For many people, one of the standout memories of London 2012 was watching the incredible scenes unfold at Lee Valley White Water Centre, with Team GB picking up both the gold and silver in the men’s Canoe Slalom. For David Florence, who finished second in the C2 alongside partner Richard Hounslow, it meant adding another Olympic silver medal to his career tally following a terrific performance in Beijing four years earlier. The Scot’s success on the international stage didn’t end there.
In September last year, he became the first ever man from Britain to become double World Champion in Canoe Slalom, winning both the C1 and the C2 at the World Championships in Prague – the latter also with Richard Hounslow.
Now the man from Aberdeen has his sights firmly set on the 2014 canoeing season and the long road leading to Rio 2016. Next up is the opening race of the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup series which is being held at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in June – the first time the venue has been used to host a major event since the London Games and following a £6.3 million re-development.
Sam Skelding caught up with the World Champion to talk about Lee Valley taking centre stage, his canoeing roots, memories of 2012 and the Olympic Legacy.
Your Dad was a canoeing champion – was he the catalyst for taking up the sport?
To be honest, after I took it up I wish my Dad had told me about canoeing a bit sooner. We went on a family day at the beach when I was about 13 years old and my uncle had brought a couple of canoes along, the sea was pretty flat that day so my Dad took us out. I was really fortunate that I had a family connection to the sport and from there, just found a local canoe club and never looked back.
How involved have your family been in your career?
Certainly when we first started, my Dad took me and my brother to our races and taught us the basics of canoeing, but then we obviously progressed to training on our own or with coaches. Even now, my Dad still comes to the big races and some of the internationals each year. He also comes to the World Championships and I often speak to him about the sport.
Any added pressure?
Not at all, I think it’s just nice to have the support. I get a lot of encouragement from both of my parents, even though my mum didn’t canoe; they’re both so supportive of what I do. They want me to do well because I want to do well.
For those new to the sport, is it more physical or technical?
I would say it’s probably more technical. There’s obviously a very big physical element and you do need to be big, strong and powerful, but there are a lot of guys who are really fit and what separates us is the technical skill level. It’s the fine skills of how you edge your canoe and how you use your hands to pull, where exactly you aim for gates and how you use the water. It’s all very skilful and that’s what makes the difference when getting down the course.
Most difficult aspect in your eyes?
The tiniest of errors mean your competition or race is a total failure. So learning to deal with the little mistakes and even big mistakes, which you still make all the time; I mean I’m world number one at the minute and I make so many mistakes each day in training and some of them are just disastrous. So learning to deal with that frustration is very challenging.
Any tips for aspiring youngsters?
I was fortunate in that I had a chance to experience the sport first, trying it through my family but as soon as I had, we just looked for our local canoe club. If you get in touch with British Canoeing, they’ll be able to tell you where there’s a club near you. In my experience, almost every canoe club would welcome the opportunity to introduce someone new to the sport.
What makes a Canoe Slalomist?
Well I compete at the top level of the sport and I don’t want to give the impression you can only take up canoe slalom if you want to be an Olympic Champion, it’s very much like if you’re not expected to play for Manchester United, you can still take up football and play with your mates. Canoe Slalom exists at all levels; you can just have fun. If you do want to become the best in the world at it, you need to be mentally strong, able to deal with pressure and with the small margins of error. You also need to have a good strength/weight ratio and the physical fitness to paddle hard for 100 seconds.
Does being at Lee Valley evoke Olympic memories?
Not really, as I train here day in and day out. I trained here before the games as well so this just feels like my home venue now. In some ways, it seems a very different place to the one it was on those days of Olympic competition. The Olympic branding was everywhere and they had huge stands by the course, it’s far more of a community venue now.
Do the Olympics have a special atmosphere?
Absolutely, particularly for a sport like ours. Most people in our sport want to be an Olympian and the field is narrowed down to one entry per country. It only happens once every four years and you get to live in the Olympic Village, not to mention there’s an opening ceremony watched by millions around the world. It’s just on another level in terms of spectacle, but not necessarily the level of competition.
