AN ACCIDENTAL (BUT NATURAL) KAYAKER
Growing up in Australia, everybody does sports over there so I had a really active lifestyle but, even though my parents were both kayakers, I never thought it was for me. I literally did every other sport but kayaking. First, I competed seriously in triathlons, then velodrome cycling until, aged 15, my dad said ‘Why don’t you try kayaking and see if you like it?’ I was hooked. Shortly after, I got onto the National Team and started travelling overseas. Everything progressed really quickly and then aged 18 I moved to the UK and represented Team GB until last year.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT BUT YOU’LL NEVER KNOW IF YOU DON’T TRY SO LET’S DO THIS
My biggest inspiration has always been that I want to be better. I want to try to improve, to push myself to the limit and see what I can really achieve. You have so many highs and lows as an athlete that you have to feed off of all your experiences. It’s quite difficult. You’ll have times when you don’t get the result you want but you have to reflect on that and see how you can change it or what you can do to improve. Then when you have your highs, it’s about making sure that you don’t get carried away with them and still reflect on them for how to improve. Achieving that psychological and emotional balance is vital; you need it to fuel you but not to distract you. Do that and you’re half way there.
‘Every athlete wants to be the best they can be, to push themselves and be THE best. You don’t do kayaking to get rich and famous because it’s never going to happen haha. You have to want to do it out of love for the sport; otherwise, it’s so much work, you’d never be able to motivate yourself.’
THE HARD TIMES DON’T LAST FOREVER (BUT IT’S YOU WHO’LL GET YOU OUT OF THEM)
I was on the official sprint programme until the end of 2016. People think that means you get a smooth ride but not at all. At times, it’s been quite challenging. When I began paddling on the National Team, I was the small one of the group. I constantly had to battle to get into the position of the right boats because I wasn’t considered big enough and I didn’t ‘fit the mould’ - even though I was fast enough in my singles! Some coaches have favourites too and I never seemed to be one of them, which is why I missed out on London 2012. That year was tough. Five girls were selected to represent Team GB but, despite being the 3rd fastest, I wasn't selected because the coach didn’t want me in the main boat. Knowing that I was physically good enough but that wasn’t good enough was horrible. I nearly stopped after that, but that’s one of the reasons why having no regrets is so important to me.
Another great example was my journey to the Rio 2016 Olympics. We didn’t find out that we were actually going until 12 days before!! So the 3 months leading up to it were a complete rollercoaster. One day, people would say we were going, the next day they’d say we weren’t or might be going. That was really challenging because you don’t know if you’re coming or going but you have to keep going. You have to stay motivated and training as hard as you can, as if you know you’re going and you’re training to win. The only way to do that is to be logical and compartmentalize it, almost like you’re in denial of everything around you (i.e. the ups and downs, and hype) and all you concentrate on is training for trainings sake so you don’t think ‘what ifs’ or get disappointed. That really helped me. Maybe it’s cliché but I live by having no regrets and I want to know that I’ve done absolutely everything I can to put myself in the best position so by trying to be logical, I know I’ve done that and I can relax more.
'Did you enjoy Rio though? It must have been incredible but, ultimately, even though you wanted it so badly, when you got the opportunity to decide what you wanted to train for this year, you chose marathon. It seems to have really shaped your decisions, perhaps in a different way to how you expected.' Rio was an amazing experience but it was so difficult because being told you are going, then you’re not, then you are, over and over again, when it’s something you want so badly, plays with your emotions. You want to compete in your best state so, for that not to happen because of something so simple is difficult to comprehend. That said, despite all of the highs and lows, I’m so much happier than I’ve ever been and really enjoying my training. At the time, I thought being taken off the training programme was the worst thing in the world but, having worked so hard, learned so much and proven to myself and everybody that I can do it, I’m enjoying my training more than ever and I’ve realised that it was the best thing for me. (Although saying that, I feel I can talk about it quite easily now but if you’d asked me the same question a year or two ago, I’d have felt very differently. I’d probably have felt slightly bitter about it all, but now I’m just like ‘You know what, I’m so happy with what I’m doing now that… It doesn’t matter.’)
ON BATTLING BACK TO BECOME WORLD CHAMPION…
Being taken off of the official programme in 2016 and losing all of my funding was a big defining moment for me. I thought ‘Right, do I continue or do I just stop now? I knew that if I left I could start a new life with new challenges but leaving this way there was a big chance that I might stop enjoying the sport or that I’d always feel bitter about it so I thought ‘No. I believe in myself. I’m going to continue for another year, focus my training on what I want to focus on and see how it goes.’ For kayaking, you have sprint and marathon. Sprint is Olympic distance; marathon isn’t but you still compete in the World Championships and I absolutely love it so I decided to do that. It was a big decision because to train at this level, you can’t do it part-time or half-heartedly so taking on a full-time job wasn’t an option. I had to live off my savings but everything about me said ‘No, forget the risks. I know I can do this. Let’s see what I can actually do’ and I became World Champion. To me, that was the most rewarding thing because I knew how much it had taken for me to get there.
‘I very much have the attitude of ‘I will prove you wrong. I know I can do it and I’ll prove you people wrong’ It’s an amazing motivator.’
FUNNY STORIES: BRIDGET JONES MOMENTS ON THE SKI SLOPES
The best thing about kayaking is being able to travel the world. Every year, we have training camps in Spain, Brazil and more. It’s hard work but have the most amazing adventures and meet the most incredible people. At camp, it’s just us so you end up creating really strong friendships. That’s one of the things I treasure most because when kayaking stops, they’ll still be there.
