Essay | Vice-European Champion!
Circumstance and Choice
There were European Championship demons to overcome. In previous years, I have felt amazing in the build up to competing. Yet on the day, my performance fell short. Two things changed this year - one choice, one circumstance. The choice was to ‘bury the hatchet’ on an old grudge. In 2010 Greg (Pitt, doubles partner 2009-15) and I were told we couldn’t race the U23 event because I was also in the junior race in my single boat. The ruling made no sense, cost us the opportunity to race for a medal, and I really struggled to forgive the man responsible.
Maybe it’s all the yoga and meditation I’ve been practicing? Whatever it was, I decided this year was time to make peace. I genuinely feel like there was psychological benefit to this. But the other change that occurred potentially has more relevance in terms of performance.
Back to the amazing form I felt before previous European Championships. This year, it wasn’t there. When I feel ‘ready’, the gates seem wider, the water wants to be on my team, and time slows down giving me space to react. I have experienced these sensations for weeks on end in the past. But in this game, timing is key. The feeling arrives when I reduce my training volume. There is only so long that conditioning can be sustained though without a top up. Fabien Lefevre eludes to this in his book, he calls it ‘racing capital’ which I think is a relatable description. I get more explosive and down to my ‘race weight’ too. This can offer increased risk of illness / injury – in that sense I am often compared to a ‘thoroughbred’ by my support team.
Feeling the need to catch up training that I lost through injury, circumstance lead me to reduce my volume later than previous. I was concerned this year when those familiar good feelings didn’t arrive in training. I had a very good week learning the course in Prague, but I was still making clumsy mistakes. Finally, in the days leading up it started to happen for me. My last full run before the race was my best, but with a penalty. I’m grateful for that error. I believe this kept me concentrated and calculated through what followed.
Progression through the rounds to the final was a journey in itself. Delivery under pressure was key. I took a lot of energy from performances earlier this year under similar circumstances. Failing to come through the first heat left me in a ‘pressure cooker’ situation of a second heat run. Faced with a very competitive start list, and only 5 semi-final places available. I’d never choose to be in that situation. Yet when it comes down to it and I’m looking pressure in the face it makes me feel alive. The heat of the moment is extraordinary and I enjoy every second of it. Those experiences are special.
Taking the win was a bonus. Conjointly, so was the comment made by our Performance Director: ‘Cold as ice, Burgess!’ – A testament to how far I’ve come staying cool in those situations.
With Semi-finals came the promise of a new day. Buoyed by the performances of British Canoeing in earlier categories I was excited to get going. However I wasn’t happy with my semi-final performance. It was OK, but I knew I could do much better. In anticipation of finding out if I had done enough, the wait was tense. But worth it! At 9th place I had secured a place in the 10 boat final. An encouraging result for me and everyone involved in light of the performance.
If you read my Euros ‘preview’ you will know what a special place Prague is to me. There are few opportunities available in canoe slalom which top the feeling of racing a final on that stage! The Czech crowd, exciting commentary, and the highest quality of canoe slalom. I love it! My plan remained the same from the semi-final with confidence I would deliver it better. Warm up felt good. Moving nicely. My connection to the water felt strong. ‘Internal chatter’ was super positive. Reigning in excitement rather than overcoming nerves.
I can recall five instances during that run where I was ‘conscious’, otherwise I was in ‘flow’. A decisive point was around halfway when I heard my split time. This was a good run. It’s easy to dwell too long, go safe, or get too excited. All of which cause mistakes. I’m super proud of the refocus in that moment to deliver the remainder of the run!
It has taken a long time to ‘come down’ from the performance. The days following were busy and the race was difficult (but enjoyable!) to talk about. I was processing exactly what happened. Still experiencing the run itself let alone think about the silver medal (and how to turn it into a gold next time!) Special moments shouldn’t be rushed. Grateful to have so much family and support out there to go through it all with me.
I’ll keep this short. The people make canoe slalom. For a competitive environment it couldn’t feel any more like a family. Grateful to everyone who reached out!