Monday 22 January 2018

Canoeing: Craig delighted to finally make waves

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

HER nickname -- 'Eskimo-belle' -- is what her dad used to called his little daughter, because she never went anywhere without her canoe.

And yesterday, after qualifying for the K1 slalom semi-finals on her Olympic debut, knowing that people might finally understand her sporting obsession is what particularly delighted 29-year-old Ulster paddler Hannah Craig.

She is well used to the blank looks and, worse, the misconception that what she does is pottering about on a benign glassy lake

"I'm lucky even if I get that," she laughed. "Usually people think it's rowing or something!"

A brilliant second run clinched her 14th place in yesterday's qualifying and a place in Thursday's semi-final.

Yet Craig said: "I think I'm more excited that people can finally see what I do.

"I can share it with them now, they can see the intensity of what I do because it's very hard to explain my sport to people. This course, especially, is a great demonstration of it."

Where she grew up -- Armoy in Antrim, before her family moved to France when she was nine -- is best known for motorbike road-racing.

It is doubtful that many of the local petrol-heads would have any concept of how hard it was to negotiate through the treacherous Olympic white-water course in Lee Valley yesterday where the huge drop above Gate 18 has been christened 'Ben Nevis.'

Craig wasn't the only one who struggled on the first run, when she clipped four gates to pick up eight penalty seconds and a time of 117.07 that left her teetering precariously in 14th at the half-way stage, with just 15 to go through.

Australia's Jessica Fox, the reigning world junior champion whose parents are both multiple world medallists, capsized on her nightmare opener.

And Austria's Corinna Kuhnle also struggled, both of them outside the top 15 after their opener.

But, like both, Craig improved radically second time down, hitting only one gate in a time of 1:08.99 to ensure that her 14th place couldn't be usurped.

And her success meant that both of Ireland's K1 canoeists have made their semi-finals.

Four years ago Eoin Rheinisch caused a sensation by finishing fourth and coming agonisingly close to medalling, and Craig hopes the 'wild-card' element to their sport can continue to work in her favour.


She had a world ranking of 49 before yesterday's heroics yet she made it through to the medal mix.

"The world champion got a 50 (second penalty) in the first run. With this sport anything can happen, you never know until you cross the finish line, so I'll go with my plan and try and do it the best I can," she added.

"The intensity of this course leaves it wide open for everybody but again it's about focusing on yourself and your performance. Results and medals, they're all things that don't come into the equation."

Craig certainly demonstrated the particular Zen-like quality that slalom canoeists exhibit as they negotiate their way down thousands of gallons of churning water, like a cork caught in a giant spin-cycle.

The course will be adjusted again to make it even harder for the semi-finals so you never know what's going to be thrown at you.

But Craig -- who moved back to Belfast in the mid-Noughties and was delighted that some of the young canoeists she now coaches there were in the packed stands yesterday -- seemed to relish the difficulty of it.

"It's such an exciting course. The crowd is amazing, the water is amazing and it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I'm very relieved and glad to get to go to the start-line again," she said.

The format of the Olympic semi-finals has changed since Beijing when the best of two runs counted and then carried through to the final.

In tomorrow's men's semis (1.30) Rheinisch will have just one run and he's got to make it count to make the top 10 that will contest the final (3.15).

Irish Independent

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