The American Canoeist Nevin Harrison Finally Gets Her Chance
TOKYO – When Nevin Harrison first tried canoe racing at the age of 12, becoming an Olympian wasn’t the first thing she thought about. Stay out of the water was.
“The balance is so difficult,” she said. “It took me two years not to fall systematically. You have to understand this before you even think about going fast.”
At 17, she was going fast enough to become the world champion.
There are sports the United States is good at and sports that are not. It is pretty safe to say that canoeing and kayaking fall into the second category.
At the last world championships in 2019, out of 30 events, only one American even qualified for a final. That paddler was Harrison, who won the gold medal in the 200-meter canoe race. Suddenly the United States, of all places, had the brightest young star in canoeing.
Harrison, now 19, stood out in football, softball, and track and field growing up – sports more typical for a young American with athletic talent. But misfortune prompted her to concentrate on canoeing. She started having pain in her hip when she was 14 years old. Hip dysplasia has been diagnosed, a condition in which the hip socket does not connect properly with the femur. “A doctor said there was no way I would play sports again,” she said. “It was super devastating for me. I never expected to be an athlete.
Running and the sports that involved running were tough on her hip, so she focused on canoeing. Living in the Seattle area, she said, “I happened to be in one of the few places in the country where the sport is actually quite popular.”
Once she mastered staying in the canoe, she started to get better. And then better than that. Her upward trajectory to become world champion at 17 has been dizzying.
“It was just crazy,” she said. “I couldn’t really believe it; things were going so fast.
“I never quite understood when I saw a 16-year-old gymnast compete in the Olympics. I was like, “Oh, they’re just machines, they’re programmed like that. But the reality is that being a teenager in high performance sport is so scary. You are still learning about the world, but you are supposed to perform at the same level as the women who have been doing it for two decades.
This was made worse because Harrison is by far America’s biggest star in the sport, the only canoeist or kayaker of either gender to qualify for these Games.
“It’s crazy to kind of be ahead of the United States in our sport right now,” she said. “It’s exciting to be that person, but it’s a lot of pressure. It’s hard to represent a whole sport, to think of the American canoe and me. It’s a huge blessing, but sometimes it’s scary.
Harrison’s timing is good. The women’s canoe was first added to the Games in Tokyo, and her event, the 200 meters, is the individual race that is contested.
The shortest canoe-kayak race lasts just 45 seconds. But this is not a total dash. “It’s similar to the 400-meter track,” another event that takes around 45 seconds, she said. “It’s a sprint, but there is a bit of strategy because you can’t go 100% for 45 seconds.”
“People have different strategies,” Harrison said. “I tend to go really hard for the first 50, the 50 seconds just try to keep the pace and try to stay ahead (if I’m ahead), then in the last 100 I go up to top speed.
“Some athletes have virtually no race plan and go out of their way, but I think it’s more beneficial to have some sort of plan.”
While power and muscle are important, technique is an important part of canoeing.
“It’s incredibly technical,” Harrison said. “We have to figure out how to steer by only paddling on one side. There is the distance you want to reach with your blade, what time you go out. You need to coordinate your hips and the rest of your body.
“This is a huge thing that the United States lacks,” she said. “We don’t have that deep base of the sport where you can learn how old paddlers did technique. It comes from YouTube for a lot of us.
Harrison will start his Games on Wednesday. Assuming all goes well in the first three heats of the 200m, she will line up for the final on Thursday. About 45 seconds later, someone will be an Olympic canoe champion. It could well be a 19-year-old American who, not so long ago, was mostly thinking about not falling into the lake.
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