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'I'm trying to take the positives, and using this time to work on my weaknesses'

Irish canoeist Jenny Egan is focusing on the positives of lockdown – and is always moving forward.

Irish canoeist Jenny Egan.
Irish canoeist Jenny Egan.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

JENNY EGAN TRIES to take the positives from every situation. She always tries to look on the bright side. 

And that’s no different through the Covid-19 pandemic and sporting shutdown.

When the current situation really hit home on these shores, the Olympic hopeful was on a training camp in Florida with the Danish women’s canoeing team, who were also targeting Tokyo 2020.

With five weeks of intensive training under their belts, the plan was one more week in Florida, home for 10 days and then another collective three-week camp in Portugal. Those best-laid plans came to a sudden halt, and the script had to be rewritten. They considered staying Stateside to avoid the risks associated with travelling but the decision was then made to try and follow the original ploy.

Home to Dublin and on to Portugal, so. Be grand.

“But then,” Egan laughs,”maybe three days after I got home, everything just completely changed.”

The first weekend of May should have brought her first international event of the year in the European Continental Olympic qualifier, then it was on to Czech Republic and then Germany for back-to-back World Cup events with coveted tickets to Tokyo up for grabs. Jumping from competition to competition, right through the summer — as usual — and hopefully all culminating in Japan.

But everything was soon cancelled, and the big news of the Olympics postponement followed. It all happened so quickly in the end as this new normal took over.

“Everyone has had to adjust,” the 33-year-old tells The42, rooted firmly on home soil since. “We’ve been in lockdown now for over a month. I’m in a pretty good situation.”

Her canoe ergometer machine is getting plenty of use, she’s running within her 5km radius and keeping herself ticking over with gym equipment. 

“Of course it’s not the same as getting on the water but I’m using the time to work on my weaknesses — and I think that’s a really important part for a lot of people,” Egan continues.

When you adjust to the current situation, think about what it is that you can do to help yourself at this time. Normally, us as athletes, are always going, going, going and we mightn’t have time to work on our own individual weaknesses or things we need to improve on ourselves.

“That’s the kind of advice I’ve been giving to athletes and the general public as well: Do something that you usually don’t have time to do just to help you through this period, work on your weaknesses for when you do get back to competing.”

It’s difficult, yes. It’s unlikely she’ll race again this year. Everything, bar one event which has been postponed, has been cancelled.

“The current scenario is there might be one race this year in September, but who knows if that will go ahead or not. I’ve just been taking it day-by-day, focusing on my training and using the time to focus on my weaknesses to be as fast as possible next year.

Jenny Home Training 2020. Egan training from home. Source: Moments in Motion.

“It’s been a different time. Since I was 14 or younger, I’ve been racing every summer outside Ireland. This might be the first year since I was 13 or 14 that I won’t have raced anywhere outside of Ireland — or even in Ireland.

It’s a totally different scenario but we just have to deal with what we have. You have to be resilient as an athlete anyway, but you definitely need to be resilient during these times and just try and focus on what you need to do every day to try and improve and be better for the next competition, whenever that may be.

“I know it’s difficult for athletes because it’s uncertain when they might race again next, and we don’t know when the next qualifier might be for Tokyo 2020, which is now in 2021.”

“What I say to people is let’s try and take it day-by-day and do our training day-by-day with a focus on what I need to improve on as an individual,” she adds. “It is difficult, usually I’m training with people all the time.

“Luckily, I live with my fiancé [Jon Simmons] and he coaches me, along with my brother, Peter Egan, so I’m in a good position that at least I’m living with one of my coaches and he would still do training sessions with me at this time. I’m just trying to use the time to help me improve as an athlete for whenever the next competition may be.”

The Olympics being postponed to next year, at earliest, certainly wasn’t unexpected, with calls for the Games’ rescheduling heightening in the lead-up to the announcement.

It’s thrown a spanner in the works, but that’s life. Egan had a big drive on for third time lucky after narrowly missing out on qualification for London 2012 and Rio 2016. This was to be the time.

