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'It's not women's sport, it's just sport'

Jenny Egan reflects on her incredible journey – and looks at what’s yet to come on and off the water.

IT WAS INEVITABLE that Jenny Egan would take this path.

It’s almost as if she was born to do this.

image 1 Jenny Egan, Source: SPORTSFILE.

Having followed the proud family tradition, Egan is now one of the best canoeists Ireland has ever produced. Her proud parents, Tom and Angie, took to the sport in their late teens, and their daughter was always going to follow in their footsteps.

Her own journey began a little over 33 years ago.

“My mum would have trained and paddled when she was pregnant with me, you’ve probably seen a lot of headings that I was in a boat before I was born,” she grins.

“I was.

“Then I first sat in a boat on my own when I was three years old, and I did my first race in England when I was eight years old.”

As Egan fell in love with canoeing and everything about it, it soon became her number one. She tried and tested other several sports and did many different activities like dancing, drama, singing and playing the violin, but it always came back to what she knew best.

It gets to a stage where you decide which one it is you want to focus on and canoeing was my main love. I’m a very competitive person and I loved the competitiveness of it and wanting to keep moving forward and achieving different goals within my sport.”

The success came at a young age, and it came thick and fast as this prodigious talent from Lucan, Dublin, made waves — in every sense — in the canoeing world.

The real “turning point” came when the Salmon Leap Canoe Club star was crowned British National Sprint U14 champion and British National Marathon U14 champion. She knew this was what she wanted to focus on, and her heart was set on pursuing canoeing on the biggest stages.

There and then, she knew she wanted to represent Team Egan with distinction going forward. Her older brother, Peter, is also an Irish international canoeist and is now one of her coaches. Her father is the team manager for the Irish canoe sprint team, and her mother has been by her side — whether that be driving her all over Europe as a teenager, keeping her fed and watered or acting as a sounding board and advice-giver — since day one. 

“It is very much a family affair,” Jenny notes, surely smiling from ear-to-ear at the other end of the phone. “I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in without my Dad, Tom Egan, my Mum, Angie Egan, my brother, Peter Egan and now my fiancé, Jonathan Simmons.”

(Simmons is another of her coaches and and has represented Team GB himself.)

Using the current Covid-19 situation as an opportunity to reflect and express gratitude, Egan is keen to share story upon story from through the years to paint the picture of her rise.

The year of her Leaving Certificate was a big one, one she capped with a Junior Marathon World Championhsip bronze medal in Australia in 2005, and a silver medal in the Junior Marathon World Cup in Portugal.

Jenny Egan wins Bronze Medal at ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships in Montemor-o-Velho, Portugal, August, 2018. (1) Egan after winning a bronze medal at ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships in Montemor-o-Velho, Portugal, August, 2018. Source: Jenny Egan.

And after achieving fantastic exam results too, Egan continued her education at Dublin City University [DCU] where she studied Athletic Therapy and Training. She flourished in every sense, and her success continued on the next level.

“2010 was my first Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup medal so when I was just reflecting back on the last decade, as such, it was quite cool because you could see the transformation from 2010 to 2020 of all the medals I’ve won.

The whole journey so far has been amazing and I hope it continues for as long as I still have a passion and I feel like I’m improving. I hope that’s for many more years. I really feel in the last few years I’ve learned so much about myself as an athlete and as a person. Every year I feel like I’m growing better within my sport.

“Since 2015, I’ve medalled internationally every year, be it in a World Cup, European Championships or a World Championships and that’s something really special.

“I’m really proud for myself, my family, my club, Salmon Leap Canoe Club, and Canoeing Ireland. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in without the support of Sport Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland as well.”

But it hasn’t been easy by any means, she stresses.

It’s been a long journey. A lot of people think, ‘God, this has happened overnight,’ but this has been a lifelong journey so far. A lot of hard work, determination and hours have gone into all those medals and performances.

“It’s really special to know that all my hard work is paying off.”

With the highs come the lows.

Missing out on qualification for London 2012 was absolutely heartbreaking, there’s no denying that. Again, she was gut-wrenchingly close but just fell short in her bid for Rio 2016. (Not all distances are at the Olympics so the qualification process is very difficult.)

