Canoe/Kayak: Olympians Murray Stewart, Alanna Nicholls and Steve Bird have led the charge in the opening finals at the Australian Sprint Canoe Championships in Penrith.
Stewart's quest to win an individual Olympic medal to go with the K4 gold he won in London took a big step forward on Thursday, with a dominant performance in the K1 1000.
Stewart is determined to make up for what he saw as a disappointing performance in the K1 in London, when illness left him in 16th position.
The New South Welshman showed he is a serious medal contender by finishing fifth in last year's K1 World Championships, and further underlined his potential with a strong win over a world-class field at Penrith.
He was particularly pleased with his time of 3:28:10.
"That's a fast time for this course especially," Stewart said.
"I'm very pleased to go that time at this stage of the year, but to be honest I'm not really too concerned about times, I'm just going to try and focus on how I can get faster and build on this start to the season.
"It doesn't really matter too much until the World Cups."
Second in the race went to Stewart's K4 and K2 team mate, Jacob Clear.
Queensland's Ken Wallace, a two-time Olympic medallist who was expected to challenge Stewart for the title, ran into problems mid-race and faded to finish last.
Western Australia's Alanna Nicholls won the sprint double at the Australian Championships, claiming Thursday’s K1 500 title to go with Wednesday's 200 title.
And further underlining her return to form, Nicholls won the 200 final in a personal best time, even quicker than the times she was paddling before the London Olympics.
Nicholls said everything fell into place in Penrith as she held off a strong challenge from London Olympian Jo Brigden Jones (NSW) and Alyce Burnett (QLD) in third.
"I just had one of those days where you get on the water and everything feels easy," Nicholls said with her time of 40.65 seconds.
"I was really focused, and new what I had to do. It's my fifth in a row, but everyone's really creeping up on me.
"I think the time I did before the Games was about a second slower. I appreciate the days I feel good, and I want to make the most of those because I've had injury after injury."
Nicholls emphasised that point on day two by winning the K1 500m championship title in a personal best time. Stopping the clock at 1:48.67min – Nicholls was over two seconds clear of Burnett, with bronze going to another Queenslander in Alyssa Bull.
It was a golden day on the water on Thursday for Western Australia, with Stephen Bird winning gold and Brodie Holmes silver in the men's K1 200.
Bird, who competed at the London Olympics with fellow Western Australian, Jesse Phillips, in the K2 200, also set a personal best (34.91) time to just hold off his training partner Holmes (35.01) and South Australian Callum Dunn (35.06). London Olympian and WAIS athlete Jesse Phillips returning from shoulder surgery was fifth in 35.57.
Bird was lucky to even make the final, after a starting error saw him stop paddling in his first heat, and then running into gear problems in the re-run.
"I was quite relaxed, trying to just go through the process as much as I could do," Bird said.
"But it was certainly an unusual lead-up to this final for me. I struggled to make it into the semi-final, which is unusual for me."
While the K2 200 remains the priority for Bird, his national title in the K1 has given him a big lift.
"I was actually really hungry to win this weekend. I'm pretty proud of myself for how I went," he said.
"The conditions are fantastic with a slight tail breeze. Given my lead-up I guess during the race I was thinking it didn't quite feel right, but it did feel fast.
"It's certainly a step forward to me. It means the world, it's certainly confidence building."
Ross Solly and AOC