My focus was on trying to qualify,” she nods. “A lot of people don’t realise in our sport that there’s very few quota places available and that’s something I’m trying to educate society on. They just don’t know our sport really because it’s minority and it’s just not in the public eye as much.

Not every distance features at the Olympics, so here’s a look at Egan’s category: the top five at the 2019 World Championships in the Women’s K1 event — the single boat event in the 500m and 200m — qualified last year at the World Championships, there’s one host nation quota and one each qualifies from four continental qualifiers. Europe would be the fifth, but there’s two spots up-for-grabs there, and one more available at the World Cup qualifier.

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Having changed the qualification process for Tokyo, it’s now even harder to qualify for the single boat event.

“It really appeals to crew boats now and unfortunately Ireland just don’t have crew boats at that level,” Egan explains. “They’ve made it very hard for smaller nations to qualify. 

“Saying that, my focus was on trying to qualify for Tokyo and I was meant to be competing now in May, trying to get a quota place for Tokyo. Obviously the focus has completely shifted to next year trying to qualify, but we don’t even know when those qualifiers may be.

There’s a lot of unknowns at this moment but we just have to keep going. I’m keeping training, keeping my focus and hoping that a little bit of a break from travelling and competing, and just focusing on training for a year period might actually be a positive for me.

“There’s even uncertainty that maybe the Olympics will happen next year. We can’t really go back to normal until a vaccine has been found. Look, we have to just stay positive.

“If you just think about not knowing when the next competition will be, it can be very unmotivational. I’m quite a motivated person and I just try and take the positives from every situation, and try keep moving forward.”

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

Seeing as this is the longest time she’s been away from the water since a bad bout of glandular fever and a three-month absence in 2006, Egan is using her spare time wisely. 

Although always looking forward, she’s reflecting on how far she’s come and the highs and lows she’s encountered along the way: “As athletes, that’s one thing that we probably aren’t very good at doing sometimes and that’s just the nature of the game as well.

If you reflect too much and keep thinking of the past, you wouldn’t be moving forward into the future and thinking about what you want to achieve. But it’s really important to reflect.

She’s dedicating time to fulfilling media interviews and exploring different avenues to increase the visibility of women in sport. Egan is the only athlete representative on the Sport Ireland Women In Sport steering committee, and is one of 20 athletes representing the 20×20 campaign in the year 2020.

Her passion shines through as she speaks of the honour to be involved on both fronts, and she’s thoroughly enjoying her work.

“It’s about trying to focus on different things that I wouldn’t always have the time to do because I would always be training, travelling and competing,” Egan smiles. “I’m still training two or three times a day from my house, but because you’re not travelling as much, you have more time in between the training sessions to do different things.

“It’s a different scenario but I’m trying to take the positives from it, and use this time to work on different areas that I wouldn’t normally have time to work on because I’m always thinking, ‘Okay, the next competition’s in two weeks time, I need to do this training…’ I’m not just taking a step back to think about what are the little things I could improve on that will help me in a year’s time.”

She’s optimistic that the sporting shutdown might actually be a good situation for many athletes who are always on the go, travelling, training and competing and never have a moment to spare.

Maybe this will be good for athletes as it’s a time to step back, reassess your body, reassess your mind and your physical ability. It’s also important to try and prevent burnout — burnout can be a big part of athletes in their normal lifestyle because you’re always travelling and always competing, so it could be a chance to try and reset your body and mind for next year, let’s say, and use the time to concentrate on other things that you mightn’t necessarily have time to do.

“I feel like I’m using the time wisely to try and improve my weaknesses, and just let my body reset. We’re always travelling and flying and that probably takes a big toll on our bodies as well.

“Maybe this period of time, without so much travelling and racing will allow our bodies to recover and get more energy for next year.”

Fingers crossed, indeed.

- We’ll have another feature interview with Jenny Egan in the coming weeks on her journey so far and her passion for increasing the visibility of women in sport.

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Emma Duffy

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