Paralympic Games

Today I witnessed something incredible. 

I’m in Rio as part of the Paralympic Inspiration Program and today’s agenda was to watch our own sports. A group of us arrived at the canoe venue early on and through a gap in the stands I caught a brief glance of Jeanette Chippington as she paddled past. I made a beeline to the front just to get a feel for the place.  A few Aussies were claiming some seats for the day but it felt calm. The wind had dropped and the water was still.  Paracanoe was about to make its mark on the Paralympic Games. 

A few other familiar faces were warming up. Anne Dickens gave me a bicep flexing salute that summed up the British Canoeing team, strong! Ian Marsden was patrolling his lane zoned right into his race process. Nick Beighton cruised down slowly.  He stopped his boat and I found myself playing a game of Simon Says as he fixed his posture, wound up the rotation and planted the paddles deep into a starting stroke.  I have sat in a boat alongside him talking through the very routine as we have encouraged each other over the last couple of years.

I felt a real sense of joy watching these guys warm up.  I was excited to see what would happen, and confident that it would be something good!


I said hello to most of the families and it was great to see so many of their nearest and dearest ready to make some noise!
Finding a spot with the stalwarts of Steve Train and Mike Chandler it didn’t take long for me to realise being in the crowd is noisy work!  Half way through the first race I noticed my voice squeak and was almost gone by the time Jeanette had won the first ever Paralympic Canoe Gold medal.  Ian Marsden was next and earned himself a bronze medal.  

These first two races were amazing. If I’m honest I had predicted Jeanette would get silver. Edina Muller had won the worlds earlier in the year and I thought she would become a force within the class, but Jeanette clearly wasnt giving up her rule just yet!  Her super friendly, easy to get on with side obviously doesn’t pull on the paddles!  I’m sorry I ever doubted you Jeanette!

Watching Ian on the podium was great. He was chuffed! I couldn’t stop cheering and to see him so happy put a big smile on my face.  He borrowed my paddles as a set of spares don’t you know!!!


The KL2 class basically repeated the format!  Emma Wiggs cleaned up, this time very much as expected while Nick Beighton slotted into third without too much shock or horror. 

That makes it sound a little dull but the reality is Emma’s closest rival at the World Championships was stood next to me loosing her voice cheering her on!  Nicks race wasn’t a formality in any way but those three lads are a step up on the rest of the field. Curtis McGrath is a phenomenal athlete, and Marcus Swoboda has just about the longest Paracanoe career possible! Nick has stepped up massively this year and has been an absolute pleasure to train alongside. I have a lot of respect for these guys because they are not only solid athletes but really decent blokes.


Anne Dickens produced the result to match her World Championships race this year and made it a clean sweep of golds in the women’s category’s, it also happened to be ParalympicsGB 100th medal!


Rob Oliver had just about the toughest job of the day. Racing in by far the most competitive class knowing that every other team member had  won a medal could act as a negative motivation, whether that is true I don’t know. He didn’t get the result he wanted, finishing fifth, but I believe he can be proud of what he has achieved and as he stated after his race, “their will be more opportunities”.

The ICF and Paralympic organisers put on a fantastic show which has hopefully cemented canoeing into a permanent fixture of the Games.

Well done to all the British Canoeing staff for getting our six athletes in the shape to perform as they did!  You guys are awesome. 

Will you definitely be going to Rio? part 3

Getting invited along to Rio earlier in the year (which i wrote about here) was recognition, from my coach and team leader, that I had the potential to compete at Rio.  The selection races (which I wrote about here) confirmed that the potential had not been fully unleashed.  Yet once again I am being rewarded!

On 13th September I will travel out to Rio as part of the Paralympic Inspiration Programme.  The aim is to experience the Games in a way an athlete who is competing would, without actually competing.  I won’t be staying in the village but will get to visit it along with a variety of venues and the Closing Ceremony.  I will get to understand more of the logistics behind such a major competition and find out what sets the Paralympics apart from any other international competition.  Which will hopefully make me better prepared to compete in Tokyo 2020.

