Jenny Egan, international sprint canoeist, talks about her journey to becoming Ireland’s first Senior Canoe Sprint World Championship medalist, her passion for her role as a 20×20 ambassador and promoting positive societal change on attitudes towards women in sport.
Listen to Jenny read her own story to you
One of my most treasured days – the K1 5000m final at the Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships in Portugal in August 2018.
Let’s just say, I didn’t make it easy for myself that day.
Just after the start line, I got involved in a collision and found myself back in 19th position. At that point I just told myself that, no matter what, I had to cross the finish line knowing that I had given it my all.
I dug deep. I started to pick off the field, group by group. Every lap I went around I was catching more people. My confidence was building even if the pain was too. I managed to battle my way to a podium finish and take home the bronze medal. It was Ireland’s first ever Senior Canoe Sprint World Championship medal.
Although I was utterly exhausted crossing the line, I was filled with adrenaline and excitement. My mum and dad were at the finish to celebrate with me. Everyone was in tears. It was such an incredible feeling, not just for what I’d achieved but the way in which I had achieved it. It wasn’t just my medal, it was our medal – me and everyone who supports me, my parents, my brother, my fiancé, my club Salmon Leap Canoe Club in Leixlip, Canoeing Ireland, Sport Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland.
Back at our club, some parents said to me, “Thanks for teaching my child how to never give up.”
That’s what it was about for me really, being able to show any kid watching that if I can do it anyone can. That’s what made it so special.
Sport can be such a great teacher.
Canoeing runs in the family. My mum and dad started canoeing back in their late teens together.
When my mum was pregnant with me, she was still paddling so I was in a boat before I was born.
The first time I sat in a boat on my own was when I was three years old. I loved being on the water. Spending time with my friends and family at the club on long summer days and evenings was so much fun. My first competitive race was in Nottingham, England, when I was eight years old.
It wasn’t all canoeing of course. I was into all kinds of sports. I loved drama and dance. I played the violin.
I think that’s really important when you’re younger, to get a flavour for different pastimes. There comes a time when you can’t do it all, when you have to choose what it is that you’re going to focus on. So, try different things when you’re younger.
I wanted to be an actor and a dancer. I loved performing. That was my dream as a kid.
But the point of choosing came for me in my early teens. I won the British National Sprint and Marathon Under-14 Championships. That made it an easy decision for me. I chose to focus on canoeing and see where the journey would take me.
It’s still a performance of sorts, but maybe with a bit more stress on the body.
I learned so many valuable lessons through dance and drama that have stayed with me through sport and life in general. Through performing arts, I learned about dealing with pressure and nerves. I understood the high value of confidence.
”I found out that failure is the first step in learning to succeed.
You train day in, day out, to be the best you can be. Ultimately, it comes down to one day, one performance. You need to know yourself and have the confidence to back yourself so that you can achieve. If you fail, you learn a lesson.
That’s what’s so special about sport. It reflects so much of what’s positive about being human. That’s also why you don’t have to be an athlete to get involved in sport. There’s a place for everyone who’s drawn to the special experience it brings. It’s a really important point when we talk about increasing participation of women and young girls in sport.
There’s a place for everyone. Get involved.
”The movement is happening, but we have to keep the momentum going.
This year, I was chosen as one of the 20 athlete ambassadors to represent the 20×20 initiative in 2020.
Everyone brings their own unique perspective to how we succeed in breaking down barriers to participation, visibility, and support. For me, it is about societal change.
That starts at the grassroots level with the youngest generation. Three, four, five, six-year olds need to grow up with the understanding that it’s not women’s sport or men’s sport, it’s just sport and it’s there for the benefit of everyone. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other role models are the ones to deliver that message.
We need to get to the point where we no longer have to promote sport and increase visibility for the particular attention of one gender. Young boys can be inspired by the 20×20 movement too. That’s key to breathing life into the idea of “Can’t See, Can’t Be.”
It’s not just about girls seeing and being. It’s also about young boys seeing women achieve in sport and seeing that as normal. Only then do we have a chance to break down barriers in sport as a society.
In my role as a 20×20 ambassador, I have a responsibility to be as visible as possible. Show that no matter what the sport, you can get involved and even have the opportunity to achieve at national or international level.
I’ve always been so competitive.
Growing up my role model was my brother, Peter. He’s also an international canoeist. He’s always been there for me on my way up through the levels in the sport. He helped to nurture that competitiveness.
Whatever he achieved, that was my benchmark. I understood early on that I needed the short-term goals as much as the lofty long-term goals. So, although I might not have seen many Irish athletes winning medals in canoeing at major championships, by competing in the UK and other countries I was seeing the standard up close. I knew some of the athletes that I needed to emulate. I had belief in myself to reach their standards one day if I worked hard and smart enough. That kept me moving forward.