Has canoeing enjoyed an Olympic Legacy?
There are lots of things that have come through having an Olympic Games; even getting this course built in the first place was massive, as it’s our high performance centre for canoe slalom. We also have canoeing programmes in the area, getting people involved and a talent ID programme with kids from local schools so yes, there’s certainly a legacy underway.
Team GB inspired a generation at 2012, what does it mean to be part of that story?
It’s special to have anything to do with boosting the sport that you love so much, it’s a real honour. The support we received at the Olympics and the buzz around the local area, in London and throughout the whole country was just incredible and to see some of that converted into people being interested in sports beyond the games and becoming more active, even taking up a new sport. It’s pretty exciting to think you may have been involved in some small way to contributing to that.
How important is it that Lee Valley is being chosen to host international events?
I think it’s really good. If you want to be a strong nation at sport I think it’s really important to host some of the events as well as going abroad to compete in them. It gives a chance for the canoeing community and the local community in general to see top level sport, perhaps even be inspired to take up canoeing. It also gives us the chance to compete at home, which is a very exciting thing to do and it would be a shame to build such an incredible venue for the Olympic Games and never use it again for any high-level sport. I’m really pleased that it’s being used for the World Cup and the World Championships in 2015; hopefully it will continue to be used in that way.
Athletes always want to win. How do you look back on your two silver medals?
When I think about the silver at Beijing, it was a great achievement as this is a very ‘on the day’ sport. It’s easy to be disappointed with second but I could have so easily been fourth. Both times it’s been very small margins. I was perhaps a bit more disappointed to finish second in London when I guess I was expected to do better than that, but to get that chance to come here and finish second, when you consider how much more of an achievement that is than finishing fourth or below, I’m still just very pleased to have won an Olympic medal.
Have you begun preparing for Rio?
It’s hard to say because I’m striving every day to become better at Canoe Slalom and that’s building towards the next race but also towards Rio and the Olympic Games. In a sense, preparation is well underway.
I heard you applied to be an Astronaut. Talk to me about that?
It wasn’t something I’d always thought about doing; it was more that it was an incredible opportunity. Obviously the chances of being selected were slim to none, I think 4 were chosen from 10,000 applicants, but the fact that the European Space Agency had opened it up to anyone; I thought someone had to get it and it’s not going to be me unless I apply. To be honest, it was more that it seemed like a remarkable thing to do.
So if you had the choice, Astronaut or Canoe Slalom World Champion?
Had I got in, I definitely would have taken that opportunity. I think as a person it’s not so much the ‘being an Astronaut’ appeal, just that the idea of doing something exceptional excites me or even doing something that’s really hard to do, which is part of why I love going to try and win Olympic medals.
Why should people come and watch the World Cup?
Well when we had it at the Olympic Games it got great viewing figures on television so people obviously enjoyed seeing it there and the World Cup in Lee Valley is going to be a lot more accessible than the Games, with loads of discounts for family tickets and plenty of activities going on. It’s also going to be the athletes who are Olympic Champions and World Champions, all the top guys in the sport so hopefully it should be good day out and really nice event.
Does ‘home water’ advantage exist?
To some extent yes, every white water course is different so it’s an advantage to know the course you’re competing on better than others. That being said, the best guys are still going to do very well. You’re still going to need to be one of the best in the world and you’re going to need to put down a great run to get on the podium.
Final thoughts ahead of the event?
It’s a pretty strong international field at the minute; the main guys who will be going well this year are the Slovak team who are very strong and the Germans. Slovenia also have some strong athletes so there are a lot of guys out there and it will come down to who has the best run on the day. My winter training went well and I think I’m more than capable of getting on the podium or winning races, but my aim is put down the best performance I can, if that gets me a win or on the podium, brilliant.
David Florence will be taking part in the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup 2014 at the Lee Valley White Water Centre from Friday 6th – Sunday 8th June. For more information visit www.canoelondon2014.com