Jenny Egan has no shortage of motivation ahead of winter
After her best ever year, Irish canoeist feels at age 30 she has yet to reach her full potential
Jenny Egan winning a bronze medal at the Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships in South Africa in September 2017. Photograph: Brendon Orpwood
Her 2017 work isn’t quite done. After a two-week break following the end of her competitive season, Jenny Egan now heads in to her winter training programme in preparation for next year’s challenges.
But she’ll do so with a spring in her step on the back of her most successful year in canoeing, a glance at the five international medals she won since May is all she’ll need to motivate her on those biting wintry mornings.
And “all those early mornings on the cold lake” were, she says, made worthwhile in South Africa back in September when she medalled at the World Senior Marathon Championships, realising an ambition she had set for herself as a teenager when she completed her underage career in 2005 with a bronze at the junior World Championships in Australia.
After 26.2km and two hours, five minutes of gruelling work in Pietermaritzburg, Egan finished just 34 seconds behind the winner, Britain’s Lani Belcher, and 28 seconds adrift of silver medallist Vanda Kiszli of Hungary. In doing so, she became the first Irish medallist at world level since Gary Mawer back in 1996 and the first ever Irish woman to make the podium at the event.
“There are plenty of teary photos from that day,” she laughs, “the emotions were high. I’d come so close to a senior medal before, especially in Hungary two years ago when I was fourth. So, I was ecstatic. Getting on that podium was the culmination of so many years of work, I had achieved one of my goals, so it was an amazing feeling. There’ve been a few tingle-down-the-spine moments this year, but that was a special day.”
By then, the Lucan woman had already collected medals from two World Cup races, gold in the K1 5,000m in Portugal in May and bronze in the same event in Serbia the following month. And she picked up two more, silver and bronze, at the Marathon World Cup in China last month where she was among a group of competitors invited – all expenses paid – to races in Shanghai and Shaoxing as part of the country’s preparations for hosting the World Championships in 2019.
This time 12 months ago she rated 2016 as her best ever year. 2017?
“It’s topped it,” she says. “Definitely.”
And so much for the notion that once you hit 30 your better sporting days are behind you. Egan, having bid adieu to her 20s back in March, feels like she hasn’t yet reached her peak.
“In canoeing most people might compete until their late 30s or 40s. You look at someone like Renata Csay, she turned 40 this year and has been at the top of her game all through her 30s,” she says of the Hungarian, the most medalled woman in her sport.
“Different people peak at different ages, but in more endurance-based sports they tend to peak a little later. As well as that, you just learn a lot more about yourself as time goes on, so with that experience you know a lot more about what you need training wise.
“The last few years I’ve changed my training regime a bit. I sat down with my coaches, my brother Peter and my boyfriend Jon [Simmons], and discussed what I needed to do differently to help me reach that highest level. One thing I had to work on was my strength, so I’ve done a lot more gym work the last few winter seasons, as well as running and swimming.
“It’s intense, 14 to 16 sessions a week, but as they say, it’s foolish doing the same thing over and over again, and getting the same results. You really need to assess what you need to change and I’ve done that over the last few years – and it’s working. I’m looking to build on it now. I hope to be doing this for many more years.”
She feels mentally stronger now too, pointing to the contrast in how she responded to missing out on both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics by just one place. “London was probably the first real big disappointment that I had, so I was just upset through the rest of my 2012 season. In the run-up to Rio I just decided to give it my best shot to qualify, but if I missed out I was going to continue trying to improve and have a really good 2016. And I went on to have my best season. So mentally I’ve learnt how to assess situations in a better way and take the positives. If you don’t win, you learn.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were tears after coming so close to qualifying, but I got myself together and two days after missing out on qualification I went out and did a new Irish national record in the Olympic distance, the K1 500m. I just became more mature, I was determined that it wouldn’t upset the rest of my season. I learnt a lot, I feel a lot stronger – as they say, you’ve got to get back on that horse.”
How annoying is it that most of us fixate on the Olympics when you have major European and World events every year?
“Ha, well, always the question is ‘are you going to the Olympics?’, no matter what you do. I mean, that is my goal, I want to be in Tokyo in 2020, but there are so many other stepping stones along the way, European and World Championship medals to be won. There are over 1,100 athletes at a World Championships in canoe sprint, only 249 of them will go to the Olympics, so winning a World medal is nearly a higher standard. People who aren’t involved in sport don’t understand that, but of course I want to be an Olympian and I want to do well if I get there.
“For now, though, Tokyo is just a dream. I have to keep putting in the hard work, I know I’m only getting to my full potential now so I have to keep pushing until I do. Next year is another busy one – World Cup, World and European Sprint Championships, World Marathon Championships – so there’s lots to aim for. It’s like that iceberg illustration, people just see the tip when there’s success, but there are all these other things that happen underneath the water that lead to that success. That’s what the winter is all about. And when the hard work pays off, the sacrifices are worth it all.”