Monday 23 October 2017

Turning the tide in his pursuit of perfection

Eoin Rheinisch can channel his Beijing experience to land that elusive medal, writes John O'Brien

THE house is a small, comfortable two-up, two-down on a quiet street in Cheshunt, 20 miles north of the city, away from the teeming madness of the Village, far from the manic hub of the Olympic Games. Some time this morning he'll pack his gear in a small sportsbag, strap it around his shoulders and set off on his bicycle, following a route that winds past the train station and along the canal until he arrives at the Lee Valley White Water Centre.

Just as he did when he competed in Beijing in 2008. A cherished routine. Almost scary, he thinks, how similar the pattern has unfolded four years on. Back then his form approaching the Games was patchy, producing a set of results that offered no obvious source of promise or encouragement. Yet he fizzed with positive energy inside, convinced something good was about to happen and, eerily, the same set of circumstances has followed him on the road to London.

You'll vaguely remember the name, of course. That guy in the canoe who came within a few paddle lengths of winning a medal and, on the back of four years of toil and hard effort, made himself a story for a day. Still struggling? It's okay. He has kept on keeping on for the best part of 15 years now to the general indifference of his native country. Eoin Rheinisch won't take offence.

Ah, but that glorious afternoon four years ago under a baking hot sun in the Shunyi aquatic centre outside Beijing. Twenty-two paddlers set out in the K1 slalom event that morning. Fifteen advanced to the semi-final and Rheinisch did enough on his first two runs to clinch the last spot. Then when 15 was whittled down to 10 for the final run, again he found himself scraping through in 10th place.

Before the final he felt a ripple of anger coursing through him. Why, he wondered, was he making it so damn difficult for himself? Fuelled by rage he manoeuvred himself into a medal position and held it until Benjamin Boukpeti of Togo, the last to race, pushed him back to fourth. The raw emotions he felt in the immediate aftermath have long since dissipated, although the conflict that flared in his mind, between pride and heartbreak, was never fully resolved.

"You take a lot of positives from finishing fourth," he says now, "but you're kicking yourself too. You've got all these what-ifs. And then you come back and you see the guys with the medals and you realise there's such a huge gap between third and fourth place. That's the way it is. There were three people better than me on the day. I can't change that."

In the long process that followed Beijing, though, and the dilemma that confronted him, as it does every Olympic athlete at some point, between staying on the treadmill or stepping off to join the real world, fourth was of considerable practical value. It meant he had secured the top-level grant of €40,000 and, because they recognised his potential, the Sports Council were willing to guarantee it for the full four-year Olympic cycle.

He had status now. People who believed in him. A better chance of attracting sponsors.

Going forward things would be easier. Not easy. Just easier. It was interesting too that after Beijing, Rheinisch felt no instinctive urge to unwind and blow off the steam building up over the previous few years. The 2009 World Championships were scheduled for Barcelona, his favourite course. That gave the difficult months after Beijing purpose and meaning. His drive or focus never withered.

In Barcelona, Rheinisch made the final, but didn't reach a medal position. No matter, though. "I took a risk to go for a medal," he says, "and it didn't work out. I touched a gate and ended up ninth. But that was fine. It was still a good performance coming off the back of the Olympics. I was happy. I was still in a good place."

Then 2009 segued into 2010 and a dark cloud swept in and covered his skyline. He suffered tonsillitis but that wasn't the worst of his problems. A sharp pain in his left shoulder had been nagging him for some time. He put it down to a leftover niggle from previous surgery and raced on. When it got worse, he had it scoped and learned his subscapularis tendon had been virtually shredded right through. The timing couldn't have been worse.

He had surgery in November 2010, and didn't see water again until the following April. The World Championships took place in Slovakia in September and he knew he would go there undercooked and compromised. He tried to compensate by working harder on his technique but, as luck would have it, the course placed more of a premium on physical strength than on technique. Behind the eight-ball before the race even began.

In Bratislava, 15 national Olympic qualifying places were up for grabs and Rheinisch and Ciarán Heurteau were trying to secure a spot for Ireland. When Heurteau alone advanced to the semi-final, Rheinisch found himself in an unenviable position, not wanting his rival to fail, yet aware that if Heurteau qualified a boat, it would be virtually impossible to dislodge him. Three years of hard, relentless toil effectively down the drain.

"Just after that race was rock-bottom," Rheinisch says. "You know you've made a compromise but you're still hoping you made the right decision, that you'll still be good enough. Then reality sets in and you know you've missed out. You're watching the semi-final from the bank. It's all out of your hands. That's a horrible feeling. After all you've done, it's out of your control. It's not nice."

Instead he focused his mind on what he could control. The European Championships would be held in Augsberg in Germany in May 2012, and it offered one last chance to nail an Olympic place. There were just two remaining berths left, though, and a host of European nations determined to snatch it. Rheinisch needed an edge and he believed he knew where to find it.

