Canoe Sprint / Featured / General / Sep 28, 2016

The easy answer to the question every Olympic sport is asking itself after Rio is “look at the medal table”.

But that would only provide half the story, and in most of the sports it would give a very distorted reading of what is an incredibly complex story.

The question, of course, is “how did your sport fare at the Rio Olympics?”, and certainly applying the easy answer would give you some of the picture.

Such a response though provides only a superficial reading, and in no sport is that more obvious than Australian sprint canoeing.

If you go on recent results, Rio was not as successful for Australia because we didn’t win a gold medal like we did in 2008 and 2012.

But dig a little deeper, says head coach Jimmy Owens, and a very different story emerges.

“Questions can be asked around a lot of things because we only got one medal, and in the last two quads we’ve got two golds, so people could ask ‘what happened?” Owens said.

“What happened was that we actually built a system underneath the results and the medals and the fourth places, and I think AC and the quad this year have really developed their own system and functionality in regard to being a program.

“In the next four years it will grow even more, it’s just allowing the powers to be to trust that formula and allow it to move forward.”

Off the water Australian Canoeing has been building a program the envy of the sprint world, and while it didn’t equate to gold medals in Rio, there were plenty of encouraging results, and new boats emerging.

“We’re not the only ones out there licking our wounds after such a moment in time that probably didn’t give us what we were hoping to get, but it’s not a negative,” Owens said.

“Reflecting on it over the past week or so, there have been plenty of positives. We can’t dwell on one moment, and see that as a bad result or a negative, because there’s so much in there that has been part of our journey to today and into the future.

“Fourth in the world in the K4 is a massive step, third in the world in the K2 is a massive step. Four years ago we were fourth, four years before that we weren’t even in the final, so it’s a massive step in the sport.”


The lead-up to the Olympics was not easy for the Australian 1000 metre team, with a debilitating illness confining star paddler and 2012 gold medallist, Murray Stewart, to bed.

It meant shuffling the crews around during the European World Cup lead-up events, and eventually led to tough decisions being made on final Olympic line-ups.

It caused sleepless nights for Owens, but in the end he had to make a call.

“We were always keen to have Murray in the boat, but obviously with the timing of him falling ill, it just wasn’t a two or three-week window that he was sick for, it was a whole process around that,” he said.

“He was getting sick leading in, he couldn’t train until he got back to full health, and a lot had happened during that critical window where we had some fantastic results.

“But also by not spreading him across two boats, it gave him a really good opportunity to really nail that K1, and his result and that race was near perfect. Getting that fourth place was bloody awesome.”

The decision also meant two young guns ended up in the big time four years earlier than they could ever have imagined.

Jordan Wood and Riley Fitzsimmons won K2 1000 gold at the U23 2015 World Championships, and had been pencilled in for big things in Tokyo in 2020.

But when they stepped in to help out the K4 boat in Europe, and then helped that same boat repeatedly on to the podium, the next step was obvious.

“I was really impressed with what they delivered through 2015, and then to look at the results we built on through the 2016 World Cups,” Owens said.

“We saw that these guys were really stepping up and I’m really proud of where they put themselves to give themselves every chance of making that team.

“They were fully aware there were bigger boys swimming around, wanting to be part of that K4. But they gave everything to the program at every opportunity they were given.

“It really put pressure on the rest of the team to step up.”


Having worked once, Owens is keen to go back to the well again. He’s confident there are more Woods and Fitzsimmons already in the Australian Canoeing system, and he’s going to leave no stone unturned making sure they get their chance.

“I think we’ve got a very good blueprint already, and I think we executed it really well during this Olympic quad,” he said.

“We went after the U18 and U23 and created a pathway, and not closing the door but creating the opportunities for quality athletes to come up and say they want to be better than they are, and to learn what it takes.

“The only thing we need to do now for the next four years is making a stronger pipeline, with more people involved. We’ve grown the athlete pool, we’ve grown the State institutes, we’ve grown the system at Australian Canoeing, there is so much that’s grown there that is going to play a big part in our journey rolling forward that we need to make sure that we have the personnel around to help grow that.”

The next 12 months will also involve Owens and Australian Canoeing talking to the big three men of Australian sprint paddling – gold medallists Kenny Wallace, Murray Stewart and Jake Clear.

Wallace has already indicated he’s keen to push on for a fourth Olympics, while Stewart and Clear are leaving their options open.

Owens would like all three to stay on.

“It’s massively important,” he said.

“To keep Kenny, Murray and Jake in the sport for another four more years would be absolutely fantastic for the sport. And now we have new Olympians in there, and they are more hungrier than ever.

“And then you’ve got the guys on the fringe who have been so close, they are going to come back and be banging on the door in four years’ time because they know how close they were in 2016 but they didn’t quite get there.”


As with every Olympic campaign, the Olympics themselves brings down the curtain on four years of hard slog, on and off the water.

And while it’s the athletes who get all the attention, there are a lot of people working behind the scenes, helping prepare the athletes, providing advice and assistance to coach Owens and his team, and making sure the wheels keep turning.

And Owens points out, many of those people make enormous sacrifices.

“All this happens because of the support these boys get,” he said.

“No athlete can sit there and say I did that on my own. It’s impossible. We have an awesome support staff, who made enormous sacrifices. The sacrifices they’ve made to their families, it’s massive.

“For the guys you can say it’s easy, they want the medals so it’s their time and their effort, but there are people round who say they are prepared to put in their time for you, and to try and make sure we help you as best we can.”

Among those Owens believes deserve special mention are fellow coach Nathan Luce, Murray Stewart’s hard-working coach, Tim Jacobs, biomechanist David Aitken, physio Jan Martin Parker, strength and conditioning coach Glen Workman, and recently appointed team operations manager, Christine Bain, who Owens describes as “a massive injection of enthusiasm and new blood”.

And he also singles out Australian Canoeing’s high performance manager, Richard Fox.

“For the last ten years we haven’t fallen off the podium, and we are very grateful for the support around us,” Owens said.

“And for that a huge thanks needs to go to (Richard) Foxy; I know we don’t make his life easy, and I know the hardest thing about his job is that people don’t talk to him and ask him how his day was, or how he is feeling or how his kids are.

“People only talk to him about their problems and their negativities and want to have a whinge to him. That’s kind of hard for a position like that, and for people to have to constantly put up with that.

“We owe him a great debt.”

The first post-Olympics Grand Prix will take place on the first weekend in December. You can bet Jimmy Owens will be there, jotting down names and dreaming of Tokyo 2020.