PIP Athletes at Tedworth house

Since being discharged from hospital I have been totally focused on Rio, so much so that when I wasn’t selected I found I was asking myself, “What do I do now?”  But I will use this trip to remind myself that I’m not finished yet. Tokyo is still achievable and I will be more prepared should I get selected next time round.

The trip is organised by the British Paralympic Association and Help for Heroes.  We will travel as a mix of athletes from both civilian and military backgrounds, a variety of sports and at different stages of our athletic careers.

From the canoeing camp I will travel with Scott Simon and Nikki Patterson.  Scott has been apart of the staff team working behind the scenes and generally getting stuff done when we have been competing internationally, while Nikki is another athlete.  We came through a recruitment drive at the same time, Nikki’s through Help for Heroes and me through BPA. She also happens to be a two time World Silver medalist inspite of a plague of injuries.

Another familiar face on the trip is Lizzie Tench (albeit on the week before me). She has raced in the canoe discipline, V1 (the boat I started in) at the World Championships over the last couple of years, alongside competing to the same standard in Paratriathlon, where she achieved a world silver medal this year!  Her events in both sports were omitted from the Paralympic Games when the IPC made their final announcement last February, but triathlon will compete at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast 2018, so don’t feel too sorry for her!!!

A huge thanks to all those who helped get me close to competing at Rio and of course to all those who are making this trip possible.

British Canoeing | Oosshh | British Paralympic Association | Help for Heroes 

Selections

The June regatta, held at The National Watersport’s Centre at Holme Pierrepont (where I train everyday) was not only our National Championships it was also the selection races for the Paralympic games.  One person from each class would get to represent British Canoeing on the sports largest stage.

I started racing three years ago motivated by the aim of bringing back one of the first ever gold medals as Paracanoe makes its debut at the Rio Paralympic Games.  I progressed quickly in the V1 boat and thought it to be a very realistic aim.  However, when V1 was dropped from the competition and with my own reclassification I wasn’t quite so sure.  My coach had stated that we “shouldn’t put a roof on what we can achieve” and so I dared to dream again.  More than dream, I worked hard at refining my skills in the K1 to get me as close to that dream as I could.  It was a much slower process than I had seen in the V1 boat and caused a lot of frustration and uncertainty over the last couple of years, but I had achieved the international selections needed (racing internationally allowed me to gain a valid classification which would be required before games time).  I had also been included in the camp in Brazil earlier in the year and I had improved enough to be at least competitive with the top guys (Rob Oliver and Tim Lodge).  I was in the running.

Thinking entirely about myself, I felt confident.  I had seen a vast improvement leading up to the world championships and felt there was more to come.  Sure there are weaknesses, there always will be, but recognising and developing those areas increase my potential.  So I sat on that start line, expecting to race well.  I would likely be down a bit on the start, but I would catch up before the finish.  I had visualised the race over and over, and not once did I finish anywhere other than first place!

While sitting in the bucket ready to start I had a slight wobble, just as the bucket dropped.  I missed my first stroke but I knew what I needed to do and carried on, pulling as hard as I could.  Mid race and still behind it started to hurt, I needed to pull harder, I had to race all the way to the line.  As I finished all I could do was watch the relief for Rob Oliver, who must have felt all the same emotions I had and who managed to perform in the same way he has time and time again.  Rob qualified the boat for Rio last year, when he won a silver medal at the World Championships and by winning this race, qualified to be the paddler in the boat!  He has been on the program longer than most of the squad and has been dreaming of Rio all that time and with this race he showed that he deserves to compete in Rio.

We raced again later that day but it all felt flat. No longer having something to aim towards I simply went through the motions.  I was surprised at how much the lack of selection affected me. I always knew it was a long shot and how much work needed to be done, but it always seemed manageable. I guess the deadline came before the work had been finished.

Huge congratulations to all the team who will be competing at Rio, all of whom have been medalist’s at a World Championship level.  So rest assured, fellow supporters, our team is strong and their aspirations are high!

