Sometimes when Riley Fitzsimmons looks around at the athletes next to him, he has to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming.
Such has been the rapid rise from rookie paddler to Olympic squad member for 19-year-old Fitzsimmons, which has seen him develop into a strong chance to make the final men’s K4 1000 boat in Rio.
It would be an incredible journey for Fitzsimmons, who was only just starting out in the sport when Australia won the gold medal at the London Olympics.
“I did watch the k4 race in London,” Fitzsimmons recalls.
“Before the race I was sitting right in front of the tv, and by the end of the race I was running around the house shouting and screaming.
“After watching that race I was pretty hooked and I wanted to do what they were doing.”
And now he is. In style. In the past three weeks he has been an important part of a crew that has win a gold and two silver medals against world-class opposition in Europe.
The final make-up of the quartet to defend the gold medal in Rio has not yet been decided, and with Murray Stewart soon to rejoin the team in Europe, Daniel Bowker getting faster with every 1000m race, and Avoca clubmate Lachlan Tame waiting in the wings, competition is red hot.
“I still pinch myself every time I get to sit in a boat with the guys in this team,” Fitzsimmons said.
“I’ve paddled with some really talented guys and they each bring something different to a team boat. The last four years have gone by pretty quick, so I’ve had to learn pretty fast.
“But with the help of (coach) Jimmy Owens and those senior guys, they’ve really helped me learn and develop as a paddler to get me here.”
Having such experienced athletes around him might also eventually help him deal with his pre-race nerves, although he has developed a strategy to help in that area.
“I’m nervous before every race, I just keep telling myself it’s just like any other race I just have to focus on the things I can control like doing my job right in the boat,” he said from Portugal this week.
“I like to dance around and sing a bit in the boat shed before I get on the water. It relaxes me a bit and keeps it fun so I guess that’s how I deal with the stress and pressure of the race.”
Although maybe it’s better to keep the nerves. After all, it didn’t stop him teaming up with Jordan Wood to win the World U23 K2 1000 title, and it certainly hasn’t slowed him down in Europe this summer.
“Four years ago was when I first started kayaking I didn’t know much about the sport,” he said.
“But I remember watching all the senior guys race off for their Olympic spots, and seeing how happy they all were after hearing their names being called out for the team.
“To make the Australian sprint kayaking team for the Olympics is one of the hardest teams to make in the world and I like that challenge.”