Ireland's Liam Jegou. PA Archive/PA Images
looking ahead

'It would be a dream to race a World Cup final in Dublin, it would be insane'

Clare native Liam Jegou has been making waves in the world of canoeing from his French base, yet he yearns to return home some day.

LIAM JEGOU SOUNDS excited. He is imagining the prospect of canoeing at a high-profile event in Ireland.

The 23-year-old athlete is originally from County Clare, but moved to the east of France at the age of seven. The year before last, he decided to re-locate to Pau, where he would train and study.

Despite spending most of his life elsewhere, in sport, he represents the country of his birth and hopes to return there one day.

Jegou got a sense of the possibilities that training in Ireland would create in 2017, when he spent time in the Institute of Sport while recuperating from an injury.

“It’s an inspiring environment,” he tells The42. “You see lots of great athletes. I wasn’t the only one that was injured there.” 

The announcement last April of plans to build a whitewater kayak course in Dublin’s IFSC increased Jegou’s sense of optimism.

The original date of completion was identified as some time in 2020, and Jegoe is hopeful this development can help spearhead a revolution in Irish canoeing.

It’s been period of change in general for the athlete. He is now being coached by Nico Peschier, who represented France at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

“I’ve actually got a new coaching set-up since November 2018 thanks to Mike Corcoran, who was an Olympian for Ireland in ’92 and ’96,” he says. “I met him at the World Cup final last year and got to chat with him about his experiences.

“He decided to sponsor me and help with my coaching fees. So that’s a huge game changer since that happened. I’m really in a great position for next year. I’ve just got to put the work in.”

However, if all goes according to plan, the most significant development in Jegou’s career has yet to come to fruition.

Currently, you either have to live abroad or travel an awful amount to be able to [represent Ireland and] compete with the top nations,” he says. “That will change if we get our course in Dublin. To be able to train and study in Dublin would just be exceptional.

“You look at the facilities we have in Ireland, like the Sport Ireland Institute. If we had that plus a whitewater course, I really believe that Irish canoe slalom could compete with the best in the world.

“It would be a dream to race a World Cup final in Dublin, it would be insane. 

“To be able to train on a whitewater course in Dublin and get the support from the Sport Ireland Institute, I can’t think of a better scenario.”

While the outlook is promising, Ireland still has some work to do. The same could be said of Jegou. He is in the middle of a long journey, which began at the age of seven. As a youngster, he gained inspiration from watching Eoin Rheinisch at the Olympics. The Dubliner finished an incredible fourth at the Beijing Games — the best-ever performance by an Irishman at that level.

Jegou’s father was also a formative influence. Just under a decade ago, he took the then-14-year-old and a couple of his fellow paddlers to eastern Europe to compete against athletes from the top nations in the sport — Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia among others.

“That was the real starting point for me,” he recalls. “That’s when I wanted to be a high-performance canoeist. I also realised I could.”

Jegou went on to show immense potential. One of the standout moments of his career so far came in 2014, when he finished a phenomenal second and picked up a silver medal at the Junior World Championships.

The accomplished athlete’s achievements have not gone unnoticed in his homeland. Since 2016, he has been supported by Sport Ireland and is currently on an Olympic Solidarity grant.

And while Jegou’s rise has been impressive, there have been no shortage of stumbling blocks along the way.

He continued to progress up until 2016 and narrowly missed out on a place at the Rio Olympics — a performance he has “no regrets” over, as he “gave it everything”.

Shortly thereafter, the injury problems began to intensify. Jegou damaged his hip — an issue that ultimately put him out of action for months.

I really felt like I was taking off. It was kind of like someone put the handbrake on all of a sudden.

“I had to take the winter off training. I had to modify a lot of my technique around my hip injury.”

He continues: “It was a very annoying injury because I’m still sore today. I’m always a little bit sore when I’m training. It’s one of those weird injuries. I didn’t tear my shoulder out or something like that. It’s just a hip injury that’s been at me since 2016. I had surgery on it once. In the middle of the winter in 2017, I wasn’t contemplating retirement, but I was wondering if it was reasonable to just think about slalom now and put all my eggs in one basket.”

Abe Jacob / YouTube

These problems forced Jegou to take stock of his situation and prompted a change in mindset. 

“I think I’m a bit more mature now,” he says. “As an athlete, I know what I want on the water. I know how to train better or smarter. I get a lot of small injuries. I’m not always injured, but I always have a sore hip or knee or whatever. [The setbacks have] taught me how to train smarter and be smarter on the water. Not just to go 110% in every session.”

Jegou’s obsessive approach towards his sport was also an issue. He needed something different. The move to Pau provided that change of scenery, and he is now in the second year of a degree in Translation at the local university — a badly needed distraction from the rigours of competing.

“I’m trying to keep a certain balance,” he says. “I don’t think just training is a good idea.

It’s not always easy. I’m very focused on the sports side of things. With university, I’m getting by, but I’m not putting all my energy into it.”

Pau is also a very convenient location from a sporting perspective. The 2019 European Canoe Slalom Championships, which run from 31 May to 2 June, take place there, so unlike many of the athletes, he will have an intimate knowledge of the course ahead of this summer’s event.

The following September, just four hours away from Pau, the World Championships will take place in La Seu d’Urgell, Spain. The event will also be important in terms of qualification for the 2020 Olympics and Jegou feels he is in good stead ahead of this hugely important period.

“I had a bit of a crazy feeling. I started the season really badly. I felt in the shape of my life and I just completely messed up my first two races. The European Championships and my two first World Cups — I came dead last in the second World Cup and I just didn’t know what was going on.

I injured myself again. I have a recurring hip issue. It put me out of the boat for four weeks. But when I came back, it was like I was rejuvenated. I finished off the season in great form. I came back at the European U23 Championships and I came fifth. I had two penalties and had it not been for the last penalty I would have come third. Without penalties, it’s easy to say. But I had a great run, great competition, coming fifth. Then I came sixth in the qualification event at the World Cup. In the semi-final, I came 22nd, again with two really good runs. Then I finished off the season at the World Championships in Rio with a qualification run.

“In the qualification event, I qualified fourth. So that was probably one of my best individual runs so far. So going into the semi-final, I was with the top paddlers in the world. I had an Olympic champion in front of me, a vice Olympic champion behind me. I came from fourth in the race and completely [messed up] my semi-final run, but it was a great experience. I finished off the season really strongly and it gave me a lot of confidence heading into winter training.

“If it was the World Championships [in 2018 that decided Olympic slots], I would have qualified for the Games. I was the ninth nation out of 11 that qualify. So I’m confident. I’m training in [the venue for the Olympic qualifiers] at least once a month to make sure I know the course very well. I’m training hard. I think I’ve got all the chances on my side now. I just have to do the work, paddle my best and get it done.”

Jegou’s sheer positivity is palpable and perhaps inevitably, as the interview draws to a close, thoughts return again to the years ahead and the thrilling prospect of what’s to come.

“I think the future for Canoeing Ireland is looking bright,” he says.

“I’m very optimistic we’ll be getting whitewater infrastructure in the near future for those young athletes, who will be able to develop in Ireland and get to that world or Olympic stage.” 

Just over a week out from the 2019 Six Nations openers, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look at Ireland’s bid for another Grand Slam:

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