TeamGB announce the Canoe Sprint team for the Rio2016 Olympics. Dorney Lake. Windsor. Berkshire. UK. 14/06/2016. ~ MANDATORY CREDIT Garry Bowden/SIPPA - NO UNAUTHORISED USE - +447837 394578

L-R Jeannette Chippington, Rob Oliver, Emma Wiggs, Ian Marsden, Anne Dickins and Nick Beighton

 

Duisburg 2016

The world championships came and went pretty quickly.  With only nine months between the competitions and with all eyes on Rio this year, it seemed like a bump in the road rather than the highlight of the year.

Having earned the spot, via race off, to represent our wee country I was determined to go there and leave a mark.  I had set some minimum expectations for myself to at least place in the top 8 and with the amount of effort it took to get there in my K1, I felt I needed to sacrifice any notions of paddling the V1 boat so that I could maximise my chances of exceeding those minimum expectations.

(For anyone new to this, I raced V1 at the 2014 & 2015 World Championships and came home with two silver medals, but only K1 will compete in The Paralympic Games this summer and so it must take priority if I am to compete in Rio.  Watching the V1 races and seeing so many athletes who had doubled up I did feel like I was letting the side down a little.  I think the sport is better for the efforts of those guys for maintaining a high standard in the races and especially Curtis McGrath who won both World titles, although capsizing before a race is not something I plan to copy).

Duisburg, Germany was the host for the event, which would also be a European second round qualifier for the Olympics and followed immediately by a World Cup event. In short it would be the biggest event ever put on by the International Canoe Federation and has made paracanoe bigger than pararowing!! It is after all a sport that is always moving forward!!


Duisburg also hosted the World Cup event I attended last year and so I was happy to return to a nice tree lined race venue, some of the best ice cream shops around and a hotel with a sauna and pool, plus a buffet breakfast and dinner that put a smile on my face every day.

I mentioned my classification in my previous blog so let’s get down to racing.  Being in the most hotly contested event there were 5 heats, meaning I would race a semi final, unless I came last in which case I would be relegated.  I felt confident I would not come last and on reflection my paddling probably showed that.  Reviewing the video with my coach in the evening we felt it lacked execution and didn’t represent what we had been working on over the previous couple of weeks, then we realised that the GPS showed some positive data.  It was actually a personal best time.

Going into the semi final the following day I was aware that I could paddle very differently to the heat.  I also had to paddle differently.  The top two from each semi would proceed to the A final with the fastest third place taking the last spot, there would also be a B and C final.  If I wanted to fulfill my minimum expectations I had to be in the top two.  While warming up I spent a little longer than normal on the water where I decided that I wanted this race to be an honest representation of what I had been working on.  I did not need anger or aggression on the start line but it had to be powerful from the very first stroke and every stroke after would count so I had to keep switched on both mentally and physically.  The start went well.  I hit my top speed and everything was firing on all cylinders.  I was aware that there were three of us at the front of this race.  The two others on my left.  Around 150 meters I thought third place isn’t so bad.  But I refused to settle.  I corrected my posture and pulled as hard as I could towards the line.  Beep beep beep.  Exhausted I knew the Romainian had won, but had I done enough.  I heard Nikki Patterson yelling “come on Jonny!”  Had she seen where I placed?  Then the big screen showed our times. I was second, with a massive new personal best, and a time that exceeded any expectations, yet to me felt honest.  Honest of the areas I had targeted to improve, honest of the ability I know lies within me (even if I only see glimpses of it now and again) and honest of my ability to perform under pressure.


It was a moment where I think sport, psychology and theology meet.  I performed my best by demonstrating my beliefs, which I would never have thought had anything to do with making a boat go in a straight line, yet there it was on the big screen 40.926.

The Frenchman who placed third, Martin Farineaux, also made the A final as the fastest third place and he said he would ‘have revenge the next day’!  Reviewing the race I firmly believed there was more to come in the final and I wanted to get on with it.  On the final day I spent longer in the boat as it had worked the day before, but I didn’t feel as comfortable.  I didn’t produce the same power as the previous day and was well off the pace of the German, Tom Kierey, in the lane next to me, the reigning world champion who won gold again this time round. Still I managed to get a second best time, and I managed that eighth place, just in front of the Frenchman who came over after and said “no revenge this time”.

