Stoic Hannah Craig remaining serene in the face of adversity

After a difficult 2019, Irish slalom canoer accepts it’s likely her Olympic dream will this time be dashed

Hannah Craig  during a morning training session close to her home in Portavogie, Co Down. “I’ll keep training but, to be honest with you, every article I read I don’t think the Olympics are going to go ahead.” Photograph: Liam McBurney

Hannah Craig during a morning training session close to her home in Portavogie, Co Down. “I’ll keep training but, to be honest with you, every article I read I don’t think the Olympics are going to go ahead.” Photograph: Liam McBurney

 

In life, not just sport, Hannah Craig embraces a Japanese philosophy that seems particularly apposite for these chaotic times.

She often murmurs ‘wabi-sabi’, a doctrine that is about embracing the imperfection and total transience of ourselves and our world.

Craig should be en route to France, via London, for two training camps on white-water courses in preparation for the European Canoe Slalom Championships from May 15th-17th.

She has targeted the Europeans specifically because the last two women’s K1 slalom places for the Tokyo Olympics are up for grabs there, and they take place in Lee Valley, London where she has excelled before.

But right now the Europeans, and even the Olympics, are in doubt so, like most athletes, she has cancelled her plans and is stuck in limbo, still straining and striving daily for a sporting zenith that may soon crumble.

“Without realising it I had my own ‘self isolation’ here,” she quips of the equipment she regularly uses in her garage. “And we’re very fortunate, we were down on the beach here this morning.

“No matter what, like every athlete, I’ll keep training but, to be honest with you, every article I read I don’t think the Olympics are going to go ahead,” she says. “This is a problem way beyond sport. This is society asking us athletes to be a part of something a lot bigger than us. We have a responsibility as citizens to act in a way that makes sense. We’ll see what happens but this is a pandemic and we’re in uncharted territory.”

If Craig sounds unusually stoic and serene for an athlete whose life is decided by the inarguable and minute fractions of a stop-watch it’s because she is.

She continued a proud Olympic tradition for Irish canoeing by unexpectedly reaching the final of the K1 slalom at the London Olympics (finished 10th) and, after narrowly failing to qualify for Rio in 2016, returns to the challenge of qualifying with a different physique and new perspective.

She is 37 now and mum to Arlo (almost five) and Tiernan (two).

That adds logistical and financial pressure but she regards being an athlete/mum as a huge privilege and sees no impediment in her age or a body altered by “excess skin, stretch marks and an umbilical hernia”.

But 2019 was a particularly tough year.

It started with a broken wrist, was exacerbated by a lengthy funding row and culminated in what she calls a “mental breakdown” on the start-line of the World Cup final in Prague last September, when the starting buzzer went and her mind simply went blank.

“I did the run but nothing functioned. It was a case of ‘just get me down’. I was doing the movements but in a detached feeling.”

Fishing village

She is very precise in distinguishing this temporary mental malfunction from depression, though she also has some experience of that and sees both a sports psychologist and a counsellor.

She sees no stigma in either but observes: “When I’d say ‘mental breakdown’ people stopped making eye contact with me. They’d immediately look at their feet. It was interesting.”

Given all that recent buffeting it’s hard not to wonder why Craig is pursuing another Five Ring dream instead of just leisurely paddling off into her beloved Big Blue.

Life on the Ards Peninsula with her children and life partner and coach Han Bijnen (who coached Ireland’s Eoin Rheinisch to fourth in K1 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics) sounds idyllic.

Home is Portavogie, the pub-less fishing village where George Best famously settled to dry out. The sea is virtually at the bottom of their garden.

“The great outdoors is an amazing playground, the best really. Even if I wasn’t still competing I’d still love being in a van travelling around with the kids.”

But, after a year that she says “nearly broke me”, Craig is chasing Olympic qualification again “determined to let the light shine through those cracks” and her motivation seems as much spiritual as it is mental or physical.

Like most paddlers she lives a peripatetic life on the margins of convention.

Her parents emigrated to France from Armoy, Co Antrim when she was nine. She returned to Northern Ireland when she was 21 with a sports science degree in her bag and paddling in her soul.

Slalom canoeing is like balancing a tea-cup on your head while being juggled by a spin cycle but when you find those “split seconds when being, boat and white water connect, those are the most incredible feelings in the world”.

