NZ canoeing duo flying under radar at Olympics

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:00 15/04/2012
Steven Ferguson and Darryl Fitzgerald
Photosport

UNDER RADAR: Steven Ferguson and Darryl Fitzgerald.

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6.30am, Lake Pupuke on a Friday and underneath a shocking pink sky waits New Zealand's most decorated Olympian, Ian Ferguson.

"You've picked one of the better mornings for it mate, she's not so pretty when it's pouring with rain," says the smiling four-time gold medallist-turned coach.

"The boys will be out in a minute." In their second season as a crew, Ian's son Steven and K2 1000m partner Darryl Fitzgerald have reached the final four months of tough early morning starts, chasing an Olympic class they say is "wide open" for the taking.

If they succeed on August 8, it would be one of the most fascinating tales of London 2012.

Ferguson Jnr, himself an Olympic veteran on the eve of his fourth Games, is already part of a rare Olympic club, having competed in two different sports (swimming 2000, canoe sprint 2004 and 2008).

Adding gold would bring the family tally up to five and fire the Fergusons into an even more exclusive bracket of father-son Olympic champions.

While Gisborne 21-year-old Fitzgerald may be at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, preparing for his very first Olympic appearance – and amazingly his first time on British soil – he also has the chance to do what even the greats rarely achieve, win on Olympic debut.

"I'm excited and really looking forward to it. But I'm extremely lucky to be in a boat with Steven and be coached by `Ferg'," Fitzgerald said.

"I'm just at the start of my career so it's awesome to have people next to you who are so experienced and have been so successful. I've learned a lot from them already.

"Steve and I may be a new team but that happens quite a lot, other nations are always looking for combinations.

"Look at the winning team at the last Olympics, those were their first races they'd ever done together. It can be done."

Steve Ferguson, who turns 32 next month, concedes London could possibly be his Olympic swansong. But he's unreservedly bullish about the duo's chances.

Despite a disappointing 2011 world championship campaign on paper, where they failed to make the A final, a confident Ferguson says he and Fitzgerald actually proved their firepower at that regatta – it just flew under the radar.

"At the world championships our heat and semifinal were on the same day and we didn't do well, and ended up in the B final," Ferguson said.

"But we won that final by over two seconds, that's a massive margin against crews who had been consistently winning world cup events, top quality crews and we smoked them.

"Our time would have won silver in the A final and we were only 0.2s off the world title-winning time.

"When you look at it that way, some people in the world might well be saying `s..t, these guys are actually in huge contention here'.

"Darryl and I know we are very competitive.

"We might be able to go into London under the radar."

And in an event which is so tightly contested, Ferguson and Fitzgerald's quiet presence could give them an advantage over headline crews carrying the weight of expectation.

"Tactically it could help, I certainly don't think there'll be as much pressure on us as other crews," Ferguson said.

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"This class is wide open and changing all the time. The K2 is a very dynamic boat and it's all about how you create that solid partnership.

"That's why it's such a good event, it is wide open.

"In four different key events last year there were four different winners."

The K2 cat-and-mouse game of pre-Olympic form is soon to be ratcheted up even further. They are set to leave New Zealand in just over a month for European world cup stages, before hunkering down in Italy for last-gasp preparations.

But don't expect the Kiwis to blow their cover in the run-in to London yet, with the experienced Ferguson clearly happy to keep the competition guessing.

"Everyone will get a good look at each other in the world cup events this year, they're always a good indicator on who is doing what," he said. "But you certainly don't want to peak too early. Yes, they're world cup events, but we've got other priorities this year.

"I think it's safe to say Darryl and I won't be firing all our bullets until London.

"After all, it's nice to go in slightly under the radar."

- Sunday Star Times

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