Sport Olympics Rio Olympics 2016: The Kiwi kayaker with a heart of gold

Rio Olympics 2016: The Kiwi kayaker with a heart of gold

Mike Dawson is doing his bit to help. Photo: Getty
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Mike Dawson is an Olympic athlete with a difference.

The New Zealand kayaker – who will compete in the semi-finals of the men’s canoe slalom event on Thursday morning (AEST) – has spent the last few months handing out food parcels to the homeless in Rio.

And last year, as part of his Olympic preparation, Dawson kayaked some of the most remote rivers in the world, facing the threats of crocodiles, hippos and venomous snakes.

The 29-year-old enjoyed an extended build-up in Rio before the Games, training as much as possible on the challenging Olympic course with fellow competitor and local Pepe Gonçalves.

Once he saw the plight of desperately poor in La Ciudad Maravillosa, Dawson decided to leave his own personal legacy.

“Rio is a fabulous city, famous all around the world,” Dawson told The New Daily.

“But there is another side to life here. There are people who have absolutely nothing, who live day by day in an incredibly tough situation.

“After talking with Pepe – and understanding more about what they go through – I decided to do something about it.”

mike dawson
Dawson in training. Photo: Getty

Dawson and Gonçalves set off each day after training, looking for the desperate and the destitute, among the Rio underclasses.

“It was only a small thing but we decided to do what we could,” he said.

“We tried to provide enough food for a week for each family we came across.”

There were some heartwrenching tales.

“These people had nothing, absolutely nothing but wanted to give us everything.”

One day, Gonçalves and Dawson came across a teenage couple, with a three-year-old daughter, living beneath a motorway underpass.

Neither had work and circumstances had forced them out of the family home and onto the street.

“They had nothing,” Dawson said.

“And in Brazil there isn’t much support for people in that situation. You are pretty much on your own.

“But the reaction of the little girl, when she was given some fruit, some juice and other food … she was so excited. It helps to put everything in perspective.

Dawson's Olympic preparation has been a little different. Photo: Getty
Dawson’s Olympic preparation has been a little different. Photo: Getty

“We are all here, enjoying this wonderful city and this amazing event.

“But for people like them, the Olympics won’t touch their lives at all. It will basically pass them by, and that is quite sad.”

Dawson hopes his acts might inspire other athletes.

“There are thousands of us here,” he said.

“Imagine if others could do something as well; it would be a huge gesture of support for the local people.”

As well as his slalom prowess, Dawson is one of the best extreme kayakers in the world, and has had some incredible adventures.

Of all his expeditions, a trip to Angola last year stands out, hurtling down the remote Cuanza River, which is also home to some of the biggest crocodiles in the world.

“We were told all about them but nothing prepares you for it,” he said.

“The crocs would try to barge your boat – they see us as potential food – and I have a friend that was a victim a few years ago.”

mike dawson
Dawson poses at a New Zealand launch event. Photo: Getty

“You were always on the lookout for eyes in the water,” said American kayaker Aaron Mann, who accompanied Dawson.

“Sometimes you would see then jumping off the bank. The key is to paddle fast and not hang around.”

The duo also narrowly avoided going off the edge of a steep waterfall, alerted by a local farmer running to the edge of the river bank.

He invited Dawson to eat with his family and they slept a night next to their mud hut.

“These people had nothing, absolutely nothing but wanted to give us everything,” Dawson said.

“It was something I’ll never forget.”

Michael Burgess is writing from Rio de Janeiro for The New Daily throughout the 2016 Olympic Games.

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