In 2014, my fiancé Jon Simmons joined my brother on my coaching team.
I know I’m lucky to have my family involved. They support me through everything. When I win medals, I win with them. I win for them. That’s very special to me.
I’ve learned so much about myself through the challenges I’ve faced in sport.
It’s human nature that people put barriers on themselves mentally and physically. People also put barriers on each other. Whatever it is you want to achieve don’t let those barriers stop you, and especially don’t let others put barriers in your way.
No matter what you do in life, you need goals. Sport has given me that. It keeps the fire burning inside me. I’m addicted to pushing myself to see what I’m capable of, what I can achieve. I love training. I love the small steppingstones that lead to the bigger goals.
”There’s nothing like the feeling of achieving something beyond what you thought was possible.
The constant focus on moving forward “gets you back on the horse” when it doesn’t go your way. It’s thinking about what’s next that helps you get over the disappointment.
The focus gets you through that last 50 metres of a race when you are pushing through the pain barrier. Everything hurts in your body and your brain. But the feeling that you’ve given it everything you have propels you forward. It lessens the pain.
I’m never going through it alone either. My mum has been at every major competition that I’ve taken part in. My dad’s been there at the sprint competitions as National Team Manager and supporting at the marathons. My brother and fiancé are there as my coaches. They spur me on.
When you’re competing at a high level in sport for long periods, balance is most important.
I achieve balance through the time I spend with family and friends, and the effort I put into other interests off the water.
Education has been a very important aspect of my life. I graduated from Dublin City University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science First Class Honours Degree in Athletic Therapy and Training. I won the Research Achievement Award for my Final Year Thesis “The Effects of Acute Intermittent Normobaric Hypoxic Exposure on a Range of Physiological Parameters”.
I’m currently the only athlete representative on the Women in Sport Steering Committee with Sport Ireland. That’s a role I’m really proud of and it presents the opportunity to work with amazing women in sports administration like Lynne Cantwell, Nora Stapleton and Sarah Keane among so many others. There is so much great work being currently done at the administrative level, it fills me with confidence that there’s a bright future for sport in Ireland. I am also immensely proud to say that Moira Aston CEO of Canoeing Ireland is one of only three female CEO’s of National Governing Bodies within Ireland and since her appointment she has brought great positivity to our sport. The other two being Sarah Keane of Swim Ireland and Michelle Carpenter of Rowing Ireland.
I also love the whole world of media and broadcasting, it’s one of the aspects of my sport that I really enjoy and hope to do more of in the future. I never shy away from media obligations or a chance to talk about my sport. I would love to do more work in media. Maybe that’s my love of the stage coming through.
It’s the kind of thing you think about when competition is off the table, as it is in these strange times.
I was supposed to be competing in the Olympic qualifiers this month. Looks like that will be May 2021 now. We’d also have had World Cups, European Championships and World Championships over the summer months. The World Champs was postponed and might yet go ahead in September, we’ll wait and see. For now, I’ll train, I’ll work on my weaknesses, and be ready for the next opportunity I get to compete.
Only the shorter sprint distances (200m and 500m) are in the Olympics with a very small quota of available places, so qualification is always a massive challenge. I missed out on London and Rio by one place. When qualification comes around, I’ll give it my best shot. Hopefully, the stars will align, and I’ll reach my goal.
Right now, I’m grateful that I’m in a position to compete at this level in my sport which I love and have known my entire life.
I know the hours and hours of hard work, nerves and “what ifs” that go into achieving medals in major championships.
It gives me shivers down my spine thinking back to some of the medal ceremonies. Sometimes, it’s good to reflect on what you’ve achieved.
”It’s something so incredibly special to stand on a podium, see the Ireland flag being raised, and hear 'Amhrán na bhFiann'.
My first Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup medal was in 2010. Since 2015, I’ve won medals for Ireland every year at World Cups, World, or European Championships. I am the only athlete to date that has won Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup, European Championship and World Championship medals.
That didn’t happen overnight. There has been plenty of heartbreak along the way. I’m grateful for the heartbreak though. It drove me to work harder to succeed. People only see the success. That’s ok though, my family and I know what’s gone into it.
I’ve won gold twice at Senior Canoe Sprint World Cups.
My dad is the team manager for Canoe Sprint Ireland. So, on both those occasions I was presented with my gold medal by my dad.
I crave those special moments.
Hopefully, there are more to come.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep striving to get better and faster. Always forward.
Jenny Egan is an ambassador for 20×20 – an all-inclusive movement to shift Ireland’s cultural perception of women’s sport. To find out more visit https://20×20.ie/
If you enjoyed Jenny’s piece you might like to read Chloe Watkins’ – “High Hopes.”
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