The village in which I grew up offered either tennis or sprint canoeing to those who weren’t willing to travel more than 6 miles to the next town to get their fix. Therefore, it was at ‘Fladbury Paddle Club’ that my sporting career found its humble beginnings at the age of about 12. I had a natural feel for controlling the boat and was quickly captivated by the feeling of gliding atop of the water and shaving times of the club’s historic time trial courses along the river Avon. With the club’s doors literally always open and a supportive coach in 5 times Olympian Andy Train, I was in good company to pursue a career in competitive sport – although one might not have suspected such a career to amount to much when looking at the un-athletic and ostensibly untalented 12-year-old that I was.
Canoeing provided the perfect outlet for the competitive personality which until that time didn’t realise I had. The unyielding desire to bring my times down and rise through the national ranks saw me training 6 days a week and competing in regional sprint and marathon events, irrespective of workload at school. For me, doing well in academics may have helped me to understand the world once I was up in the morning but canoeing was what got me up. Throughout school and university, I loved the contrast between the quietness indoor study and, moments later, the exhilaration of chasing the clock down, muscular and aerobic system operating at full capacity, while evaluating the efficiency of each and every paddle stroke.
My career took off when I took a gap year to pursue it, I put in a solid year and reached the A-Final in my first ever World Cup event in the C1 500m and later placed 11th in Europe in C2 1000m in 2015. At the time my career was going from strength to strength as I placed just 3 European spots short of Rio Qualification in May 2016. I was simultaneously elated and disappointed with the result, being more than I could have dreamed of in 2014 but just shy of something far greater. After this, my sights became firmly set on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
For the next 2 years I was a mainstay in the British team and built my race-craft as I trained largely alone on the Worcester-Birmingham canal throughout my studies at The University of Birmingham. Staying ahead of the curve in the lecture theatre as well as the race-course proved a challenge and I had to remain task-orientated. Each day followed more-or-less the same routine down to the nearest hurriedly ingested recovery banana and bowl of yoghurt post training.
As a sport scholar at university, I benefited hugely from the strength and conditioning coaching as well as physiology testing in the Lab. I loved getting some quantitative feedback on how my training was effecting the less visible aspects of my physiology such as what blood lactate levels correlated to the various levels of pain I had been experiencing for the past 8 or so years and what that meant for my training zones. All things considered, it was looking to be a successful university campaign as I placed 12th in the senior European Champs in C2 1000m and 11th in C1 5K in 2016, making my first senior worlds but falling just shy of B final in 2017. I was fitter and stronger than ever going in to the 2018 season and excited to see what I could deliver in the 2018 season.
As an athlete it is wise to focus on ‘controlling the controllables’ and not to expend needless thought and energy by worrying about what you can’t control. It is a helpful exercise to practice for inevitable events that may impact sporting performance and more significant areas of life, as I was to find out in May 2018. Having just finished my engineering finals and days before I was planning to start my camp in Nottingham ahead of the U23 Europeans and World University Championships campaign, my father was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and admitted to hospital for urgent treatment. My thoughts were consumed almost entirely by this news and the need to fulfil my role in this process which promised to be long, painful and uncertain. I proceeded with the camp and split my time between there and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Race day came and the age old words of encouragement of ‘the achievement it was even to have made the start line’, resounded within me. I fell short of what I considered myself capable of, having fallen 1.6 seconds adrift of the final in 12th place but took solace in my personal best time which put me high on the British all-time list in the C1 1000m. Having opted out of the U23 World Championship team and instead chosen to compete in the World University Championships, which gave me 7 weeks to prepare.
The decision to continue to train amidst family tragedy was not easy but also refined my motivations for the sport. Only having sought counsel and support from my coach, friends and principally my family I could train with the conviction that was required and produce the training program that would prepare me best amidst the storm. I came away from the event with a near 2 second personal best, U23 best time in the C1 1000m event and a bronze medal in the C1 500m which cemented my ambitions for Olympic qualification in 2020.
What stands out for me as a competitive athlete is that there is nowhere to hide on this playing field. To do this you’ve got to love relying on your own strength of body, character and mind when the buckets go down. But, as any athlete knows, the real work starts long before that. The frank inspection of one’s abilities doesn’t stop there, as I’ve found the need to critically examine alongside my coach everything from exams to a sisters planned birthday celebrations some 6 months down the line, evaluating how or if they ought to effect the training plan for the season ahead. What stands above this ostensibly solo effort individual pursuit of self-expression and excellence is the relationships upon which it is founded. Individual sport is as much about interpersonal collaboration and gut-wrenching sacrifice as any team sport or pursuit in any field. Sport gives spectators the chance to watch the sum total of these training plans, routines, relationships and sacrifices expressed in the form of a time, distance or score which I’ve found makes it a tremendous privilege be involved in.
Needless to say, the last two years have painted a very different picture of the middle two years of the Tokyo Olympic cycle than I had expected or wanted. At the darkest times, I considered how, if an artist’s paintings are analogous to an athlete’s instantaneous performance, when unable to train the athletes work slowly erodes as I envied the artists immortalised masterpieces. But, fortunately for me (and this Olympic insight blog), I later reflected that I had made the wrong analogy. The act of painting is to an artist what training is to a sportsperson, it equips you with the knowledge, skills and experience to produce a better work. The instantaneous ability to train and compete may waver in the storm but the qualities you gain from the process we engage in as athletes are immutable and undeniably applicable with the patience and resolve to go when the time is right.
With all that said, as the clock bears down on the Tokyo Olympics, all of the experiences of the current Olympic cycle have both equipped me and augmented and distilled my conviction to surpass my best and compete in the Games be it in Tokyo or beyond.