I always tell people I just bumbled into the sport a bit. I went in a boat when I was 8 years old for the first time, and that involved a ‘come and try - learn to canoe course’ run by the local council at my home up in Scotland, and I seemed to enjoy it so I did a few of these courses, joined the club ‘Sea of cats’, which was local to my house and they were specifically a canoe slalom racing club and I didn’t know what that sport was at the time, but instead of going down the rivers with a flask of tea on a Sunday, they raced round poles and timed (it) and it was physical training and racing and I really liked that.
2003 was my first medal in a World Cup event, I was silver medal. 2004 though was a big step up for consistency, I might have showed that pace once the year before, but I was doing it almost every race in 2004, medalled at most events including the Olympics which obviously brings a whole different kind of situation to just medalling at a canoe slalom board championship, it doesn’t get the media attention so that was a fantastic part of my life.
Canoe slalom, it’s easy to compare to slalom skiing, where you’re going down the hill and you’re going round the poles and sometimes the best skier in the world falls on his bum, slides down, misses all the gates, into the netting, and it’s game over. The same thing happens to us. What it boils down to no matter what good shape you are in, mentally it’s a really tough sport because everybody knows that you are just inches away from completely blowing it.
We don’t get to practise where the gates are in a race event so, we walk down the river bank and we look at it and we assess the situation. That’s something I’ll do with my coach and together we’ll make those assessments on risk, and my coach will know me well and what I’m capable of from what I do in training and I’ve got my assessment of what I’m comfortable with on the water, and together we’ll come up with a plan, which I’m trying to execute. Inevitably there’ll be situations on the water where it doesn’t quite go to plan; that’s when you have to react and use those natural instincts which you’ve just acquired from years and years of paddling on the white water.
The sport has dramatically changed over the years from being, effectively, an amateur sport to being a professional sport, not professional in that we have contracts with clubs but we are full-time athletes, and the support we get has been broadening and developing and getting more advanced and now it’s amazingly high-tech, huge amount of support staff coming in to producing the performances.
Every canoe slalom course in the world is different. There’s none two the same, it’s not like - all swimming pools are roughly the same and, it’s not like that, some white water courses are much steeper than others, some have a lot more water, some are a lot wider, some are natural like just real rivers out in the wild and some are artificial like, this course here behind me and the new Olympic course for London. The Lee Valley course, the London Olympic Course, is really tough actually, it’s very steep, very powerful you can’t as an athlete overpower the water, which you can at some courses, so you’ve got to be technically really on it, because, if you get pushed off line there you’re going to get punished.
I’m very aware that the Olympics are coming up and obviously it’s something I’m very close to, being involved in a lead sport. I don’t know if I’m actually feeling pressure to be honest, I’d say I probably felt more pressure going towards the Beijing Olympics as a silver medallist from Athens. I probably did more media interviews and had people saying, “well you were silver last time you’re going to get gold next year aren’t you?”, and I don’t get that now. So probably, it’s more relaxing at the moment.