/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

It costs roughly $4 million to fund an Olympic medal winning athlete. Canoe slalom paddler Callum Gilbert will see barely a cent of that, but he’s still striving to win gold.

Some require a paddle to turn against the current: green gates must be approached downstream, red is for upstream. 

The slightest contact with the swaying poles incurs penalty points: a touch costs five seconds, missing a gate entirely earns 50 seconds.

It’s a precision sport, performed while half-submerged in heavy water at breakneck speed. And Gilbert is one of the country’s best paddlers. 

“It is incredible when you are racing down the rapids and you've got these poles coming towards you.

You feel like you're going a million miles an hour and everything's happening so quickly, but it's so reactive and instinctual that it's just an incredible feeling.

Callum Gilbert

“When you nail something, you can feel the efficiency and the speed, and it's like gliding.

“That's what we all chase, all the time,  in every race.”

Gilbert, 24,  has been chasing an Olympic dream for half his life. In March, he was selected for the New Zealand Team for Tokyo 2020. 

“As a kid, I always sort of aspired to be an Olympian and I thought it was the dream of every child, but maybe it wasn't.”

The sport demands skill, stamina and courage.

The sport demands skill, stamina and courage.

Aged 12, he took an after school paddling class at Tauranga Boys’ College, and was picked to compete in the nationals in 2009.

“I absolutely loved it. I had a ball and from there I was hooked. As I progressed through the competitions, I realised there was a potential future for me in the sport.”

A trip to Europe in 2013 “really opened my eyes to the possibility that I could make something of myself”.

He just missed out on qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

“I actually ended up getting a lot closer than I thought - it came down to the last race. 

“That was when I realised I had a shot at this. So I decided, in four years’ time, I wanted to be on the other side of the competition, being the one that people were trying to take the spot away from, rather than trying to take the spot.”

Nearly three years ago, Gilbert, who has a degree in computer science, gave up his job as a software engineer to concentrate on training.

“They allowed me to have a lot of time off for paddling, do a bit of work from overseas and from home, and were super-supportive there. 

“But ultimately, I felt as though I probably wasn't giving quite enough to the job or to my paddling, and decided to resign.”

The move paid off and in the 2019 ICF World Championship Tour he made it to three of the four semifinals, finishing fifth overall. It was the best Kiwi male finish in a World Cup K1 (single) event. 

Qualification for Tokyo came down to the wire in late February, at the Australian Open in Penrith. The previous race, in Auckland, had almost put him out of contention. 

“In Australia, the things that needed to happen happened, and it came down to me and one other guy [Otago’s Finn Butcher] in a head-to-head shoot out on the last day.

Gilbert navigates a whitewater course by passing through a combination of upstream and downstream gates.

Gilbert navigates a whitewater course by passing through a combination of upstream and downstream gates.

“Whoever won that run was going to the Olympic Games. It was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. 

“The emotions are overwhelming. You're trying to relax and slow down and get yourself into the right state of mind to really perform your best.”

Gilbert was the first to race and had a “solid” run.

“Just a couple of little mistakes and no touches. But I knew the other guy was really fast.

“And just to add to everything, the timing system was not working, so when I finished I didn't actually know what my time was.

“So, then we had this really long, extremely stressful wait. When the results came out, it was incredible, it just felt like a weight lifted. It took a long time to sink in.”

Gilbert was just coming to grips with his selection when New Zealand went into lockdown, on March 25. In May, the Games were postponed, for a year.

“It's almost been a blessing in disguise.

Most days, Gilbert completes two training sessions.

Most days, Gilbert completes two training sessions.

I'm young, I'm on the upside of my career. So having a whole another year to prepare for the Olympics is actually not a bad thing at all.

Callum Gilbert

Gilbert isolated in Okere Falls, which hugs the shores of Lake Rotoiti, in the Bay of Plenty. The lake flows into the Kaituna River. 

He lives in a bach, owned by his parents Claire, 63, and Roger, 74, surrounded by native bush and open to the lakefront.

He lives on the edge of Lake Rotoiti, and can paddle off his deck.

He lives on the edge of Lake Rotoiti, and can paddle off his deck.

Every morning, before dawn, he pads barefoot across the damp lawn to a jetty, balancing a canoe on his shoulder. 

In the pale early light, he languidly paddles across to Manupirua Springs, to soothe and soak tired muscles in hot pools.

Gilbert has seen competitors drop out and wonders if the funding model needs to change. “Maybe we give a little bit too much to some of the higher level athletes who at that point should be able to get more sponsorship.

“It can be really hard for developing athletes who don't have the financial backing. I have a few friends coming through the sport with me and just weren't able to pursue it because of financial barriers. These are people with a lot of talent and drive as well, but basically an inability to pay what they needed to get to the next level.”

Paul Macdermid, of Massey University’s School of Sport, Exercise & Nutrition, says it costs the taxpayer around $3-4million per Olympic medal.

“There are some [athletes] who get lots of help and assistance and potentially don’t require it, and some that do require it and get none at all,” he said.

“They are just like us. If I come to work with loads of debt hanging over me, then it’s going to affect my general health, which is a big factor in sports performance.”

For now, Gilbert is happy to make the financial sacrifices.

“You can never do everything you want to do. In some form, you're going to have to make sacrifices. 

“For me, they haven't been too big. I haven't felt like I've given up too many other things. 

“And it's also enabled me to have a lifestyle that I'm really passionate about, and I really love,  so it's not a big problem for me.”