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Agony, elation and expletives in Olympic do-or-die weekend

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Ollie Williams | 08:48 UK time, Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Richard Hounslow stands on a patch of grass in Hertfordshire and watches his Olympics sail past.

It takes the shape of Campbell Walsh, Athens 2004 silver medallist and Hounslow's big rival for the one place available to a Briton in the men's kayak at London 2012.

Ten feet below Hounslow's vantage point on the banks of the Olympic canoe slalom course, Walsh is paddling for dear life. Hounslow took 95.76 seconds to complete his run. Walsh has to beat that. About 15 seconds from now, the dream dies for one of them.

"Walsh's split time is on fire!" roars the commentator. Hounslow rolls his eyes and grimaces. Walsh, four years Hounslow's senior at the age of 34, barrels on past him, mere metres from the finish.

And then it's over, Walsh slumped back in his kayak and Hounslow rooted to the spot. Four unbearable seconds elapse before the time is announced.

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Watch the joy and despair of Britain's Olympic canoe slalom trials

"Campbell Walsh, 95.85 seconds... and into second place."

By nine hundredths of a second - far less than the blink of an eye - Richard Hounslow becomes an Olympian. As Hounslow is lost in a tide of embraces, Walsh lobs his paddle through a graceful arc into the swirling water and lets out a loud, resigned expletive.

This same scene is borne out four times over as the boats Britain will send to the Olympic Games are decided in the most brutal of fashions: three races over three days, down the London Olympic course. Win two, and you're in.

"One of the biggest things that puts a smile on my face is seeing how happy my family and friends are," says Hounslow. "For months they've been talking about the Olympics. To have done the job this weekend, for myself but also for them, is amazing.

"We've been thinking about this weekend for four years. When you do all the interviews and people talk about the Olympics you're like, 'Well, yeah, it'd be great but I've got to get there.'

"The media attention has been on Campbell, as it should be - he's got a good pedigree, an Olympic silver medal, a European title and multiple world medals. But I knew I had a good race head on me. At the big events I can pull the results out, and hopefully I'll do that this summer at the Olympics."

Walsh, to his credit, takes barely five minutes to gather himself before presenting a composed and philosophical front for the cameras.

"That Olympic spot was entirely my motivation," he says, matter-of-factly. "I had no thoughts past this weekend. This was the focus. But this is the way these races work: you've got to win the races, and I didn't win the races.

"I've not really experienced this too much, I've generally been pretty successful and done what I wanted. It's a new experience for me to miss out on Olympic selection when I was capable of getting it."

At least Walsh has been to an Olympics or two in the past. Louise Donington, 27, has been paddling since the age of nine. She has never made the Games. This time, she is half a second off as Lizzie Neave wins the women's kayak place instead.

"It's the fact it was so close," says Donington, swallowing hard and clearly fighting back tears, moments after realising she won't go to London 2012. The last four years, and arguably her entire career, were spent building up to this moment.

"I almost had it today. That's all I can think about. I'm trying to take the positives, knowing I was good enough and that a bit here and there would have done it, but it's challenging to deal with right now.

"It has to be like this, though. This is the pressure and environment we need to prepare for the Olympics: to listen to the commentary at the start line and know what you have to do. That's what it will be like for Lizzie at the Olympics, that's what she needs to practise."

Commendable clarity of thought from somebody who started the day an Olympic hopeful and will now, as of five minutes ago, be watching it on TV like everyone else. Not all who missed out could put that misery into words - some simply broke down in quiet corners of the course, sobbing into friends' shoulders.

"There is no failure in life," says Jurg Gotz, the British canoe slalom head coach, in his thick, sing-song Swiss accent. Having asked Gotz how his athletes should deal with missing the Olympics, the answer that comes back is surprising, not least because it segues into a Churchill quote.

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm - I think Churchill said that," he continues. "I usually go to the athletes, establish eye contact, and tell them they are as good as they were before.

"There is only one winner, and they all accept that. It is part of the business. You keep your head up."

Campbell Walsh on the Olympic canoe slalom course

Campbell Walsh, pictured battling for Olympic selection on the Lee Valley course. Team-mate Richard Hounslow won the race and the Olympic place. Photo: Getty Images

The five who will paddle for Britain this summer - Neave in the kayak; Beijing 2008 silver medallist David Florence, Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott in the canoe events; Hounslow in both - can now for the first time start to grapple with a home Olympics, without any 'subject to selection' asterisk.

"Since the Beijing Games finished, I've wanted to go to my home Olympic Games in London. Until this weekend, I didn't know I would be," says Florence, in a room buried beneath the course, several hours after racing finished. Interviews and a lengthy stop at doping control have turned this into a successful but draining day. Everybody else has gone home.

"There's a lot of expectation on me this time," adds the 29-year-old. "Last time, I'd never been to the Olympics and I was insignificant as far as the media were concerned. This time, having won silver last time, loads of people expected me to turn up here and do it no worries. It's not that simple.

"To compete at an Olympic selection didn't excite me: there is so much to lose. But at the Olympics? There's a huge amount to win."

Dedicated to the memory of Randy Starkman, Olympic sports reporter for Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star, who died on Monday aged 51. He understood better than most these personal triumphs and disasters with which athletes in Olympic sports must routinely contend, and reported faithfully on them at no fewer than 12 Olympic Games. He was, and remains, the most respected in his field.

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