The Road to Success
At the young age of three, Irish International canoeist Jenny Egan began to learn the art of canoeing and raced in her first competition when she was just eight years old. With hard work and perseverance, it was smooth sailing from there. Throughout her illustrious career, Egan has won multiple World Championship medals, World Cup medals, and a European Championship medal. The Salmon Leap Club canoeist is the only Irish athlete to win an International Canoe Federation (ICF) Senior Canoe Sprint World Championship, ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup medals and a Senior Canoe Sprint European Championship medal.
Throughout her years as an Irish International canoeist, Egan has kept her sport in the family. Peter Egan, her brother and an Irish international canoeist, coaches her alongside her fiancé Jon Simmons. Her dad manages the Irish Canoe Sprint Team, and her mom has been supporting her every step of the way.
“My favorite thing about the sport is the fact that my family is involved,” Egan said.
She focuses on the sprint distances of 500m and 200m as well as the longer 5000m races in the K1, or a single kayak boat. The two races are very different and require a lot of training to succeed. In the shorter distances, each boat is set in its own lane and athletes must go from start to finish as fast as they can. The K1 5000m race, however, is a more tactical race. Although everyone starts at the same start line, as soon as the whistle blows it is a “free for all” from there. Each athlete is tasked with choosing the path that suits them best. It demands them to reserve their energy and pay attention to their surroundings.
Although sprint is Egan’s main discipline, after the season is over each year, she competes in the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships. It is a 26k row that usually starts and ends in the same place and includes portages, or an obstacle in which the athlete must carry their boat on land to get to a body of water.
“It's really nice to be able to do both sprint and marathon,” she said, “the marathon does not interfere with my sprint distances because it's always after the sprint competition season.”
As the weather begins to cool, Egan continues to train hard to build a foundation to carry her right back into the sprint season in the spring. A mix of aerobic training keeps her in shape while she is on dry land.
When April approaches, it is officially international competition season, and Egan trains specifically to the discipline or distance she will be competing in. For sprints, she does short interval training with lactic thresholds and tolerance work.
Every year that pases allows Egan to grow as an athlete. At the finish line, the margins between women’s times are exceptionally close. Regardless, Egan has made substantial improvement in her personal best times and has broken Irish national records in the past year.
“I beat a new Irish national record last year in the 200 metres at the 40.6 seconds,” she said, “That was almost a second off of my last time and that is a massive improvement in such a short distance.”
The Olympics May Be Postponed, But Athletes Are Not
This year, Egan had her mind set on a Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification. Unlike many other events, canoeing in the K1 boats is one of the most challenging spots to achieve at the Olympics. This year, the quota was changed to allow more crew boats, making it that much harder to qualify. To qualify for a K1 boat for the 500m and 200m, an athlete must be top five in the World Championships. Two more places are up for grabs at the European Olympics Qualifier and at the World Cup.
“There are specific quota places, and in so few sports you have to be top five at the world championships to qualify,” Egan said.
Although joining a crew boat might sound like the easier option, Egan is not considering joining one because of the lack of strong crew boats in Ireland to train with. She has to step up her training and fight hard to claim one of the five spots at the European Championships to represent Ireland in the Olympics.
“That's just the way it is,” she said, “In the Olympics, all continents have to be represented. It's hard when you're in Europe which is the strongest continent.”
Egan was at the end of an intense training program in Florida to prepare her for the Olympic qualifying competitions in Europe, when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed. Very little changed in Egan’s mind and determination, however. She believes that the Olympics is not the only competition athletes train for and should be recognized for their other achievements throughout the years.
"As a person outside of sport I can understand thinking that the Olympics is everything. That's when there is so much media coverage and it's all over TV. They might only see some of those sports in the Olympics every four years."
“For us as athletes, yes the Olympics come around every four years, but for a lot of top athletes, they have said that it is not the be all and end all,” she said.
World Cups and Championships are achievements that bring top athletes in the world great pride, yet the media does not highlight these events as much as the Olympics. Egan believes the media needs to be around in the off years of the Olympics to highlight athletes who are moving mountains in their sport.
“No athlete has ever done that in canoeing in Ireland; been on a podium in canoe sprint world cup, canoe sprint European championships, canoe sprint world championships at the senior level,” Egan said, “For me, that is a hell of an achievement in itself and I am really proud of it.”
There Must Be A Change In Visibility
In Ireland, the sport of canoeing is not covered by the media at all and Egan wants to see change in the visibility of the sport. Media coverage is important for the funding, sponsorships, and viewership of a sport. Without it, the best athletes are not compensated for their hard work and effort.
"More media coverage needs to be present in the other years not just the Olympic years. People would then see the different types of championships and world cups. Visibility needs to be improved for people to see it." she said.
Many don’t realize the amount of training Egan and other international canoeists do a week. She trains year round with only a few weeks break. Every day consists of two to three hours of training adding up to 14 to 15 sessions per week.
"I'm very lucky, I'm an international carded athlete with Sport Ireland. I'm so thankful to Sport Ireland, the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Canoeing Ireland and Salmon Leap Club for all their support through the years"
"I wouldn't be in this position without my family support. As a kid growing up, my mum drove me all over the world. I wouldn't have been able to do that without my family support."
“If you want to be at the top of your game, you have to be training all year,” Egan said.
She says that it would be helpful for companies to help athletes find part-time jobs that fit within their busy schedules to support them through their athletic careers. Athletes are disciplined and are skilled in time management in their sport and therefore show qualities that would make them employable if they are qualified.
“Society has to support each other in order to achieve on the world stage,” she said.