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Sprint canoeing's 'ball of fire'

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Ollie Williams | 17:43 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

"There's a little bit of me wishes the Olympics were tomorrow."

Rachel Cawthorn is in the form of her life. The 21-year-old sprint canoeist, from Guildford, won two World Cup gold medals in Germany earlier in June.

And the sport's leading British star, Olympic gold medallist Tim Brabants, says she has become "the one to beat" in the women's events.

For now, though, she is feeding swans on the banks of the Thames, soaking up sun before throwing herself back into her training regime.

"But I could do with the race practice and the lead-up to 2012 is going to be exciting," she continues, rethinking. "I wouldn't want to miss out on that. It's exciting, especially when you hear stuff on the news about people interested in tickets.

"That brings it closer to home but you think about all the stuff you have to do first, and realise you have to get on with it."

Cawthorn's team-mates say she is a "ball of fire" when the race is on, yet she appears quiet and unassuming on camera. And she has turned to an unlikely hobby as a means of winding down away from the water.

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Meet sprint canoe star Rachel Cawthorn

"I've just taken up crochet," she tells me. "I can do that in between racing - although not too much, because I get sore elbows if I do it too intensely.

"I've been trying to work out which hobbies you can do sitting down in between training sessions, which don't take too much out of you. I've started to do a bit of painting as well."

Cawthorn was at the last Olympics in Beijing, but as a spectator taking part in a Team GB programme to give up-and-coming athletes a taste of the Games.

Even now, it is only six years since she saw a school assembly about a talent identification scheme, looking for athletes with certain physical characteristics, and took her first steps towards becoming a top canoeist.

"I hadn't even been on a canoe properly, I'd just done silly paddling on holiday. Then I remember we had an assembly about it - I was really excited and wanted to go for it, but I kept it secret, I was a bit superstitious. I didn't even tell mum and she worked at the school.

"The first summer (after being picked) was really fun, we fell in all the time and were messing around on the river. There were a group of us, all really new to it. In the winter we picked it up, and it got more and more serious.

"My first senior year was my last year of school and I started going for it properly then. My A-levels probably suffered a bit, I was spending more time canoeing than at school.

"I started university at Royal Holloway studying biology, and managed six weeks before finding out about all the GB training camps. I was like, 'Well, that's not going to work' - I was going to be away for months on end. So I pulled out of uni. Hopefully I'll go back one day, but it didn't fit in at the time."

Biology's loss is canoeing's gain as Cawthorn, the International Canoe Federation's "athlete of the month" for June, prepares for the 2010 European Championships in Spain this week, having won bronze over 500m at last year's Euros.

The British women's sprint team feels like a university squad. Leading medal prospect Cawthorn, who races in K1 (single kayak), plus her housemate Louisa Sawers, and Sawers' K2 (double kayak) partner Jess Walker have a combined age of 63, in a sport where athletes in their forties can win medals.

"It's an advantage for us," argues Sawers. "It means we've got more time to develop and, come 2012, we'll have had a couple more years to improve."

"But having a lot of experience makes a big difference," counters Walker, who came 17th in the K2 in Beijing alongside veteran Anna Hemmings. "Now we're gaining experience and hopefully, by 2012, we'll have enough.

"We can learn from Tim (Brabants) - we're lucky to have him around, he can tell us what it's like. And I went to Beijing so I've learnt and I definitely felt that not having experience made a big difference.

"Coming 17th was a massive disappointment for me even though going to Beijing wasn't my goal, it just happened and fell into place that way. But if I don't get a medal at 2012 it'll be devastating. All of us have medals in mind."

Sprint canoeing's Olympic events have changed since Beijing. Brabants has lost his 500m event, where he won bronze in 2008, though he does have the chance to defend his 1,000m title. Cawthorn has the K1 500m and 200m to aim for at London 2012, and the 500m will be her focus at the Euros.

"I'm quite confident," she says. "I'm just trying to improve each year leading up to the Games. There's room for two more years of improvement."

Brabants, a veteran of three Olympics, goes further. "It's amazing watching Rachel's determination once she gets on the water for racing," he tells me.

"She looks really peaceful and nice off the water, but she's got such grit and determination on it. She tries really hard and she's being rewarded with results as well.

"I think she's the one to beat, to be honest. Other athletes will be looking at her as a very strong contender to win the Europeans. It's quite a strong field at the top of the women's events, it'll be tough, but I think she's tough enough to cope with it."

Sawers and Walker are impressed, too.

"Rachel is a lot different in a boat," says Walker, who competed in K4 events (four women in one kayak) alongside Cawthorn last year. "In the boat, she becomes this big voice. She'll always fight and I think we can learn from that."

Sawers adds: "She's got fight in her, she's a little ball of fire in the water, and in training that fire is always going."

"But," concludes Walker, "it only comes out on the water. Where it should be."

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