24 hours after she thought her Rio dream was over, 2012 London Olympian Naomi Flood has stormed back into the picture with a stunning win in the K1 500 final at the Australian Canoe Sprint Nationals in Perth.
Fellow Sydney Northern Beaches paddler, Murray Stewart, won his third title of the week, the K1 1000, and now has to make the difficult choice of what event to focus on ahead of the Rio Olympics.
29-year-old Flood chose exactly the right time to win her first national 500-metre title, and will now go head-to-head with K2 partner and close friend, Jo Brigden-Jones, on Sunday to try and keep her Olympic hopes alive.
“I had to put it out there today,” Flood said.
“I’ve never won the K1 500 at nationals, so it was a pretty strange time to do it. It’s really thrown a curve ball amongst the girls.”
Australia has only qualified three women for this year’s Rio Olympics, and with two of those positions going to the K2 500 combination of Alyssa Bull and Alyce Burnett, the remaining position is up for grabs.
Brigden-Jones won the first two nomination races for the K1 200, and also the first nomination race for the K1 500.
But Flood’s victory on Friday makes the score 1-1, meaning a race-off on Sunday.
If Flood wins that race, the final position will be determined by results at the first World Cup event in Germany in May.
But if Brigden-Jones wins she will be nominated to the Australian Olympic Committee.
“It’s hard to race Jo, my K2 partner who I’ve been training on and off with for the past two years,” Flood said.
“We live in each other’s pockets, and now we have to go head-to-head on Sunday. It’s pretty crazy.
“That’s sport. You don’t do it to make friends, unfortunately, you do it to be the best. I need to re-group myself before Sunday. I thought that was going to be my last paddle ever.”
Flood said she and Brigden-Jones were devastated after having their colours lowered to Bull and Burnett in the K2 500, and revealed she had a personal struggle in recent months.
“I’ve had a really, really bad six months, personally and as an athlete, so coming back from a few massive rock bottoms it was pretty shitty, there’s no other way to describe it,” Flood said.
“I did think it was over. I was trying to be realistic. You can’t be good every race, you can’t be good every regatta, you have to try and dig deep and find something.”
Murray Stewart finds himself in the box seat to compete in all three 1000 metre races in Rio after winning the second K1 1000 selection event on Friday, although it’s highly unlikely he would race in all of them.
He qualified as part of the K4 1000 on Wednesday and then won the second selection event alongside Jacob Clear in the K2 1000 on Thursday.
His K1 1000 campaign in London in 2012 was hampered by illness, and he admits that’s left some unfinished business.
“Following the gold in the K4 I sat down with my wife and family, and thought about whether it was a good time to part ways with the sport and focus on other things,” Stewart said.
“But there were two things that kept me going. One was to defend that K4 title, and the other was to see how fast I could go individually, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since.”
He said the K1 has always been special for him.
“It’s pretty close to the heart,” he said.
“I’ve been training on my own in Sydney for quite a few years now, which means I’ve focused a lot on the K1 just from being in isolation a bit.
“I know to win nationally is one thing, but to take it to the rest of the world is a totally different kettle of fish. So I have to up my game from now on if I’m going to race that event.”