To answer that properly, you need to get inside the Zen-like head of top New Zealand kayaker Mike Dawson, and understand the philosophy that he brings to the sport in his head-long pursuit of happiness.
For the best part of a decade, Dawson has been an outlier in the slalom world; that crazy Kiwi who turns up to world cup races on a diet of heavy rapids and expedition paddling.
The 29-year-old managed to fund his previous Olympic campaign – Rio will be his second games after finishing 15th in London – through a succession of extreme race wins in some of the biggest water on the planet. He’s been chased by crocodiles in Angola and hippos in Uganda, broke his back in Chile and bombed waterfalls in Norway.
While most of his rivals are fully funded athletes, Dawson has been selling his own cookbook to fund his trip to Rio. All of which injects a huge dose of pragmatism into his outlook.
“That feeling you get on the startline of the Olympics is like someone’s choking you,” Dawson explains. “You’re so nervous. When you’re paddling down a wild river on the West Coast of New Zealand, there are no controllables. If you stuff up, it’s a life or death moment rather than just the crushing of a dream.
This trip was about putting a slalom course in the most beautiful part of the world and training on it. We still have that fear, but we also wanted the rapids to simulate and emulate what we’re going to be facing in Rio.”
Dawson is pretty certain no one has ever attempted to paddle a slalom boat anywhere near the fearsome West Coast rivers, though he and some buddies completed a full 20km descent of the Whataroa River several years back.
The river has its origins at the Whymper Glacier, which sits 1,000m above sea level further up the valley, and explains the freezing water temperature that struggles to rise above 5°C throughout the year.
“It’s pretty amazing for Joe to come and do something that he’s never done before, in a part of the world that’s so beautiful and different to what he’s used to. Doing the same sport somewhere totally different is a great motivator and refresher for his Olympic campaign.
Sometimes you need to go back to your roots and just refresh your passion and get the fire burning again inside. You get a lot of energy from going to a place that’s so pure, in the mountains, in the middle of the South Island. There’s something there that motivates you and inspires you to get out there and dominate on the world stage.”
Asetting sun paints brilliant hues in the Whataroa Hotel garden bar as the tired crew stumble in to celebrate the end of their successful project. Miraculously, the West Coast deluges have held off, and for two days Clarke and Dawson have spent priceless hours churning lactic acid, weaving in and out of the slalom gates, battered by the freezing current and standing waves.
Clarke’s legs are battered too; endless portages upstream over the slippery, moss-covered rocks have taken their toll. His knee aches and a large bruise grows on one shin.
Weary grins tell their own story, however. Satisfaction is etched deep, while a string of colourful West Coast characters in the pub contribute to the festive mood. This is the Wild West after all, where more people own helicopters than have Instagram accounts.
Rugged bushman Thommo, a fifth-generation Coaster, treats them to a profanity-laden ditty, then Barry the farmer wanders over to chat in grease-covered overalls, long blond locks flowing down his back.
Former Canterbury rugby prop Kevin ‘Boof’ Hill owns the local helicopter tour company, with son Josh – a current flanker for the West Coast provincial team – one of the pilots.
Burly Boof also owns an eight-hectare gold claim near the mouth of the Whataroa River and quickly warms to the idea of a couple of Olympians venturing into his piece of paradise with their own dreams of gold. Free chopper flights are promised over a handle of beer, should Clarke and Dawson climb the Rio podium.
Amid the towering mountains, the massive water, the larger-than-life locals and the gigantic glaciers, big dreams are also welcome in these parts, and Clarke knows the risk of ditching his usual training ground in favour of this southern odyssey has been well worth it.
“Canoeing has taken me to places I never would have been before and I reckon that here I landed in one of the best places in the world,” says Clarke.
“At home, concrete surrounds you everywhere and the tedium can hit when you’re doing the same thing every day. This is an incredible shock to the system; I’ll be going back to London happy and buzzed up, ready again for training. I’m hoping in Rio, that will give me the edge.”