As a nation with a natural affinity to the surf, it is little wonder that many of Australia's budding Olympians have launched into their respective sports via surf lifesaving.
Ironman Ky Hurst has already been selected onto the 2012 Olympic Team for the 10km open water swim, and with selection trials for sprint kayaking beginning next week, many more athletes with a surf lifesaving background are sure to join Hurst in London.
Australia’s most successful male athlete at the 2008 Olympic Games was little-known kayaker Ken Wallace. The Queensland lifeguard-turned-Olympian won gold and bronze in the K1 500m and K1 1000m respectively.
Wallace is in the midst of a fierce tussle to book Australia a boat in the 1000m race and then prove himself for Australian selection ahead of a flying Murray Stewart. The battle begins in Penrith on 1 March with the Oceania Championships, and the men’s K1 won’t be the only boat to watch.
A major medal contender will be 25-year-old Perth kayaker Alana Nicholls. At the age of 16 her blistering surf-ski form at the National Surf Lifesaving Championships caught the eye of Olympic kayak medallist Ramon Andersson. The dual Olympian and 1992 Olympic K4 1000m bronze medallist persuaded Nicholls to try kayaking and Andersson still coaches her to this day.
After two successful domestic seasons in 2008 and 2009, Nicholls took 2010 off to do “absolutely nothing!”
“I wasn’t really sure if I should come back to the sport or not,” Nicholls said.
“I had been so used to being my own boss in life saving versus having to do two training sessions a day with kayak. I needed the time off to realise the opportunity I had.”
Nicholls returned to the boat with gusto after her year-long sabbatical. She had a sensational year on the international circuit in 2011, winning three World Cup medals and gaining selection for her first World Championship campaign.
At Worlds she placed fourth (K1 200m) and fifth (K1 500m) in the two women’s K1 Olympic-distance events, qualifying Australia a position in the K1 500m in the process. But like every champion, coming so agonisingly close to a medal against the world’s best only made Nicholls hungrier.
“I finished those races and I was quite disappointed I wasn’t on the podium. Straight away I thought, wow I really do have a chance here,” Nicholls explained.
Emblematic of her determination to climb the Olympic podium, Nicholls redeemed her World Championship campaign with a gold medal in the K1 500m at the London Test Event just three weeks later later. As well as a confidence-booster, the Test Event proved an invaluable test-run on the Olympic course before the Games begin on July 27.
“Going to London was great. It was good to get out and race on the course, get used to the facilities and stay in the accommodation. It will obviously be very different with all the crowds but we got to race in the kind of conditions that we can expect,” she said.
Nicholls has placed herself in a strong position to gain selection in both women’s K1 boats, with former Ironwoman Naomi Flood also in the mix. The Aussies will race at the Oceania Championships (1-4 March) and Australian Sprint Racing Championships (14-18 March) in Penrith, NSW to finalise the Australian Team.
Overcoming this final selection hurdle would be the realisation of a once-impossible dream for Nicholls.
“Growing up as a kid from a non-Olympic sport like surf lifesaving, I still always looked up to our Olympic Team. The Olympians were my heroes, so for me to have that opportunity of going to the Games later in life is still quite unbelievable."
After a sparkling Beijing campaign the 2012 Australian sprint kayak team is shaping up to be a tour de force in London. Two members of the women’s K4 500m crew that won bronze, Hannah Davis and Lyndsie Fogarty, are paddling on to London with renewed strength.
“The K4 girls have been training so hard and they are all itching to go and get a medal,” Nicholls said.
“Lyndsie and Hannah have been chatting to all the girls about how incredible it is to get to the Olympics, but how winning a medal is even better. They have really inspired the women’s K4 team and me as well, as have Ken Wallace and the men’s K4 crew.”
Nicholls spoke excitedly of the standout Australian performance at the 2011 World Championships where the men’s K4 1000m quartet of Jacob Clear, Tate Smith, Murray Stewart and David Smith won silver. The men looked sure to produce a major upset before the favoured Germans overhauled the Aussies in the final 250m. Get set for a battle royale in London.
To continue following the kayak – sprint team, read Ken Wallace’s My Journey To London Diary here
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