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Canoeists prepare to make their biggest move

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Ollie Williams | 17:28 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

"You move your family and you move away from friends. But if you're serious about achieving at London 2012, then there is no choice."

Jurg Gotz, the head coach of the British slalom canoeing team, is preparing to lead his charges down the M1 from Nottingham to London this November.

The team are leaving Nottingham's National Water Sports Centre behind in favour of permanently relocating to Lee Valley, where the slalom course for 2012 is nearing completion. Once it is finished, the British team will have daily access to their home Olympic course, an advantage which could be crucial to their medal prospects.

But, for all the opportunity it affords, the move is just as stressful and complicated for Britain's canoeists as it would be for anyone else.

The British squad are currently in Slovenia for the sport's World Championships, so the journey south is temporarily on the back burner, but it will form their next challenge as soon as they return to the UK.

"It'll be really good for training, it's amazing to have a venue like that in your own country. But there's much more to it when you have a life away from canoeing, you know," says Tim Baillie.

Baillie competes in slalom's C2 category, where he partners Etienne Stott in a two-man boat. While he understands the reasons for the move, and can't argue with the logic of competing on the new Olympic course, he isn't looking forward to the upheaval.

"It's complicated in terms of sorting my living arrangements and stuff," he says, in the knowledge that his Canadian girlfriend, fellow canoeist Sarah Boudens, has recently made the move over to Britain.

Boudens will not get the same free access to the 2012 course, so she would probably be better off staying in Nottingham, a complicating factor Baillie is trying to get his head around. Moreover, the 31-year-old has to coordinate his move with that of partner Stott, since both clearly need to be in the same place at the same time to train.

"We're going to have to be mindful that we don't stress ourselves out by moving there too quickly, or stress ourselves out by staying in Nottingham too much," admits Stott, also 31.

"We've got to be quite sensitive as it goes on, because it's a massive opportunity and, almost no matter the price, we'll take it. It's once in a lifetime and it has to be done.

"It's going to be a fantastic facility and the better the facility you train on, the better you'll be, there's no doubt about that - there is a definite correlation. But also, it's quite an upheaval for both of us, we've both got quite a lot of life and stuff going on in Nottingham."

Baillie is reluctant to leave Nottingham - "I'm quite comfortable where I'm living, I've been there for 10 years," he says - but, for some of his team-mates, that is precisely the reason they are itching to make the move.

"A lot of people are a little bit wary but I'm originally from London so I'm going back home again," says Richard Hounslow, who competes in two events - on his own in the K1 kayaking discipline, and with David Florence in the C2, where the pair go up against Baillie and Stott.

"I've been up in Nottingham for 10 years. You kind of gain a rhythm and things have been so easy for us in Nottingham, that finding out we now have to move is a bit of a shock. But I'm excited, we get home then six weeks later we move down to London."

Florence, who won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in the men's C1 event, agrees with Hounslow.

"I've loved living in Nottingham and training there but, with the Olympics on the horizon, I'm really excited to move down and see the new course," says the 28-year-old.

"I can understand that everyone's situation is different but for most of us, canoe slalom is our lives and the Olympics is such a big thing. To have the opportunity to train on our home Olympic course is exciting for everyone."

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Beijing silver medallist David Florence and Athens bronze medallist (turned course designer) Helen Reeves take a look at the World Championship course in Slovenia

However, things aren't as simple as strapping your kayak to the top of the car, driving for a few hours and starting a new life in the northern environs of the capital. Anyone who has made that life decision knows London is a sight more expensive than most, if not all, other parts of Britain. If you're reliant on a fixed level of funding, that presents problems.

"We live off Lottery grants year-to-year based on results and happily, this year, we've already had some results that make it likely we'll carry on being funded to some extent," explains Baillie.

"But essentially, your year's money is based on the 90 seconds of effort you put in this weekend, in Slovenia.

"Normally, if you had good results and you were on good money for a year, you could save some money for the next year, living like you do - not extravagantly. Then, if you had bad results the next year, that could help you through.

"But moving to London is a huge added financial pressure, above and beyond what you're used to, and there's no extra funding as such for the move. The team are trying to organise options for accommodation, but the athletes get the same grant you could have earned to stay in Nottingham."

Baillie is wary of sounding too pessimistic, and is quick to add that the move is "absolutely key" and "a huge opportunity" - but there is no doubting that a medal on the world stage this weekend would be even more helpful than usual, with funding body UK Sport demanding at least one medal and four to five finalists from the World Championships.

And the Lee Valley course itself? For most of the team, the precise details of their new home remain frustratingly under wraps.

"I've never seen water down it although I've been to look at the site once, when it was just a load of mud," says Florence. "I've heard things and seen pictures other guys have shown, but I don't know a whole lot about it."

Head coach Gotz, however, is always a picture of confidence, and is prepared to stick his neck out. He is sure all the expense, logistical angst and upheaval will be worth the team's while when they settle in at the end of the year.

"We're in a sport where the specificity of a venue is so crucial," he says. "We will see it here, the Slovenians will probably get a few more medals at these Championships than they normally would.

"If you look at how home nations do in canoe slalom, you always see them taking away significantly more medals than at a race abroad. It's exactly the same for us, being on that water day in, day out is an advantage.

"We have been advisors for the new London 2012 course: our knowledge has been tapped into without us being the ones driving the project. We had influence and the course is great.

"It looks very promising and when foreign teams come in next year for the test event, they'll find probably the best course that exists in the world."


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