Mike Dawson has never been one to shirk from a challenge. Instead, he actively seeks challenge out. You could say it’s a defining characteristic.
The former Olympic kayaker and Antarctic adventurer has also chalked up another win in beating UNO to our interview. When we park up at the Okere Falls Store, he’s already there sitting on the deck, coffee in hand and having quick chats with the people coming and going on this fine Friday morning.
Mike’s lived in the small town of Okere Falls, population under 400, for around 15 years, so greets most of the other regulars arriving for their coffee fix by name.
“I’m based here,” he explains. “When I was racing, we’d train a lot on the river. So it was a natural progression for training to be here full time. It's pretty cool. There's an amazing community, heaps of good running, and the cafe here is great. And we're not even 20 minutes from town,” he says, referencing nearby Rotorua.
In fact, that’s where he’s been this morning. Out on his mountain bike tearing around the bike trails in the mighty Redwoods. He reckons he’s “close” to having ridden all 200 kilometres of their various tracks.
Between kayaking, mountain biking and his recent 50-day trek over the snowy grounds of Antarctica, you’d be right in thinking he’s an adventurer.
“Slalom kayaking is not super adventurous. That's a typical Olympic sport,” he says of the sport that he’s most known for. “Whitewater, or what you could call extreme kayaking or running rivers around the world, that's a more adventurous sport.”
Then he chuckles and says, “But my bike is far from adventurous.”
What’s a lot closer to adventure was his recent trip to the edge of the earth and back. After a rigorous application process, Mike was selected to join the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorers Expedition which would see him skiing 1000 kilometres over 50 days through the beautifully scenic, but incredibly hostile, environment of Antarctica, trudging all the way to the South Pole. It was an epic adventure in the truest sense of the word.
“It was a pretty interesting mission, like, it's definitely hardcore,” he says with typical understatement and no hint of irony. “It's a massive undertaking. The physical strain you put on your body is unbelievable and the environment there is hostile but stunningly beautiful and peaceful. It's a freezing cold environment, one that doesn’t suit long-term living. There's no food, no water and no trees. There's nothing. It's a real adventure. The frontier.
“If you think about it, you're pretty much doing a half marathon a day, towing a bunch of weight behind you,” he says.
It sounds hellish. Mike says that, for some of the time, it was.
“For me, it was around the 30th day, when I realised I still had 20 days to go. It's crazy. A three-week trip there on its own would be next level, and we'd already been out there for a month. It's tough. There were some days that we were exhausted. I remember two days clearly that I was done. I was like, ‘Man, I don't know if I can keep doing this.’ It's such a long time. But then the coolest thing you learn quickly is if you can just take your next breath, that'll mean you take your next step, and suddenly an hour will be gone. Once that hour’s gone, the day will be gone. So if you can just keep moving, the day goes.”
By taking one step after the other, the small team covered around 20 to 25 kilometres a day, depending on conditions and how everyone was holding up. Some days the conditions would be too bad for them to move far. The next it would be beautiful blue skies and glistening snow and they’d be on their way.
Dark days, soul searching, sore legs and always just one more step to go. It of course begs the question, why was he doing this monumental task in the first place?
“We were doing it to celebrate 150 years since Roald Amundsen was born,” he says.
Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer of the polar regions and a prominent figure in what we now appropriately call the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. The Antarctic Heritage Trust team was following in his adventurous ski steps and consisted of people from Norway and Aotearoa.
“The Antarctic Heritage Trust is responsible for preserving all the historic huts in Antarctica. They’re trying to inspire exploration.
And that's me, it’s what I’ve loved for my whole life. I've been lucky and so fortunate to be able to chase this dream of kayaking and racing, but also exploring the world and the rivers of the world… going to these places, and skipping over that line outside of my comfort zone,” he explains. “I think it's really important to share the stories of the early polar explorers. What I did is easy compared to what they did. When I read their stories I wish I was from that time, so I could have sailed to Antarctica and spent three years exploring.”
It may have been easy in comparison to Amundsen’s legendary explorations but that doesn’t mean there was anything easy about it. It’s still Antarctica. He says he tried to keep his mind focussed on each day, rather than the overwhelming 1000 kilometres of their trek. When asked what he learned about himself during this epic adventure he stops and thinks for a second before answering.
“It was such a cool reminder of how important it is to slow down and be content with where you are. When you're out there you don't have any communication with anyone. No internet, no constant distraction like you have in the modern world,” he says.
