Ready for a rapid response
Eoin Rheinisch is hoping meticulous preparations will give him that vital edge in the men's K1 slalom, writes John O'Brien
T HE Shunyi Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Park is an hour's bus ride out of town, just off the 6th Ring expressway that circles the city at a radius of 25 miles or so.
To the left of the 80-acre complex lies the whitewater course. It is, naturally, the biggest artificial slalom course in the world, more powerful and complex than anything the paddlers have raced on. Further north, if the smog allowed, you could glimpse the splendour of the 10-storey Qiaobo indoor skiing resort
It is just past six when Eoin Rheinisch hauls his boat out of the water and casts a glance at the empty stands that horseshoe the course. "Spectacular, isn't it?" he says, as he heads down the corridor for the three-minute hell that is the second of his twice daily ice baths. Tomorrow afternoon these stands will be bustling with 12,000 spectators when he competes in the first round of the men's K1 slalom. "With any luck," he smiles, "I'll be back here on Tuesday as well."
This is his time. Tomorrow he will feel important, knowing he is a contender in an event that will command headlines around the world. A half three start means they will bear the brunt of the day's humidity, but hidden in that detail is a huge compliment. The statistics show that between 1996 and 2004 the slalom event was among the top five most-watched Olympic sports. And 3.30pm local Beijing time is prime time in parts of America, box office. For two days only, they are paddlers with star appeal.
So he eases himself into the ice bath and, for the duration he is there, he thinks of the rewards it will bring. The cold water will get to the core of his body and cool his blood and the vital organs through which it flows in ways that hotel air conditioning never could. In the morning, he will feel fresh, he will sweat less and his muscles will feel relaxed. Pain now for comfort later; it is no price to pay.
He likes the set-up here. He has his coach, Han Bijnen, his manager, Deaglun O Drisceoil, and trains with the Canadian David Ford. Ford is 41, a former world champion who is competing in his fifth Olympics. A year ago his Federation ruthlessly cut off his funding and, in a goodwill gesture, the Irish team cover some of his costs. They consider it good business; from his training partner, Rheinisch absorbs knowledge like a sponge.
It is his way: human sponge as much as athlete. Among the other Irish athletes in the village, as committed a bunch as you will find, they tell you there is something special about Rheinisch, a thoroughness that most of them could only dream about. "I'd be pretty meticulous alright," he agrees, "a bit of a perfectionist. You get better over the years. The more experience you have, the less mistakes you make."
In slalom racing, the margins between success and failure are tight and come down to the decisions you take as the water rages around you and your boat. Rheinisch had gone to Athens with high hopes four years ago. He had won a World Cup race in Spain that summer. He was ranked in the top 10 in the world. The figures suggested he was entitled to believe a medal was possible. He believed it implicitly.
One moment and he was sunk. In his semi-final, he made one bad decision and it cost him a place in the top 20 who contested the final. "It was a move we thought we could do," says Bijnen. "It was a risky one and it didn't happen. That was the downfall. It comes down to a split second. A risk you take. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it can bite you in the ass."
For a time, Rheinisch says, the mistake hurt him, crushed his spirit, but gradually the pain wore off and he came back a stronger, more focused athlete. Those who know him wouldn't have doubted it. Athens was wrong and served him a brutal lesson, but it was one he could apply to his benefit as an athlete. In a sport where decisiveness is so critical, they knew Rheinisch was blessed with the mental artillery to cope.
Brendan Hackett knew. Before he became involved with Rheinisch in 2004 Hackett, a qualified sports psychologist, had worked with Ian Wiley who had carried the torch for Irish kayaking for more than a decade. Hackett's background is mostly in GAA and athletics, but it was Wiley who left the most vivid impression. Back then the support structures were primitive compared to now, but it struck him that Wiley never complained or sought refuge in victimhood. There was something about him, he thought, a self-sufficiency you rarely saw in the bigger sports.
"It was always my experience that the guys from the smaller sports like Ian Wiley were way ahead of the bigger sports," Hackett says. "They were on the ball in terms of psychology and nutrition and things like that. They were looking at what the Australians or the Canadians were doing. Wiley was doing it and Eoin was growing up seeing how it was done." He sees it in Rheinisch, the thirst for knowledge and the inexorable, can-do attitude. In June last year, he remembers Rheinisch arriving in Krakow for the European Championships to discover his boat had been wrecked in the cargo hold. There were no tears or tantrums. He simply booked himself back to Dublin on the next flight, prepared his second boat and flew out again. In the past year he has had four boats damaged in transit. It is, he accepts, an ever-present occupational hazard.
He arrived without mishap in Beijing two weeks ago, his fifth visit in the past year, and he knows he comes as a better, more mature athlete than he was four years ago. Not that his results this year would suggest it. He finished seventh in Spain last month in the final pre-Olympic world ranking event, by far the best performance of his year, but it came at a time when the top paddlers were inevitably short of their peak, as he was too, so it was form qualified with an asterisk.
What he does take is the work he has done and the confidence he feels when he is in the water. At the start of the year he sat down with Bijnen and effectively decided to write off the year competitively before Beijing. The World Cup events were discarded. The Olympics loomed like a mountain in the distance and scaling that peak was all. The rest were base camps along the way, nothing more. There was a downside to it. Not making finals meant his ranking would slip (he is currently 15th) and ensured there was a constant trickle of people, ignorant of his strategy, wondering why his form had dipped, assuming it bode poorly for Beijing. They didn't know that even on the eve of races, Rheinisch maintained a harsh physical training regime, never wavering in his belief that it was the right thing.
"People were saying 'What's wrong? Have you not been well?' But I'm very happy with what we've done. I just remember before Athens. My best result ever was my World Cup win in Spain that summer. But no one remembers that in an Olympic year. There's no point in performing in World Cups if you don't do it here."
Doing it here. Tomorrow he lines up as one of 21 hopeful competitors. They have two runs with the quickest 15 qualifying for Tuesday's semi-final and final. It helps his case that five of the top 15 are absent, including the Athens gold medallist, most of them undone by the fact that each nation can field only one paddler. Five more get eliminated after the semi-final and it will be another crushing blow if he is gone by that stage.
No guarantees, of course. The Shunyi is by common consent the toughest whitewater course ever built, a course even the strongest paddlers will struggle to overpower. He knows he has the faith in his own technique to cope.
"If you have a lot of strength it can suit you if you get into trouble but overall you can't overpower this water. A technical paddler will do better. I like it. I think it suits me. Like Han says, if you can use the water, make the water do as much of the work as possible, you can be fast around here."
During the past two weeks, Hackett has been telling him about Pádraig Harrington. The golfer may be more famous and have more money, but the comparisons between them are compelling; their open-mindedness towards trying new things, the never-ending search for an edge. "Like Pádraig found all these aids. Then [Bob] Rotella says to him, 'Right, you've got all the bases covered. Now it's up to you. You've got to go out and do it'."
With the eyes of the world upon him, Rheinisch knows that this is his time. The water is as fluid as the possibilities before him.