Time to dip a paddle into the white water

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Canoeists are hoping Campbell Walsh's success at the Olympics will help bring a new generation into their sport, writes Roddy Mackenzie.

The Olympic medals brought home from Athens in canoeing, rowing, sailing and cycling all involved sitting - but the fitness level required to get to the top of any of those sports shows that the Scottish competitors have not been lazing around doing nothing.

Campbell Walsh's silver medal in the men's K1 kayak singles has brought canoeing to wider public attention and there are hopes for new participants in the sport. The Scottish Canoe Association, established in 1939, is keen to see more children taking up paddles and will be monitoring any increase in interest over the months ahead.

Scottish canoeing has been fighting against the tide in recent years. The SCA has 2,500 members - mostly recreational canoeists - and there are 85 canoeing clubs throughout Scotland, but the association admits there has been a drop off in the number prepared to accept membership from under-18s, due to child protection laws and the heavy liability insurance. Also, while there are plenty of natural facilities in Scotland and there is a slalom course at Grandtully in Perthshire, which has permanent gates, there is no artificial white water course like the one at the National Watersport Centre in Nottingham, so top canoeists such as Mr Walsh base themselves in England.

However, these difficulties have not stopped Scotland continuing to produce world-class canoeists and having what Stuart Smith, the recently-appointed chief executive of the SCA, believes is "a disproportionately high representation in British teams at junior and senior level".

National Lottery funding has helped and SportScotland's talented athlete programme last month awarded almost pound;80,000 to the SCA to enhance the training and competitive programmes for 22 of the best canoeists (Walsh's younger sister Kim among them).

There are Scottish junior squads at under-16 and under-18 level and Mr Smith believes there are plenty of opportunities for interested young paddlers.

The SCA has an introductory skills coaching programme for children aged 9-14. They work their way up through the seven levels of the Rainbow Awards scheme, from basics, such as holding the paddle, to skills on the water.

Once they complete the rainbow, they progress to a three-star award, which takes them to a more advanced level.

"Campbell started when he was 12 and it has taken him 14 years to get to where he is, so you can see how much work goes into it," Mr Smith says.

"He was fortunate in that John Brown, his maths teacher at school (Denny High in Falkirk), coached a lot of up-and-coming canoeists in his spare time. Now we are seeing the benefit of that.

"Campbell is a Scot competing at the highest level. He was a World Cup silver champion before the Olympics. He also kept Paul Ratcliffe out of the British team for Athens and Paul won a silver medal at the previous Olympic Games.

"It's too early to say whether Campbell's silver medal will make an impact in terms of youngsters wanting to take up the sport but hopefully it will lead to an upsurge in interest. Hopefully, his success will also encourage the current recreational canoeists to try competitive slalom."

Mr Smith acknowledges that it is difficult for canoeing to be taught in school because of safety legislation. Youngsters tend to get into the sport through clubs, which have a strong voluntary framework. But the Scottish Canoe Association is happy to help interested schools, he says, in terms of borrowing or finding equipment, supplying qualified coaches or any other advice.

"No one should feel that they cannot try the sport because of the costs.

It's an inexpensive sport to take up as clubs will have basic equipment for newcomers to try and all the safety requirements.

"It is only when people start taking up competitive canoeing seriously that boats become quite expensive, as obviously Olympic competitors are looking for lighter and stronger boats," he says.

As with any sport, it is hard work to get to Olympic level in canoe sprint (on flat water) or canoe slalom (on turbulent water): it requires stamina, support from other people and challenging facilities. Upper-body strength is essential, so many hours have to be spent in the gym.

The sport relies heavily on volunteers, as staging a slalom competition requires judges at each gate and sophisticated timing devices to be operated.

Scotland has access to better natural facilities than England and Wales, admits Mr Smith, but the best rivers are a long way from where most people live and work or study. A more easily accessible centre, somewhere in the central belt, would greatly enhance the sport and encourage more children to try canoeing.

"For the past 10 years, the item at the top of the board of management agenda is to build an artificial white-water course in central Scotland," admits Mr Smith.

"We need to get funding for a facility where our top slalomists can train all year round, no matter what the water levels are.

"We might still lose some to the national centre in Nottingham but there would not be the same need for our top canoeists to base themselves down south."

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