“That was one of the hardest parts of coming back. The overstimulation of all this noise that comes at you every day, all the time. I’m trying to remember what it felt like to be out there and keep a bit of that calmness in my day-to-day life somehow.”
Then, with an air of resignation, he says, “It's impossible. But I’m trying.
“When you go on a trip like this one to the South Pole, you have heaps of time to think and take stock of what's going on in life. In general life, things are busy. You're always moving and on the go. You never really get time to think about where you want to be in a few years,” he continues. “When you’re an athlete, it's so clear, it’s so easy, right? Because you’re progressing towards the Olympics or the Worlds. That’s a big goal and a big priority. Every day when you wake up. That’s all you do. The coolest thing about Antarctica is that it gave me time to declutter all that, to think about where I could see myself in a few years and what I want to do. That was a massive takeaway for me, figuring that out.”
So the hard times, the adventure, is what made it all worthwhile?
“Yeah, the moment was hard, but when you get to the end of any challenge, it's always worth it. It's really rewarding. When you finish it's sometimes hard to understand the magnitude of the undertaking, because when you're in it, it's just what you're doing. It’s only afterwards when you start telling the story that you realise it was something to be really proud of.”
To find out what shaped Mike’s adventurous spirit, you have to go back to when he was lad. He reckons his sense of adventure was born from exploring our local rivers on his kayak. A pass time which got him hooked on the sport when he was a student at Tauranga Boys College. In this regard, he was following in the wake of his brother, who was already paddling. Mike joined the school’s kayak club, which led him to competing.
He took to the sport like a duck to water and was soon spending all his free time on the river with his mates.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” he smiles. “It's pretty cool. Kayaking definitely took up a lot of time as a kid for sure.”
I suggest that it sounds like a good way to keepout of trouble.
“Yeah, probably,” he says, before grinning and adding, “Or getting into trouble.”
Mike recalls a few misadventures trying to crack the rivers and the Kaimais with low water – and too much water.
“I remember my first day going kayaking up the Wairoa River and tipping over and being scared,” he laughs. “I couldn't roll back up. I ran out of breath and had to swim. I got a lot of grief for swimming in the river.”
From tumbling in the Wairoa River to competing at two Olympic Games, first at London in 2012 and then at Rio de Janeiro four years later, is a heck of a ride. He’s modest about how he got there.
“Just paddling heaps,” he says, before talking about slalom kayaking’s own journey as a sport.
“If I look at the progression of the sport, the kids are so much better now than we were when we were young. We had to learn everything. It was slow and took us ages, especially the slalom. Kiwis love adventure and getting out on the river. Slalom is different to that, it’s really precise. For us to progress from this raw vision of kayaking to a refined version was pretty hard. It was a massive journey.”
He says it’s a very Euro-dominated sport and remembers going to the Junior Worlds for the first time and “getting hammered” by the Europeans. Rather than getting discouraged, it had the opposite effect and the team returned home to begin training harder and smarter. Mike set a goal for the following year – he’d make the finals. It was a goal he accomplished.
“I wasn’t very good in the final, I ended up 10th.” Then he grins and says, “But goal achieved all the same.”
Mike’s retired from competing but is still involved as a trainer. Nowadays the sport is different, with strong clubs, education, resources and an Olympic-level course in Auckland for training.
“We have athletes and teams that are capable of winning any of the events,” he says. “It's just a matter of them doing it when it counts. Whereas back in the day, when we were first becoming senior athletes, just getting in the Top 40 would be huge.”
After 15 years of kayaking at the highest level, his paddle is now permanently hung up to dry, although he remains heavily involved in the sport in a training and coaching capacity. He has a big year ahead with the World Championships in London in September. Doing well there means travelling to Paris for the Olympics.
With so much going on Mike says he’s trying to keep his Antarctic cool.
“It's hard. You say all these things, like, ‘I'm not going to drive my car as much, I'm not going to use my phone as much’, then you come back, and the reality is you fall back into some of the old habits,” he says. “But it's making sure you change a couple of little things. Those little things will evolve into bigger things. And then that makes monumental change.
“It’s the same in sport,” he continues. “When you try to change one tiny thing it can be the difference between big performance or small. I feel it’s similar in life. I’ve been trying to be a little bit more intentional with what I do each day.”
Then, with a smile, the adventuring Olympian shares the biggest takeaway from his epic adventure. “Make sure you leave time for the things you enjoy. Go for a ride or a kayak and hang out with friends. When you’re away from everything for so long, you realise how much you miss them.”