were born.

“Both my parents are Korean, but I was born in a small city called Tauranga, and I lived there my entire life until I moved up to Auckland last year. It was an excellent decision,” Na said.

“This is my first international race, so I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to paddle here against the best in the world.”

Na was also able to take part in an ICF-run talent identification program (TIP) in Krakow in the lead-up to the championships.  

“The TIP camp is an excellent program, an opportunity to meet paddlers from all across the world, and you get excellent coaching. And it’s free,” he said.

Na is still just 16, and still attending college in Auckland. But speaking to the teenager, it quickly becomes apparent he has some very clear goals for his future both on and off the water.

And he has a very simple but effective approach to ensure he remains focussed.

“I want to be an elite paddler, but I also want to pursue studies in aerospace engineering, especially single stage reusable to orbit space planes, that’s what interests me the most,” he said.

“When I do stuff I focus on it. I guess the difference is, other people get distracted by little things like social media. But I don’t have those distractions so I can focus. One hour of quality practice is worth more value than three hours of mediocre practice.”

Yeonsu Na fell just short of his goal of making the junior K1 semi-finals, but his junior career is just beginning, And if can one day design a cutting-edge rocket to revolutionise space travel and exploration, there’s a fair chance he’ll be able to negotiate a slalom course.

Canoe Slalom