Liepa makes history for two countries at Rio 2016

When Lasma Liepa took to the water for the canoe sprint competition in Rio this week, she was making history for two countries.

It was no surprise that given the enormity of the occasion, nerves got the better of the Latvian-born Turk competing in her first Olympics.

28-year-old Liepa was also the first athlete to represent Turkey in canoe at an Olympic Games, and she was also the first woman from Latvia to compete in canoe.

“I was so nervous,” she said.

“At the start I forgot everything. I had never had so much stress in my life before, it was very hard and very interesting experience, but I don’t want to ever have to experience that again.”

Liepa calls Turkey home now, but first began paddling as a teenager in Latvia.

“I started as a 13-year-old in 2001,” she said.

“A friend of mine started and asked if I would like to join. For about one year I said no, I didn’t think it was a good idea, but one year later I finally said yes.

“It was like a hobby after school, I was not thinking about the Olympics or racing or anything, it was just for fun.”

But Liepa turned out to be a natural. Her times improved quickly, and soon she realised she could take her paddling to another level.

But that would prove difficult in Latvia, a country where waterways are frozen for much of the year.

“About three years after I started, I won some medals in a competition in Latvia, and then I got a feel that I wanted more, so I started training more seriously,” she said.

“I moved to Turkey to do sport. Latvia is a very cold country, we have six months, sometimes nine months, without water. It was hard to get some results.

Liepa broke through on the International stage in 2015, when she finished 12th at the World Championships in Milan to earn Olympic qualification, and she also won the K1 200m title at the European Championships.

She’s excited to be creating history for two countries in Rio.

“This was our first step in an Olympic Games. It was not a huge step, but it was a start,” she said.

“It was the first step for two countries. In Latvia we already had men in the sprints, but not so popular for women.

“In Turkey, this sport is new. The Federation was formed just in 2002, so it is younger than my sports career.

“We are like the engine for the sport. People stop me on the streets and ask me what I do, because I am very tall, very white and very blonde for Turkey – they ask if I am a volleyballer or a basketballer. They don’t even know what kayak is.”

Liepa is not certain she’ll be back for Tokyo in 2020. At 28, she believes she needs to think about having a family.

But having already made so much history, will the chance of winning a first medal prove too hard to ignore?

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