Every Olympic journey is marked by a beginning, middle and end, only for Liam Jegou it feels like there's been a lot more in between. The first Irish athlete to be officially selected for Tokyo, followed by the longest wait, he's also now facing the prospect of it all being over within the blink of an eye - or the touch of a pole rather - if he's not careful or indeed reckless enough.
Such is the nature of his event: canoe slalom racing is primarily a race against the clock, while pressing calm patience and abandoned nerve against each other. Typically 25 numbered gates, eight of which are upstream, against the whitewater rapids and completed in around 100 seconds, one mistake along the way and usually it’s Games over.
For Jegou that could be as early as this Sunday. His heats of the C1 category are set for the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre, with only 17 participants, ahead of Monday’s semi-final and final run. At the same time that gives him every chance. No matter what the end result Jegou will by flying out of Tokyo first thing Tuesday morning. Such are the rules of the Pandemic Games.
His own life journey suitably reflects the distance he's travelled and the chances he's willing to take. Jegou was born in Brittany to a French father and an Irish mother, spent his first two years living in Switzerland, then the next five in Ballyvaughan in Clare, where his father owned a canoeing business and the young Jegou first got to test the rough waters around Bishop's Quarter.
When he was seven the family moved to the small eastern French town of Huningue, the German border a five-minute walk in one direction, Switzerland just off in the other, and since leaving school and getting his degree in Applied Foreign Languages (he speaks German, English and French) Jegou has been based in Pau, which boasts some of the best canoe-training facilities in the world.
Amhrán na bhFiann
It happened to be in Pau, last November, where Amhrán na bhFiann was played out for the first time at an ICF canoe slalom World Cup C1 event on Sunday, after Jegou won the men's final: the last time Ireland won a medal in the men's C1 came back in 1993, when Mike Corcoran took a silver medal in La Seu. Since then Ireland has won a handful of medals in non-World Cup events, largely thanks to Jegou, including a bronze and a silver medal in U-23 and junior world championships.
Now 25, Jegou also has strong ties with Corcoran, the last Irish Olympic qualifier in the C1 (The C1 category involves the athletes using a single-bladed paddle to propel the boat forward while kneeling in the canoe; the K1 athlete is seated and uses a double-bladed paddle). Corcoran competed in 1992 and 1996, finishing 10th in Atlanta, the same Olympics where Ian Wiley finished a brilliant fifth in the K1. There have been other close medal calls over the years too, Eoin Rheinisch sitting in the bronze medal position in the K1 in Beijing in 2008 with only a few remaining canoe runs to go. He ended up fourth.
Corcoran now acts as mentor and sponsor to Jegou, and despite the obvious pressure of the event, one of the lessons it seems is to let the thrill take over.
“Mike has been my sponsor since 2018, and really I can say without him it would have been much more difficult to qualify, and to have got the results so far,” says Jegou. “I speak to him on the phone regularly, about his experience at the Games, and that’s been a huge opportunity to me.
“He talks a lot about enjoying the race, to make sure I do my best run, and that works for me. Even though it takes a huge amount of time and investment, don’t forget you’re doing this because it’s fun.”
With only 17 spots for Tokyo, there was little room for error in qualifying, and less still when it comes to his heat: it’s largely a concentration game too, the green poles cleared when going downstream, red poles when turning back upstream. Touch a single pole and it’s a two-second penalty; fail to navigate one of them correctly it’s a 50-second penalty, essentially a knockout blow.
To help frame this mindset Jegou has sourced his own sports psychologist in Pau, while also getting the chance to do some heat acclimatisation in Réunion, the French territory just east of Madagascar.
“Just being a stronger athlete mentally. That’s a huge part of the sport. It’s as physical and technical as you want, but if you’re stressed or tense on the day, push too far on your knee, too close to the gate, it’s over. Any mistake can be very expensive, so that’s a huge part of the training.
“It’s really just forgetting about the consequences of what you’re doing, and still just go for the fastest line, even if there is a chance you might screw up, or that the wave might be different than it was in training, because the water movements are never the same. So you just have to adapt to what’s in front of you, and really go for it, especially when it’s the final of a big event. It’s also been great for even my mindset outset of the sport, which can be important for the sport too.”
On Sunday July 4th, Jegou packed two boats and all his gear and drove from Pau to Paris, where after the long-haul flight to Tokyo he spent 14 days in quarantine, allowed out only twice a day to train.
“Anytime you show up at the airport with a boat it’s always a real hassle, quite nervous. You don’t know if they’re going to accept your boat, break your boat. You always have to negotiate a bit, but I have quite a bit of experience now, that always helps.”
Just like his long journey to Tokyo.