I felt content with the racing.  I had made a step up at this competition and I believe the trajectory is still on an upward motion, but time is getting short.  This weekend will be our national championship regatta, which will also confirm Rio nominations.  I will need to win both races on Saturday to put myself in the best position for being selected. Three of us are racing for one spot.  All capable of performances that would be worthy of a games selection, but we are not about taking part, we are after Gold medals.  Whoever gets that spot will be pushed, and pushed hard and that will continue all the way to Rio for together we are faster.  We are one team and whoever represents us had better be quick!

Thanks for all the support while I was away. And of course thanks to all at British Canoeing, UkSport, CANI and Oosshh for helping me do what I love.

Confirmed

This week I have travelled to Duisburg, in Germany, for the Paracanoe World Championships.

The competition this year, I suspect, will feel a little different to other competitions I have been to.  Instead of racing along side the full able bodied Canoe Sprint World Championships we are alongside the European second round Olympic qualifiers.  That sounds complicated, but its just a condensed competition to get places for the Olympic events.  It will then be followed by the first Round of the World Cup, which will have all canoe sprint races (I will have gone home by then, but it will be the first senior international race for my fellow CANI and Oosshh athlete Afton Fitzhenry so I’m wishing her and Chloe Bracewell in the C2 all the best – and the rest of the squad of course).

Because of the reduced numbers there will be less people here to race on the Olympic side of things, but in terms of paracanoe it seams more competitors will be here than previous years and from more countries, which can only be a good thing as the sport builds momentum before it’s Paralympic debut.  In fact more people will race at this than the Paralympics, my event alone has 5 heats with up to 9 people, while in Rio only 60 spaces are available for all 6 events!

The event kicked off for me with classification, once again.  In previous years it was hard to confirm my classification so I was on a ‘Review’ status.  This meant I was reviewed each year and as I changed from TA to KL3 (what was LTA) it was a fair way to keep track of my eligibility to race.  I believe this was a fair verdict and I am glad the classification system is working hard to protect our sport and make it as fair for athletes as possible.  In a way I was saddened to hear this year that my classification was confirmed.  I almost considered classification as my test of how well I had rehabilitated from my spinal injury.  I thought if I was de-classified I would have beaten my injury. It highlighted that I have not grown to love my injury or be satisfied with the level of ability I currently have, but it has allowed me to continue doing something I have grown to love and that is racing boats!  Plus there is scope for more improvements.  Hopefully I can continue to make my legs stronger as it is the lack of function in my ankle that’s the problem (classification wise anyway) – chicken legs is also a problem as I look more and more like Johnny Bravo!


All that’s left for me to do now is go out and race.  I’ll let you know how I get on!

April Regatta.

First race of the season.  A chance to dust off the cobwebs after a tough winter of training.  Of course winning is the aim, it is a race after all, but it’s the first outing of the year so how high should expectations really be?  Surely there will be more to come as the racing ramps up.

Not this year.  Our first regatta was selection for the World Championships.  Being a Paralympic year our Worlds have been scheduled earlier in the season than usual, 17-19 May to be exact and so the selections had to happen earlier than usual for places on the team.

For me I need to compete at the World Championships , to be classified.  I have been classified before but due to the nature of my injury I am always on review and my current review date is before the Paralympic games.  Without competing at the Worlds I wouldn’t be able to race in June for Paralympic selection, never mind the games themselves.

Two spots would be available with two races to prove you should be one of the athletes selected.

Race one.  My build up to the race had been exactly how I wanted it to be.  I sat on the start line knowing what I was going to do.  I expected the boys next to me to go out fast, but I settled into my own race, clawing back all the way to the line.  As I crossed the line I turned to look at Tim next to me, neither of us knowing who had finished ahead of the other.  Rob had finished first, but who had the second spot?  My coach was able to confirm it was Tim and when the times came up on the board there was only 0.13sec in it.