But the wisdom of experience, maturing and the fact that she had dealt with such disappointment before softened the blow slightly. You live and you learn, and the lows make you a more resilient person and athlete.

All in all, it’s made Jenny Egan who she is now.

All the experiences I’ve had have helped me to be the athlete I am today,” she nods. “Of course there’s been so much heartbreak along the way but it’s how you deal with that heartbreak to move forward.

“People have said to me, ‘Oh Jenny, you’re so great at getting back up on the horse.’ It has been hard but the way that I have moved forward is by focusing: ‘Okay what is the next competition?’

jenny-egan Egan hopes it will be a case of third time lucky for the next Olympics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Because if you keep looking back and regretting things that might have happened and races that you didn’t do well in… I would never have become a World Cup medallist, a European Championship medallist and a World Championship medallist for Ireland — and the only one, male or female, to do it to this day at sprint events.

That’s a message I’m trying to get across as well: you can’t focus on things you haven’t done well in, you have to use those failures as the first attempt to learning, it’s called, and that’s the way you move forward and then achieve in the future.”

Egan takes great pride in the above feat; the fact that she’s the only Irish canoeist — male or female — to have won World Cup, World Championship and European Championship medals at senior canoe sprint level.

“I think it’s really special also that a woman has done it for the first time for Ireland,” she adds. “We wouldn’t have had the same female role models growing up as male role models.

“I hope that I’m an inspiration for both junior boys and junior girls, to see if I can do it, they can do it. That’s a big message to get forward. I know when I saw someone I knew personally achieve, it made me realise, ‘Well, if they can do it, I can do it.’ It’s special.”

She is now that role model, and she feels that there’s an onus and responsibility on her as an athlete to act on it. Increasing the visibility of women in sport, in particular, is something the Dubliner is extremely passionate about. 

It’s not women’s sport, it’s just sport is something she’s said before. And will say again.

“It’s a big point to get across,” the 20×20 ambassador and only athlete representative on the Sport Ireland Women In Sport steering committee says.

“We’re ambassadors for our sport and it’s so important that we try and spread the word as much as possible. I think that it really needs to be done at grassroot level.

Two, three, four-year-olds need to grow up knowing it’s not women’s sport, it’s just sport. That’s what’s really important. It will take a few years and it is a culture shift but it’s moving in the right direction, we just need to keep the momentum up.

The fact that Canoeing Ireland has a female CEO in Moira Aston — one of a small number of female CEOs of National Governing Bodies in Ireland — pleases Egan.

“It shows that we’re going in the right direction, that there will be more females within different leadership roles, governance and then obviously coaching and officiating and also active participation and visibility.”

She speaks highly of the work of Sport Ireland, where the ‘brilliant’ Nora Stapleton is the Women In Sport lead and fellow former rugby international Lynne Cantwell the chairperson of the steering committee for the Women In Sport policy.

jenny-egan Egan is passionate about increasing the visibility of women in sport. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

One really positive thing that was done late last year was the establishment of a Maternity Policy for carded athletes.

“I can’t praise them enough,” Egan explains. “It helps support carded athletes who wish to have babies and come back and compete at the high level. Sport Ireland will support them for a year period. 

“Sport Ireland are really leading the way. So many female athletes have show that it’s possible to come back after a baby and perform better than they have done previous to a baby. I think it’s great.

“I was at the launch, I had to say a quote and Sport Ireland shared that. Australian Women In Sport, they picked up on it and shared it in Australia, saying, ‘How great is it that Sport Ireland have brought in this Maternity Policy.’

Then an athlete from America wrote a big article about it all on Instagram. It got all over the world in such a short space of time that Ireland were paving the way for Women In Sport and Maternity Policies.

“I can’t say enough good things about Sport Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland. They’re really helping all the sports in Ireland to improve and achieve on the world level.”

As Egan, among many others, continue to do year on year. On, and off, the water.

“I have been focusing on this quite a lot recently,” she concludes, “taking any media opportunities to try and increase the visibility of women in sport as much as possible.

“I want to spread the word of the great work being done to increase the visibility of women in sport. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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