TOKYO — When Nevin Harrison first tried canoe racing at age 12, becoming an Olympian wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. Staying out of the water was.
“The balance is so difficult,” she said. “It took me two years not to fall into it. You have to understand that before you even think about going fast.”
At 17, she was going fast enough to be world champion.
There are sports the United States is good at and sports it is not. It’s pretty safe to say that canoeing and kayaking fall into the second category.
At the last world championships in 2019, out of 30 events, only one American even qualified for a final. That paddler was Harrison, who won the gold medal in the 200 meter canoe race. Suddenly the United States of all places had the brightest young star in canoeing.
Harrison, now 19, stood out in football, softball and track and field growing up – sports more typical for a young, athletically talented American. But misfortune led her to focus on canoeing. She started experiencing hip pain when she was 14 years old. Hip dysplasia was diagnosed, a condition in which the hip socket does not connect properly to the femur. “A doctor said it was out of the question for me to play sports again,” she said. “It was super devastating for me. I had always hoped to be an athlete.
Running and sports that involved running were hard on her hip, so she focused on canoeing. Living in the Seattle area, she said, “I happened to be in one of the few places in the country where the sport is actually quite popular.”
Once she mastered staying in the canoe, she started getting better. And then better than that. Her upward trajectory to the title of world champion at 17 was dizzying.
“It was just crazy,” she said. “I really couldn’t believe it; things were going so fast.
She added: “I never really understood when I saw a 16-year-old gymnast compete in the Olympics. I would think, Oh, they’re just machines, they’re programmed like that. But the reality is that being a teenager in a high performance sport is so scary. You are still learning about the world, but you are expected to perform at the same level as the women who have been doing it for two decades.
This was compounded by the fact that Harrison is by far the biggest American star in the sport, the only canoe or kayak sprinter of either gender to qualify for these Games.
“It was crazy to kind of be the leader of the United States in our sport right now,” she said. “It’s exciting to be that person, but it’s a lot of pressure. It’s difficult to represent a whole sport, to have people who think of American canoeing and who think of me. It’s a huge blessing, but it’s scary at times.
Harrison’s timing is good. Women’s canoeing was added to the Games for the first time in Tokyo, and its event, the 200 meters, is the individual race that is contested.
The race, the shortest in canoeing, lasts barely 45 seconds. But it’s not a total dash. “It’s similar to the 400 meters on the track,” she says, another event that takes about 45 seconds. “It’s a sprint, but there’s a bit of strategy involved because you can’t quite go 100 per cent for 45 seconds.”
“People have different strategies,” Harrison said. “I tend to go really hard for the first 50, the second 50 just try to hold it and try to stay ahead (if I’m ahead), then in the last 100 I get top speed.
“Some athletes have virtually no race plan and just go all out, but I think it’s more beneficial to have some sort of plan.”
Although power and muscle are important, technique is an important part of canoeing.
“It’s incredibly technical,” Harrison said. “We have to figure out how to steer while paddling only to one side. There’s the distance you want to reach with your blade, what time you go out. You need to coordinate your hips and the rest of your body.
“It’s a huge thing that’s missing in the United States,” she said. “We don’t have that deep foundation of the sport where you can learn how the ancient paddlers used the technique. It comes from YouTube for many of us.
Harrison will start his Games on Wednesday. Assuming all goes well in the first three rounds of the 200-metres, she will line up for the final on Thursday. About 45 seconds later, someone will be an Olympic canoe champion. It could well be a 19-year-old American who, not so long ago, was mainly thinking about not falling into the lake.