I cleared my head.  I took on some fuel.  I watched the race with my coach.  I knew what I needed to do.  The question I kept asking myself for the hour or so building into the second race was, “Do you want the journey to end today?”  It certainly wasn’t the position I had intended to put myself in but I wasn’t prepared to let it defeat me.

Race two.  When the bucket dropped I somehow managed to have the best start I’ve ever had.  I knew from my second stroke that the boat was moving faster than usual and so I tried to squeeze as much speed out as I could.  I finished second.  Still over a second behind Rob but 0.7 up on Tim.

At this point Tim and I had caused some problems for the selection panel!  Should they choose the fastest time of the day, Tim would be selected as the second boat.  Should they go with the fastest overall time, I would go.  Instead Tim and I had to do a race off.

I don’t think either of us had really prepared, mentally, for a third race that day!  We titled it ‘Grudge Match’.  We warmed up together and we were both quite relaxed as we went through our routines.  We talked, joked, posed for photos and encouraged each other.  We knew how important this was for each of us.  To race at World Championships, even in a Paralympic year, is a big deal.

IMG_20160409_171551

Lodge vs Young

Race three.  First of all my start bucket didn’t come up.  I thought this could be a bad sign.  But listened to that voice that says “it’ll be alright” like I usually do.  When it dropped on the start I noticed that my first stroke had pushed the boat into the bucket.  Over the next few strokes I was saying to myself, “Your not going to let that slow you down!”  I pulled harder and harder on the paddles.  Tim was doing the same right next to me.  This was a race!  I focused on the finish, willing it to come closer.  We both lunged our boats over the finish. Beep Beep.  Two of us looking at each other again.  Who won?  0.2seconds between us.  This time I had managed to do just enough.  It is now official I will be heading to Germany in a few weeks for my third time representing British Canoeing at the World Championships.

There were no major celebrations after the race, it was sheer relief.  I was gutted for Tim.  We had both pushed each other that day.  We had both coped well under the pressure of the event and I believe we both learnt a fair bit about how we can deliver when it counts.  We will race again in June for Paralympic Selections but make no mistake we won’t be racing for second place.  Like I said at the start, surely there is more to come.

Personal bests and what ifs.

We kick off our racing season with an assessment day.  It is for all programme athletes and a few selected others.  It is a prerequisite to racing in the paracanoe classes at national regattas.  The day consists of two time trial runs over our regular 200m course.

It happened a couple of weeks ago and I was pleased with how it went.  Both runs felt good.  I stuck to the process I had intended and was generally pleased with how I had performed.  But then feelings aren’t always that accurate so I try not to pay too much attention to how things felt, unless the evidence shows it was useful.  When I found out the times it showed that the feelings were accurate because I had paddled faster than ever before. But I had a number in my head that I wanted to achieve, I wasn’t quite there.  Feelings start to change.  It also left me as third boat in my class.  Feelings changed a little more.

As I went to sleep that evening I was thinking about the consequences of the days results under race selection circumstances.  My Paralympic hopes for Rio would be over.  I would have to get back into my V1 boat just to race internationally this year.  Would I be able to achieve the same results in the other boat?  Fiona mentioned that the lack of Gold internationally should hopefully be an encouragement to try my best to rectify the situation, which brought me back to reality.

The time trial had not been a selection.  It hadn’t even been a race.  It was an opportunity for me to show progression.  Which I had done.  I am faster than I have ever been.  Some gym testing earlier in the week also show I am stronger than I have ever been.  I am bigger than I have ever been.  I am leaner than I have ever been.  I am the fittest I have been since joining to squad.  I am getting closer to where I want to be.

It also gave a chance to really see what was going on within my race.  My coach and I identified areas for improvement and we have spent the last couple of weeks working on them with a definite focus and intensity.

This weekend I race for world championships selection.  Will the hard work pay off?

“Beware of giving up too soon. Our emotions are not reliable guides” John Piper