Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CK Women

Claire O’Hara World Champion Ladies Squirt Boating
World Freestyle Kayaking Championships 2009

Member of Team GB Freestyle Squad and newly crowned Ladies Squirt Boating World Champion Claire O'Hara shares her experiences of reaching the very pinnacle of her chosen branch of the sport, what it takes to get there and what it means to her.

It isn’t very often that we get to do the sport that we love at the top level and to reach the goals we set out to achieve. But I have recently been fortunate to do just that.

I have just returned from the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships where I competed in the ICF Ladies Squirt Boating Event and where I won the Gold medal and the World Championship title.

I have been training for this event for the last two years, since finishing second in the last World Championships in Canada in 2007 where I came agonisingly close to winning the gold. I remember being so happy about winning the silver but having that small feeling of disappointment at having been so close to gold. It was at this moment that I knew that this was to be my goal: I would give my all to train to be the best I could be and to reach my peak in time to fight for the World Championship title this year.

So, two years and countless hours of paddling and gruelling gym sessions later I found myself out in Switzerland. 250 athletes from 32 countries descended on the small town of Thun set in the heart of beautiful Switzerland to compete to become World Champions. Stands were built, meetings were held and the judges and spectators arrived as we drew closer to the competition start.

The squirt boating event was scheduled to be the first event of the championships and was set below a quaint Swiss weir amid a collection of bars and bridges, below the old town and castle in the centre of town. It was the perfect venue for a world event. The river was bright blue in the sun, with a nice size eddy for the flat water routines and a complex eddy line that changed daily offering itself as a testing mystery site for the world’s top competition squirt paddlers.

I arrived a week before the opening ceremony to train at the venue and spent hours trying to master the mystery site and choreograph a freestyle routine that would allow me to maximise my points in the allotted time (one minute runs). I planned my runs to utilise the river’s natural flow and features, to gain style points and bonuses and to finish in the perfect position to go for the mystery move (where the paddler uses the river hydraulics to get the boat to go under the river surface and travel as deep and as far as possible) hopefully allowing me to get a winning ride score.

For the first seven days I was the only British squirt boater out there, so I spent a lot of time paddling alone with my coaches, studying the venue and chatting to other squirt boaters from across the world. Within a few days it quickly became apparent that the standard at this year’s event was going to be exceptionally high and the competition close. I knew I needed to stay focused on the goal in hand but wanted to ensure that I also enjoyed the experience. It is psychologically demanding to compete at the top level and one of the things I have found most challenging over the years is to not get to engrossed in what my competitors are doing and instead to stay focused on what I can control. I try not to be influenced by what others are doing but instead going out there and doing my best, remembering what it is that I need to do to be at my best and sticking to it. For me, this meant staying off the water and resting for at least 3 days before the competition. For my team mate and new C1 World Champion Dave Bainbridge, this was going for a 50 mile bike ride each day in the lead up to the competition; and to others it means very different things. Understanding what it is you need and sticking to it is vital in being able to perform at your best.

So by the day of the competition I desperately wanted to get on the water and get ready for the competition. With the help of my coaches, personal trainer and many supporters I was mentally and physically prepared for the competition ahead. The crowds of British supporters lined the riverbank; my fellow athletes were all kitted up ready and prepared to go. I had my boat, my blades my bib. My number called, my coach by my side, the judges’ thumbs up, this is it. I was off ...

I qualified in 1st place over 100 points clear of 2nd place. I slept, excited, nervous.; I couldn’t wait for the final. Back on the water, we go in reverse order, and I’m up last. Everyone else paddles amazingly well. I go, I’m in the lead; my teammate Emma takes 2nd place, Vallerie Bertrand from Norway and Motoko from Japan battle to try and beat us both. Results are in: I’ve won. I can’t believe it. I’ve won! Everyone cheers, its incredible. Emma’s 2nd, Valerie’s 3rd. We are on the podium, the anthem plays. The World Freestyle Squirt Boat Kayaking Championships finish. It’s all over. I won?

And now I’m home. How do I feel? I’m not really sure. I am caught in a whirlwind from the success, running from one place to the next. So many things to do and places to go, people to thank and letters to write. I find myself not having a chance to even stop and think. I am elated, totally stoked to have made it to the World’s Finals, let alone to have won. In some ways, I still can’t believe it; I don’t even think that it has sunk in yet.
Is it really true, or was it all a dream? Have I really reached my goal? Am I world champion? Yes, I guess the gold medal in front of me and the photos say I have... Wow!
Is there a word to describe it all? Maybe ‘Epic’ will do.

What is it that makes a champion? It is a person with a passion for which they have focus, drive and determination to be the best and to succeed, supported by a network of positive enthusiastic people encouraging them to reach their goal.

I personally would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who played a part in helping me along my way, from those who introduced me to my first kayak and the sport over 15 years ago all the way through to everyone involved in supporting.

Thank you.