She actually loves the precariousness of it, where “your ability to adapt when it all goes wrong is where you make the biggest gains.

“I took a year out after having Tiernan, I was breastfeeding again and had the demands of two children by then but when we went to France again in the summer of 2018 I did a race –- the World Cup finals – and came 28th which was okay after just 10 weeks back on white water.

“It was in line with Olympic qualification and I was ‘yeah, let’s do this’ and that’s when the battle started.”

They borrowed a caravan, Air BnB-ed their home and moved to a French riverbank again for eight months, finding a local nanny to help with the kids while she did some raft guiding in the mornings to help pay the bills.

Raised issues

She believed the bulk of the funding needed would come through the final half of a four-year grant (£20,000 a-year) that she had received from the Canoeing Association of Northern Ireland (CANI) in 2016.

But CANI didn’t agree that she was still entitled to it and there was a protracted wrangle, eventually necessitating third part mediation. Craig says the stress of it all resulted in that “breakdown” in the Czech start-gates.

She actually got £12,500 from CANI the next day and still has a claim in for the other half but, for Tokyo 2020 qualification, has set up a crowdfunding account. Her vulnerability, both mentally and financially in 2019, raised issues that she feels many athletes share.

“Society has built these images that do not relate to what a true athlete is. Sports journalism doesn’t help either by presenting them as warriors and gladiators,” she notes. “There’s this notion that mental strength is being able to take on everything but that’s a false perception.

“I’m really happy that a lot of athletes are breaking that down now, saying ‘you know what, we’re humans. We have issues exactly like you,’” she says, citing examples like Michael Phelps.

The positive reaction to a particularly candid video she released on Instagram has particularly heartened her.

“Speaking about my struggle has been very therapeutic and brought a whole new network of support. People have seen my personal journey, not just my ‘performance’ journey and I genuinely don’t think I would have received this kind of support two or three years ago.

“They see I’m a mother and a parent as well and that everybody has a right to struggle. Struggle doesn’t belong to your social class or your bank account or your perceived status.”

She feels support structures for elite athletes are also imperfect, arguing that administrations don’t always meet their duty of care to athletes.

Since London 2012 some of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports like cycling and gymnastics have been investigated for bullying or worse. British Canoeing (separate entity from CANI) was recently found to have had a “culture of fear” because of its “medals at any cost’ approach.

Great paradox

Craig would like to see an Ombudsman for elite athletes and more athlete representation on the boards of governing bodies.

“When things go administration-heavy and not coach/athlete-centred things can go belly-up,” she believes, pointing to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), once the gold medal standard globally for high-performance sport but the subject of a damning report last winter.

A subsequent investigation by The Australian newspaper found that “of the nearly 400 (AIS) staff, there are no coaches, no scholarship holders, but huge swathes of bureaucrats, whose purpose one insider said “appears to be to bully sports and withhold funding”.

And yet, as disillusioned as Craig has been at times, the great, great paradox is how deeply she loves sport and cleaves to the Olympic ideal, which itself has been so tainted by politics, corruption and cheating.

“The Olympics were always the standard I held myself to so it meant something really special to reach that pinnacle in 2012.

“It’s that mental challenge of doing it on that specific day or days, just once every four years. There’s a special energy to the Olympics that you can’t ignore.

“Yes, it’s really sad that people chose doping or other mechanisms to achieve victory, the same way it’s extremely sad to see the abuse of power within committees or how athletes might be living beneath the poverty line while the organisers are paid millions. That’s where I think the Olympic movement, and sporting movements as a whole, can be massively improved.

“But the actual Olympic ideal? Yes, I still think it’s important we hold on to that as human beings,” she insists.

“The human part of me needs the hope that the Olympics brings and should still represent. The idea that for two weeks, every four years, the world stops and comes together around something common.

“Okay, it doesn’t stop the wars or make everything else okay, but when you go into that Olympic Village and into the food-hall, there’s a sense of the world as a whole.

“In the western world we can get very fixated on western issues and western philosophies but you can come to understand that the world is a very big place and we don’t see that or appreciate that. When you bring humans together to try to achieve extraordinary things, sometimes you actually do achieve extraordinary things.”

A timely doctrine and words for a world in such turmoil.

*For more on Hannah Craig’s 2020 Olympic bid see: https://makeachamp.com/hannahcraig

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