Tungatinah to Tokyo: the Tasmanian canoeist who made it to the Olympics

23 July 2021

When Australian Olympian Daniel Watkins took to the water for his first heat in the canoe slalom event at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday 25 July, no one was cheering louder than his fellow members at the Derwent Canoe Club - some of whom have been paddling alongside Daniel since he entered the sport at the age of 11.



“We get together to celebrate and watch the event,” says Peter Eckhardt, Commodore of the Derwent Canoe Club and a former Olympic competitor himself. “Daniel is as fast as anyone. If he medals, it will be his first time at that level, but he should certainly make it into the finals and Top 10 would be a good result.”




Daniel, who grew up in the Huon Valley, first discovered canoe slalom through a kids summer program run by the Derwent Canoe Club back in 2007. He made his junior national debut at the Pre-World championships in 2011, and since then has paddled at many of the best slalom courses all over the globe. Most recently, he has travelled to Tokyo, after securing his place at the Olympics when he took bronze at the 2020 Australian Open Canoe Slalom - his first podium at that event.


“The international circuit is mostly based in Europe so I spend 4-5 months there every year,” says Daniel. “I’ve also competed in international races in Brazil and the USA; attended training camps in New Zealand, China and Japan; and followed recreational river paddling through Indonesia, Canada and Norway.”


Despite all the experience he has gained over a ten-year career, one of Daniel’s favourite places remains Tasmania’s very own Bradys Slalom Course; and it’s there that his story intersects with Hydro Tasmania’s.




Bradys Slalom Course is managed by the Derwent Canoe Club in conjunction with Hydro Tasmania. It runs between two bodies of water, Bronte Lagoon and Bradys Lake, which are part of the chain of lakes created to supply Tungatinah Power Station in the Central Highlands. Established in 1970, Bradys is an internationally recognised white-water site and an integral part of Australia’s slalom landscape. It is used as a training course for national teams and has hosted several national and international competitions. The course was recently chosen by the International Canoe Federation as one of the Top 100 places to paddle in the world.


Christina Nebel is Water Operations Officer for Hydro Tasmania, and she has the daunting task of coordinating water releases for stakeholders on waterways managed by the company.


“Hydro Tasmania has always supported recreational users such as paddlers, rafters, rowers or fishermen who want to make use of the water we manage. We are unique in that we don't charge for that service - if anyone is interested in using the water and needs it to be at a certain level or flow, we will try to help them do that - of course balancing that with energy generation requirements.”


Often this work can be done remotely from the Hydro Tasmania control desk in Hobart, but the course at Bradys is slightly different because it involves an extra level of coordination with staff on site.


“Bradys is a connector canal with gates that can’t be opened remotely,” says Christina. “The Generation Controller on the desk in Hobart works with field staff who open and close Woodward’s Gate at the top of the course for each release. A lot of planning goes into each release: once people are booked into the system, we work around routine maintenance and outages at our stations. Too much or too little water being released can affect our ability to make a water release happen, but we are able to honour the majority of bookings.”


According to Peter Eckhardt, there are very few places where the relationship between a power company and recreational water users is as healthy and positive as it is in Tasmania. The Derwent Canoe Club uses several sites around the state, including the Mersey River and the Forth, but he describes Bradys as ‘the jewel in the crown’ and that’s a sentiment that is shared by Daniel Watkins.


“It’s truly a world-class course with a Tassie twist,” Daniel says. “Most courses these days are artificial, with the water being pumped and the channels made of concrete and plastic."


"The white water at Bradys is of the same level as any Olympic or World Cup course in the world, if not faster. But it's in the Highlands with fickle weather, and we have to hang the racing gates off rocks and trees and whatever we can find. We also end a day’s training round a campfire and then crawl into tents - rather than a hotel room in the city - and I absolutely love that!”



Peter Eckhardt, who has seen countless athletes coming through the Derwent Canoe Club program, believes that learning to paddle in places like Bradys - rather than at artificial courses like Penrith in New South Wales - has a real impact on Tasmanian paddlers like Daniel.


“Daniel is very uniquely Tasmanian. He’s always introduced at competitive events as Tasmanian rather than Australian, because being from here really means something and that’s understood in the sport around the world. We live in such a pristine, gorgeous place and the ability to connect with the natural environment as you develop your own skills is unique in a world sense. It creates athletes who are fearless, and perhaps a little prone to risk-taking, but who also have very high levels of skill and boatmanship.”


One year Daniel spent 157 nights in accommodation, 88 nights in his van, 87 nights at home, 24 nights on rivers and mountains, 9 nights on planes and ferries. All just to chase kayaking.


There are two categories within canoe slalom: canoe (C) and kayak (K). In canoe, the athlete kneels in the boat and uses a single-blade paddle, whereas in kayak the athlete is in a seated position using a double-bladed paddle. While Daniel is representing Australia in the C1 event in Tokyo, he is the K1 reserve and notable as one of just a few male athletes to compete internationally in both categories.


Whatever the results, making it to Tokyo is an achievement in itself. There’s no doubt that Tasmanians will throw their full support behind Daniel, who is keenly aware of what an incredible opportunity he has earned.


“It’s a great privilege to be travelling across the world to compete at the Olympics - this year more than any! With all the COVID-19 restrictions it’s extremely hard to travel and we have to take a lot of precautions, but to finally get to Japan is pretty special. I’m very proud to be representing Australia, and especially Tasmania.”




Update: Daniel was placed ninth in the 10-man final C1 slalom final during the Tokyo Games, with a time of 108.18s.


*Images courtesy of Daniel Watkins and Hydro Tasmania


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