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Ireland Canoeist Liam Jegou Heads to Tokyo Olympics on a High

1st July 2021
Liam Jegou in determined form in the 2021 season
Liam Jegou in determined form in the 2021 season Credit: Nina Jelenc

Ireland canoeist Liam Jegou has had mixed results this season, but he flies to Tokyo on Monday buoyed by a good showing at the recent World Cup in Leipzig.

Sixth place in Germany sets him up nicely for the Olympic Games – particularly since the competition for the C1 paddler in Tokyo is set to be less testing than he is used to in World Cups and the World Championships.

“I feel pretty good. I had a few complicated races at the beginning of the season because I was training through them in order to peak for the Games this summer,” he says.

“So, the fact that last week in Leipzig I managed to put down a really good performance in the finals really boosted my confidence.

“It came at the right time, when I needed it. I’m feeling pretty confident in the way I’m paddling. I’m ready to show what I’ve got in Tokyo.”

Only 17 will compete in the C1 (Canadian canoe) in Tokyo, a very different scenario to the big numbers in World Championships and World Cups – 41 started at the World Cup in Markkleeberg, near Leipzig, with multiple entries from big powers like France and Slovakia. And some of the top men will not be going to Tokyo. The reigning Olympic champion, Denis Gargaud Chanut of France, won in Leipzig but did not make it through France trials.

“The Olympics is quite special in that regard in canoe slalom, because we only have the best of each nation there representing their country. At the World Championships you have three Slovaks, three French, three British. [The Olympic rules] narrow down the field [but] the guys that are there are the best in their nations.

"I’m feeling pretty confident in the way I’m paddling. I’m ready to show what I’ve got in Tokyo"

“So the Olympic champion is not going to the Olympics, but he was beaten by someone else [Martin Thomas] and that someone else is a very good paddler and he will be up there for a spot on the podium. The same with the Slovaks and all the [other] bigger nations.

“There are less people, but all the people that are there won very difficult selection [races] to qualify for the Games.”

One of the big challenges for most competitors will be heat in Tokyo in high summer. Jegou feels he is well prepared.

“It will be quite difficult. I have raced in the heat before; I raced in Rio, which was very warm. I was very lucky to be able to go to a training camp in February of this year on Réunion island. The temperature and the humidity was similar to what we are expecting in Tokyo.

Liam JegouLiam Jegou - a really good performance in the finals in Leipzig has really boosted his confidence

“I’m not too worried about it. I think we are very lucky [as competitors] in canoe slalom, [the heat] doesn’t affect us as much as some of the other athletes that aren’t in water.

“The measures we are taking are to stay out of the sun as much as we can, stay hydrated, [use] cooling vests and ice packs in the evening. I’m not too stressed about the heat.”

Jegou, who is 25, grew up in Clare, with a French father and Irish mother who moved back to France when he was a child of seven. However, he retained his sense of being Irish – and his accent. He is now based in Pau in France where he is coached by Nico Peschier. The arrangement owes a lot to another Irishman based abroad.

Mike Corcoran, who has lived in the United States for many years, was the last Irishman to race in the Olympics in the C1: he finished 12th in Barcelona in 1992 and 10th in Atlanta in 1996.

He sponsors Jegou, and stays in contact.

“Without him it would be much more difficult to qualify for the Games and to have gotten the results I have gotten,” Jegou explains.

“I know him well. I’m on the phone to him regularly. It’s great to have Mike on board with the team and to hear of his experience of the Games. It’s been brilliant and it’s a huge opportunity for me.”

“Mike talks a lot about enjoying the race, just doing your best and not focusing on the others. That really works for me – not worrying about who’s doing what, just making sure I’m doing my best run.”

Corcoran advises him not to take it too seriously.

“Be serious in training, but when you’re racing you’re there for the fun. Even though it takes a huge amount of time – and, I wouldn’t say, sacrifice – a huge investment, not to forget that when you’re racing you’re doing it because you love it and because it’s fun.”

As a lot of Irish fans may find in the next few weeks, slalom canoeing is a good watch. One of the selling points is that tiny margins – a touch on a gate (they hang down over the course), or a misjudgment of the flow of the charging water can be the difference between a medal or nothing at all.

"Jegou welcomes the help of a sports psychologist"

Being psychologically strong – willing to embrace risk knowing it may end in failure – is crucial to success, and Jegou welcomes the help of a sports psychologist.

“It’s a huge part of the sport. You can be as [good] physically, technically, as you want [but] if on the day you’re stressed out, you’re too tense and you push too far on your knee or you are too close to a gate it is over.

“So, it’s a huge aspect, a huge part of the sport. And any mistake in canoe slalom is very expensive. So, it’s a huge part of my training.”

He is very thankful for the backing of Canoeing Ireland, Sport Ireland the Olympic Federation and his frame of mind going to Tokyo is good.

The lift of making the final in Leipzig was even greater because he finished just under two seconds short of a bronze medal – he had three touches on gates, each cost two seconds. Two touches and he would have been on the podium.

This was all the sweeter as his most dispiriting result had come in the previous event – he missed out on even making the semi-final at the World Cup in Prague.

“So in Markkleeberg, having spent a pretty bad week after the World Cup in Prague, with a lot of self doubt, I was really proud to turn it around and put down three really good runs: to qualify for the semis, and then in the semis a solid run to qualify for the finals, and then in the finals I paddled the way I wanted to paddle. I took a lot of risks, I cut some lines, picked up a few unfortunate touches and [was] a touch away from a medal.

“So, a really big confidence boost for myself. I proved to myself that I have what it took and I can do it.

“It came at the right time!”

On Monday he departs for Tokyo. Three more good runs and the podium could be in his sights.

Published in Canoeing
Liam Gorman

About The Author

Liam Gorman

Email The Author

Liam Gorman is a writer and reporter. He is the co-author of Little Lady, One Man, Big Ocean, published in the United States and Canada as Crossing the Swell. He is the rowing correspondent of the Irish Times.  

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