So he tapped into his network, made enquiries about finding a German coach and, fortuitously, it led him to Thilo Schmitt, a few years younger than Rheinisch, but an accomplished paddler himself and, crucially, a native of Augsberg, intimate with the venue where the championships would take place. They worked together for a trial period and clicked. Schmitt's careful, methodical approach was a mirror of Rheinisch's own.

Before the Europeans, Rheinisch spent two months living in Schmitt's house, working on the course every day, preparing himself for every eventuality that might occur. On the day of competition, he felt calm and controlled and paddled his way into 12th place, comfortably taking the first of the two remaining qualifying places. Job done. His ticket for his third Olympic Games in the bag.

Sometimes his mind drifts back to his first. Before Athens, even. He thinks of Ian Wiley. Wiley had been a genuine medal contender for the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics. In all, Wiley raced on the La Seu Olympic course in Barcelona five times and won on four occasions. The odd one out was the Olympics. His practice run immediately before the Games would have won him the gold medal.

Wiley always understood that the missing fractions arose on the mental side of the process. Everywhere else he measured up. On trips abroad he noted how sophisticated the top athletes were becoming and tried to copy. Before the Sydney Olympics, he enlisted the help of a qualified sports psychologist, Brendan Hackett, and bemoaned the fact he hadn't done it earlier in his career.

From the age of 16, Rheinisch had been travelling abroad with Wiley as part of Irish teams, soaking up the older athlete's experiences, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. Wiley's keen interest in the workings of the mind particularly intrigued him and, before Athens, he too enlisted the services of Hackett, a partnership that has remained fruitful and vibrant for the guts of 10 years now.

It helped Rheinisch that he had three brothers who had all competed internationally, a home-made gauge of what he needed to do in order to live with the best canoeists in the world. Before 2004 he faced a grim battle with his older brother, Aidan, for the Irish berth at the Games. "We'd the same coach. We trained together. We were virtually together all the time. Yeah, it was a stressful time for the family. Only one of us could go."

Aidan was what his brother refers to as a "two per center". One of the few athletes who needed no assistance when it came to mental strength. "I'd beat him regularly at training but he tended to beat me in races. He had that mentality. My potential was higher, but I'd struggle to get it out. He'd be 90 to 95 per cent every time. I'd be maybe 70 per cent for a long time until I accessed that side of things."

He beat Aidan for the Athens place and from there the goal was to be the best he could be. By nature, Rheinisch is an avowed perfectionist, striving endlessly for the perfect race and the perfect training session while Hackett tries to draw him back. Listening to Rheinisch speak, the thoughtfulness and intensity he brings to the conversation, it is impossible to miss the echoes of Pádraig Harrington and he smiles knowingly when this is pointed out.

"You're not the first to say it. A lot of people compare us. Ask Brendan and he'd agree that I can be a bit over-analytical. I just have that kind of temperament. I have a book sitting upstairs. Golf isn't a Game of Perfect. I've never read it. Never even opened it. Brendan bought it for me just for the title. Replace golf with canoe slalom, he said. If you felt you needed to be perfect in my sport all the time, you'd drive yourself insane. Because it just doesn't exist."

He's in thrall to the sport, though. The blend of strength and craft that it demands of you. Go to any event, he says, and you'll see slalom canoeists of every shape and size racing to within tiny fractions of each other. So many ways to skin a cat. Every course is different. There are infinite variables in gate placement, different water speeds and wind currents, strategies that might sometimes change mid-race. A sport no one can ever master.

He's 32 now, pushing veteran status, but the wisdom experience has brought him is ample compensation. At practice on Thursday morning, three days before the heat of battle, he noticed a definite increase in the level and volume of cursing and heated exchanges all around him. Young paddlers, Olympic virgins, losing their heads after one bad session. He smiled inwardly and sympathised, remembering his first time in Athens. He was that soldier.

"You can feel the tension down there. People effin' and blindin' all over the place. It's a stressful time. Two days out people start to panic. You make a mistake and then you start to play it safe. You start doing easy work and think you're fine until the competition starts and throws in something that will shock you. You have to keep challenging yourself in training. Keep trying something new."

So he's in a good place now. Four tough years behind him. The 200 days spent abroad every year. The long waits in airports, trawling a three-and-a-half-metre boat with him everywhere he goes. Sacrifices he has always been happy to make. He thinks of those who have helped him along the way: Hackett, Schmitt, people in the Sports Council and the Irish Institute of Sport. How much easier the journey has been this time around compared to previous Olympics.

He thinks back to Beijing. How in the aftermath of his fine performance, there was talk of building a white-water facility in Ireland, of feasibility studies and plans to get something going in Abbotstown. Nothing happened, of course. The recession struck and, quelle surprise, canoeing was the first to be dropped from the national campus grand plan. Same as it ever was.

Eoin Rheinisch is back again regardless. Feeling as relaxed and ready as he's ever been. Another chance to make a point, perhaps. A story again for another day at least.

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