One of my favourite memories was when we went cross-country skiing as cross-training. People say that if you’re a kayaker, it’s because you can’t do anything else… because you’re not good at any other sports. I don’t think that that’s true (even if this story might suggest otherwise haha). On the way up to the start position, we all decided to take the ski lift. You can either take the button lift or the cable car but, feeling competitive, we decided to race each other up. I said ‘You girls get the chair lift up. I’ll get the button lift’ but what I hadn’t considered was that I’d never been skiing before or how the thing even worked…. Let’s just say you learn fast. Sitting confidently on the seat, suddenly, the whole thing jolted forward and sent me flying high up into the air. I didn’t expect it at all and barely managed to grab it to save myself. Holding on with one hand, I looked up to see them on the chair lift, in absolute stitches watching me be dragged up. It kept getting higher and higher so I knew I’d have to let go. So, like ripping off a band-aid, I just jumped and ended up flat on my back in the snow, skis crossed over. It’s kind of comical looking back but at the time it was so embarrassing. I thought ‘God what do I do?’ I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself by being rescued so I skied back up to find them in stiches of laughter waiting for me.
FAVOURITE PLACES TO KAYAK
BELAHORIZONTE, BRAZIL. I love training in Brazil, especially at the lake where we had our holding camp for Rio 2016 Olympics. That was really cool because it was like a lovely big lake and, as you were training, you could see incredible, massive wombat-looking animals positioned around the water’s edge.
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA. I love warm places so this suits me perfectly. One of my favourite rivers is the Brisbane River. It’s where I first learned to kayak and is full of bull sharks. I remember how they used to come up to clean their gills in the cleaner patches of water. There are quite a lot of sharks around there so it gives you a massive incentive not to fall out. (You definitely don’t want to go swimming there because once they catch on they’re not letting go haha)
I LOVE COMPETING AGAINST RENATA CSAY
She’s Hungarian, 8 times World Champion and incredible. She’s 39 and has accomplished so much so to race against someone of her calibre in itself is brilliant because I have so much respect for her but this year was even better. I finally beat her to become World Champion, which was amazing.
‘Being persistent and really fighting for what you believe and want is so important.’
TIPS TO BECOME A BETTER KAYAKER
1. LEARN TO ENGAGE YOUR CORE
When they first start kayaking, most people get told ‘Switch the core on. Turn the core on.’ You think, ‘What do they even mean?’ You can’t just press it and it turns on but you can definitely learn to engage it better. Core exercises and stability work are great, especially with Swiss balls as they train you to engage your core whilst your stability is being challenged.
2. GET INTO THE ZONE
I’m generally a relaxed person before I race as opposed to being grrrrr… For me, preparation = reassurance so I always have a plan. That way, I can be calm, confident and never need to psych myself up or worry as I know I have it under control. If you know that you’ve trained well and are in control of everything you can be, there’s nothing else you can do. That gives you more scope to focus on controlling the uncontrollable during the race and you can relax.
3. STABILITY, COORDINATION & PERSISTANCE
Great co-ordination and persistence is vital in kayaking. With some other board sports, it isn’t as important but kayaking is such a technical sport that you have to be able to adapt to that. Stability is massively important too. If you’re stable in your boat, you’ll be able to apply the power in your technique better.
One of my coaches used to say ‘You need to be bigger… You need to be bigger…’ As women, and as athletes, you constantly battle against the size issue and, for me, that wasn’t the right advice because I didn’t need to be bigger. You need to be strong and you need to be able to transfer that strength but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being big in size. Everybody’s body shape is very different. There’s a stereotype in kayaking that you need to be strong and big to be fast but that’s not the case at all. You can have compact healthy muscles that are full of energy, strength and power – a real force to be reckoned with! Or big muscles that don’t have the same impact. That’s where style of training comes in.
ON KAYAKING & POSITIVE BODY IMAGE…
Training with 8 girls, all with different physiques, definitely develops body confidence. As kayakers, we tend to be more muscular than other female athletes. It used to put girls off the sport as, even 8 years ago, it wasn’t very popular to be a sculpted woman but, today, the media portrays it much better - strong is sexy - and many celebrity role models are really focusing on being fit and proud of that.
Kayaking has definitely benefited because of that, with more and more talented women participating. Sport is very important in forming body (and psychological) confidence, not just amongst athletes but to young women nationwide, so I’d really encourage more girls to get active. The media bombards us with so many celebrities who strive to achieve the same body type but, in the real world, not everybody looks like that and it creates unnecessary pressure on women who feel they need to compete. In sport, we have so many different body types so it really advertises strong women with strong personalities and healthy lifestyles.
BEST ADVICE: NEVER GIVE UP
It’s so cliché but so true. You have to believe in yourself and go for it because nobody’s going to do it for you. Not only in sport but also in life in general. People give up so easily due to pressure. They think it’s too much work, it might never happen… silly things… but you’ll never know if you don’t try. There are times when you need to say ‘No, I’ve had enough’ but that’s not giving up. Try your hardest first and then, if you decide to take a different direction, you’ll know it was the right decision for you (and maybe even a better one), not the easy one.
Lani Belcher is a British sprint- and flatwater-kayaker, and current European- and World-Champion. Follow her on Twitter