Tuesday 17 September 2019

'I wanted to be an actress but now I do a different type of performing'

Egan dreams big after giant leap to first marathon championship medal

Jenny Egan in relaxed mood at Salmon Leap Canoeing Club
Jenny Egan in relaxed mood at Salmon Leap Canoeing Club
Barry Lennon

Barry Lennon

Tom Egan dreamed of winning All-Ireland hurling finals growing up, which some might consider a fantasy for a man from county Sligo.

However, when injury put paid to his small-ball career, he turned to canoeing with Kildare's Salmon Leap Club, where the Egans started a journey to international success.

The engineer's daughter, Jenny, made history when the family's grand designs saw her become the first Irish woman to win a marathon championship medal last September in South Africa.

Many years before that result, dad and mum Angie introduced her to the sport at the Leixlip club, and ensured she was in a boat aged just three.

However, Jenny had different ideas originally.

"When I was younger I always wanted to be an actress, a singer, a dancer and be on stage performing. So you could say that I'm doing a different type of performing now," she says.

"I became British national sprint and British national marathon champion at Under-14. When I got to 15 I had to decide what I was going to concentrate on.

"My brother Peter is also an Irish international canoeist. I wanted to follow in his footsteps."


Egan's family support has been vital in pursuing a career which cost her €30,000 to compete in Portugal, China and South Africa last year.

Sponsors provide her with a boat, worth about €3,000, at every event while Sport Ireland provide €12,000 in funding. However, Egan still must live a frugal life.

"I can't afford a mortgage or even to rent. I'm not working full-time," she adds.

For Egan, whose coaches include her boyfriend Jon Simmons and brother Peter, her success has always been a family affair. It helped her win a junior marathon bronze while studying for her Leaving Cert in 2005.

"I'd come training in the morning before school. My mum would have breakfast for me before. After school I'd train as well. I did that during my Leaving Cert year because that was my last year of junior," she says.

After the heartbreak of 2016, where her hopes and boat slipped from her fingers, Egan returned to the marathon championships in South Africa last year.

This time she righted those wrongs, winning bronze in a gruelling 26km race which has six 'portages', where competitors sprint for 100m after each 3.6km stretch.

"[In 2016] I was with the top four in the lead group. We were getting out at the third portage, I went to grab the handle, which we have to help carry the boat when running, and it snapped," she recalls.

"My boat filled with water and I lost the lead group. I was very disappointed because I knew I'd a great chance of a medal that year.

"It's a very tactical race. You have to be aware all the time and in the best shape of your life. Going to South Africa (last year), I knew I'd a chance but everything has to come together on the day. And, thankfully, it did. I felt the best I ever felt."

The historic result capped off a year where she had already made a giant leap by winning gold and bronze in K1 5,000m sprint world cup events.

The fortunes of her club, beside Weston Airport, have soared since Gary Mawer won Ireland's only other marathon championship medal, taking silver in 1996.

Salmon Leap has come a long way since it moved to the Leixlip reservoir on the Liffey's banks (members had to use their cars to transport boats to the river from the club's old home on the town's Main Street).

Egan, who turned 30 the year of her marathon bronze, hopes to continue carrying the torch for the club.

"In canoeing, people can compete until their late 30s and early 40s. Some women would go have children and then go back competing," she reflects.

However, Egan, realising high-level sport doesn't last forever, has already planned for the future having graduated with a degree in athletic therapy - a rare achievement among her competitors.

"Most athletes I compete against at the top level are full-time canoeing so it's nice to be able do a degree and compete against the best," she says.

Egan hopes to make next year's top eight at the World Championships or top two at the following European Championships to qualify for the Olympics.

Despite a collision causing her upset in the K1 5,000m at the World Cup this month in Hungary, she aims to push the boat out this season.

"I'd a really good winter. I'm in good spirits and I feel I'm ready for competition," she says.

Irish Independent

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