TOKYO — When Nevin Harrison first tried canoe racing at age 12, becoming an Olympian was not the first thing on her mind. Staying out of the water was.
“The balance is so difficult,” she said. “It took me two years to consistently not fall in. You have to figure that out before you even think about going fast.”
By age 17, she was going fast enough to be a world champion.
There are sports the United States is good at and sports that it is not. It is pretty safe to say that canoeing and kayaking fit in the second category.
At the last world championships in 2019, out of 30 events only one American even advanced to 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 canoeing’s brightest young star.
Harrison, now 19, was a standout in soccer, softball and track while growing up — sports more typical for a young American with athletic talent. But misfortune made her turn her focus to canoeing. She began feeling hip pain at age 14. Hip dysplasia was diagnosed, a condition in which the hip socket does not connect correctly with the thighbone. “A doctor said there was no way I was going to compete in sports again,” she said. “That was super devastating for me. I had only ever hoped to be an athlete.”
Running and sports that involved running were hard on her hip, so she turned her focus to canoeing. Living in the Seattle area, she said “I just happened to be in one of the few locations in the country where the sport is actually kind of popular.”
Once she mastered staying in the canoe, she started getting better. And then better than that. Her upward trajectory to world champion at 17 was dizzying.
“It was nothing short of crazy,” she said. “I couldn’t really believe it; things were happening so fast.
“I never really had a good understanding when I saw a 16-year-old gymnast competing at the Olympics. I would think, ‘Oh they’re just machines, they’re programmed like that.’ But the reality is, being a teenager in a high-level sport is so scary. You’re still learning about the world, but you’re expected to perform at the same level as women who have been doing it for two decades.”
That has been compounded because Harrison is by far the biggest American star in the sport, the only canoeist or kayaker of either gender to qualify for these Games.
“It’s been crazy to be kind of leading 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 have people think of American canoeing and think of me. It’s a huge blessing, but it’s scary sometimes.”
Harrison’s timing is good. Women’s canoeing has been added to the Games for the first time in Tokyo, and her event, the 200 meters, is the individual race that is being contested.
The race, the shortest in canoe/kayak, lasts just about 45 seconds. But it isn’t an all-out dash. “It’s similar to the 400 meters in track,” another event that takes roughly 45 seconds, she said. “It’s a sprint, but there’s a little bit of strategy because you can’t quite go 100 percent for 45 seconds.”
“People have different strategies,” Harrison said. “I tend to go really hard for the first 50, the second 50 just try to keep it up and try to stay ahead (if I am ahead), and then in the last 100 build up to top speed.
“Some athletes pretty much have no race plan and just go all out, but I do think it’s most beneficial to have some sort of a plan.”
While power and muscle are important, technique is a huge part of canoeing.
“It’s incredibly technical,” Harrison said. “We have to figure out how to steer by only paddling on one side. There’s how far you want to reach with your blade, what time you exit. You have to coordinate your hips and the rest of your body.”
“That’s a huge thing that the U.S.A. lacks,” she said. “We don’t have that deep base of the sport where you can learn how the old paddlers used to do technique. It comes from YouTube for a lot of us.”
Harrison will begin her Games on Wednesday. Assuming all goes well in the first three rounds of the 200 meters, she will line up for the final on Thursday. About 45 seconds later, someone will be an Olympic canoeing champion. It might well be a 19-year-old American who not that many years ago was mostly just thinking about not falling into the lake.