GB Canoe team captain and Friend of EduSport Sporting Inspiration Fiona Pennie is currently in Bratislava preparing for the Canoe Slalom World Championships. Before she left, Becky Maybury caught up with her...
Waltham Abbey doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a top sporting destination. The small town in Essex was relatively unheard of until recently, when the Lee Valley White Water Centre opened. The multimillion pound facility boasts one of the hardest canoe slalom courses in the world, which will put Olympic athletes through their paces in a year’s time.
When I met Fiona on a sunny afternoon last week, she appeared relaxed about the impending World Championships only a few days away. With the canoeing competition season almost over, the Worlds in Bratislava (6-11 September) will see the world’s best coming together, and also serve as an important milestone on the journey to London 2012.
Fiona describes her build up to the Worlds as 'relatively alright.’ Although suffering some disappointment in the Europeans, Olympic Test event and World Cup final, Fiona is focused on the positives: ‘It’s been frustrating in a way; the speed is there, but I’ve had a few touches.’ A ‘touch’ in canoe slalom incurs a 2 second penalty. ‘My speed is spot on, I’ve been really happy with how quick I've been. In fact, if it wasn’t for my 3 touches in the World Cup final in Prague, I would have won on speed. I would even have won if I’d have only had 1 touch!’
For this reason, Fiona is optimistic going into the Worlds, hoping to combine her world class speed with the hard technical training she’s been doing.
At this point, we are politely interrupted by an elderly gentleman who has spotted Fiona’s GB polo shirt and has made a beeline to question her about the colour coding of the slalom gates. The new facility at Lee Valley has an enormous cafe-bar verandah overlooking the course; it is open to the public, who can watch elite canoeists and kayakers train, as well as novices trying their luck in guided white water rafts.
Once the fellow was satisfied that he now understood the distinction between green poles (downstream, I learnt!) and red poles (upstream), our conversation naturally led to the forthcoming 2012 Olympics, and how heavy government investment in sporting facilities such as Lee Valley will leave a legacy.
‘It’s exciting and inspiring – the press are giving sport so much more coverage, and it’s especially great for lower-profile sports like mine.’ Glancing over to the whitewater course (see picture), she continued, ‘by building this new world class site, the profile of canoeing will undoubtedly be raised. This is the only London 2012 venue open to the public ahead of the games, and by allowing people to come here and try the course out for themselves in a whitewater raft, the interest is going to be even greater. Even a year before the Olympics, I know that the centre is struggling to provide enough slots for all the groups who want to book rafting, and they’re often open until 10pm to try and accommodate them!’
If she is successful in the 2012 selection series, London will be Fiona’s second Olympics. She was the single female GB competitor in the K-1 in Beijing 2008, and is hungry to maintain her status as an Olympian.
Chasing the Dream
Whilst the idea of being a professional athlete seems glamorous to most, chasing a dream requires hard work and sacrifice; everyday life can be mundane at times, as Fiona tells me. To pursue the sport, she left her home in Scotland to move to Nottingham for training. More recently, as the GB Canoe team moved their base to Essex, Fiona chose to relocate further south again.
‘There’s not a lot to do in Waltham Abbey. Fortunately we’re close enough to London that when I get time off from training, I can head in to see friends,’ says Fiona, ‘although since moving here I’ve spent weeks at a time away at competitions, so I’ve not had much of a chance to get to know the area or many people here outside of the canoeing set up –in fact I’ve spent so little time here, that of the two Indian restaurants in Waltham Abbey I’ve only tried one so far!’
In the summer, the athletes train twice a day; this could consist of a strength & conditioning session in the gym, or training on white water or flat water. And summer is the off season in canoeing –in winter Fiona has 3 sessions a day, with the third session typically focusing on endurance – a 60 minute paddle or run.
The training is grueling, and Fiona tells how motivation is hardest to summon on the cold, dark winter mornings, when staying in bed seems much more preferable to paddling around lumps of ice in a river at sub-zero temperatures! But throughout the conversation, Fiona’s passion and dedication to the sport shine through – and it’s this focus on the end goal that eventually drives her out of bed after a few hits of the ‘snooze’ button!
A Sporting Life
In fact, it’s not just canoeing that floats Fiona’s boat – it seems to be sport of any kind! Even during her ‘time off’ after the worlds, she will be returning to Scotland for an active camping holiday. And after that, back to Nottingham to compete in the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ race – a 10km race-cum-assault course interspersed with obstacles such as hay bales, walls, cargo nets and rivers to traverse!
With this in mind, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I asked Fiona what she would be doing were she not canoeing full-time. ‘Oh, I’d definitely be an athlete of some sort! Maybe shotput - I used to be pretty good at it, and came second at the Scottish Schools competition. Or a runner…or maybe a Hockey player?’ Multi-talented Fiona was also in the school choir and orchestra, but by around the age of 14 or 15, she had to drop the other activities in order to pursue canoeing seriously.
‘Once I retire from competing, it would be great to continue into coaching. But I wouldn’t rule out becoming a PE teacher like my dad. And I’m quite into my DIY, so who knows – maybe I’ll move into property development and renovations?!’
The Power of Sport
Fiona first heard of Friend of EduSport through the charity’s co-founder, Fiona Campbell; the two both studied at Loughborough University and knew each through paddling. She agreed to be one of our Sporting Inspirations as, through her own experience, she recognises the benefits that sport can bring to educate, empower and inspire:
‘Sport has given me the opportunity to learn what my limits are, and then how to push those limits. Through doing this, you can get to know yourself better. In canoeing especially, you have to drive your own programme. You get input from experts and specialists, but at the end of the day you, and only you, are accountable for your own performance.
Through sport, I’ve had the chance to acquire so many life skills. And I think these kind of skills developed on the water, or on the pitch, can equally be transferred to a working environment – qualities like remaining highly motivated, maintaining a high level of independence, and always looking to improve yourself and your performance by leaving no stone unturned. And that’s even before the health benefits – it feels like when you’ve got a healthy body, it also gives your mind more space to learn. Does that make sense?’
Yes Fiona, it makes perfect sense –it’s an honour for Friend of EduSport to be associated with such an inspirational sporting ambassador. We wish Fiona the very best of luck as she competes in the Canoe Slalom World Championships, and as she moves into the Olympic selection series!