Watch Friday's Olympic opening ceremony closely and you should see the broadest smiles in the whole parade on the faces of British flatwater canoeing pair Jessica Walker (left) and Anna Hemmings. Based in London, the duo provide the classic partnership of youthful talent and accomplished experience as they prepare to take on the world over 500m of breakneck paddling.
"We call it sprint racing," says Hemmings, "but 500m is a minute and forty seconds," which is about Lord Coe's personal best for the 800m on land. Hemmings, the current BBC London Sports Personality of the Year, is a multiple world champion at marathon kayaking, a 26 mile event which also involves a bit of foot racing around locks, but, as in the run up to Sydney 2000, she's retraining for the short course events in pursuit of an Olympic medal as her speciality is not contested at the Games. Walker will tell you that, at 30, Hemmings is in the ideal age bracket for successful women paddlers, but she herself has burst onto the world scene in her late teens, becoming the youngest female flatwater canoeist ever to be selected for an Olympics. Hemmings, who tasted her first world success at a similar age, is impressed:
She's quite fearless. There are really no barriers for Jess - "I'm gonna race and I'm gonna win!" I was a bit like that. I just wanted to race, I loved racing and I didn't really care who I was racing.
Walker recently surged to solo victory over 1000m in the European Junior Championships, winning her heat by thirteen clear seconds in a four minute race, but it was one vital tenth of a second that saw the pair to the threshold of Beijing as they snatched victory over the last few strokes in their Senior European "B" final. This left them as first reserves for an elite Olympic field, but final confirmation of their guaranteed place via the workings of a quota system only came through a couple of weeks ago. Their winning time would actually have got them fourth, and automatic qualification, in the "A" final. Not bad for a team that only came together in April of this year.
Both have been spurred on by setbacks. Hemmings's was severe - a lengthy battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which she eventually overcame thanks to groundbreaking "Reverse Therapy". The illness robbed her of two years of competiton, including the Athens Olympics and her lottery funding evaporated (it is now restored). She is only still in the sport thanks to support from long term sponsor Pindar, who also funded her medical treatment and looked after her as one of their own. A contribution to a recent book on fighting CFS and a wide range of motivational speaking events based on her career allow her to spread enthusiasm to youngsters, inspiration to adults and a message of hope to an estimated quarter of a million sufferers in the UK alone who are often left isolated and perplexed by the condition.
Walker's setback was less dramatic, but left her with much the same determination to prove a point:
I'm succeeding now because I went to the youth olympics in 2005, raced poorly and was a lot slower than the winner. This gave me a kick up the bum as I didn't like not being the fastest!
Picture courtesy of, and copyright to, Performance PR - All Rights Reserved.
Walker started at the Royal Canoe Club near Teddington aged ten, pleased that lots of other girls were there, too, but soon being identified as a special talent. Hemmings's journey in the sport began with a leaflet advertising a week long course in the summer holidays at the Elmbridge Canoe Club to which she still belongs and where coach Miklos Simon brought the two of them together, Walker at the front to set the rhythm with Hemmings at the back as the driving force. Unlike Hemmings's beloved marathons, which she likens tactically to a Tour de France stage, the sprints offer more of a heads-down-and-go experience with little opportunity to check on your rivals' progress and she acknowledges that the notorious Beijing smog might have an effect, especially in pairs events where there's a higher stroke rate than in the individual races:
When you're going at maximum capacity your lungs are bursting at the end of the race without the additional challenge of the pollution, but everybody is going to be in the same position. I heard that if the wind's blowing from the mountains towards the city, then the pollution is not so bad, but if the wind is blowing from city then it's much, much worse. Luckily, being in a water sport, it's relatively cooler than, say, if you were running, just because of the water and the wind.
As they stride around the stadium on Friday (Hemmings missed the ceremony in 2000, but may use sponsor Spinvox's software to live blog this one) their thoughts will be firmly on 19th August when their event begins, but that gap will hopefully allow them some sightseeing and possibly the luxury of thinking beyond to London 2012. Walker already has that date pencilled in:
London 2012 is my ultimate goal at the moment. I want to win gold there and I feel I'm definitely on track for it.
Hemmings is, naturally, more reticent:
It's really tempting. It's going to be in London and it's going to be an amazing Olympics, but I don't know how I'm going to feel when I get back from Beijing. It's a lot of commitment and dedication to do another four year cycle. If I'm going to do it at all, I want to do it properly.
If their ever improving teamwork gels over the next fortnight they may even find themselves back here in four years' time with something to defend.