Charlotte Henshaw had heard about the new sport which was making its Paralympic debut in Rio, but at the time she was so focussed on her swimming she didn’t give it a second thought.

That sport was paracanoe, and five years later Great Britain’s Henshaw is one of its gold medalists. It’s an incredible achievement for someone who had never even sat in a kayak before 2017.

Henshaw won gold in the women’s KL2, the event in which teammate Emma Wiggs won gold in Rio, and in which she finished runner-up to Henshaw on Saturday. She didn’t watch Wiggs race in Rio because of a date clash, and at that time, paracanoe was just another sport.

“I think I was racing on the day of their finals in Rio so I didn’t see it,” Henshaw recalled on Saturday.

“Being a Nottinghamshire girl though, and the paracanoe squad being based in Nottingham, I heard a lot about it. I’d heard about paracanoe, I knew it was a sport building towards great things and there was a great buzz about what they had built going into Rio, but at that point I was really focussed on my swimming career.

“I didn’t think that I would be part of it, but I was very aware there was a possibility if I wanted to be. That’s why I took a couple of months away to soul search.”

After Rio she decided to move away from swimming, which had taken her to three Paralympics and earned her a silver and a bronze medal.

And even though it wasn’t the prime motivation, Henshaw knew time was running out to win a Paralympic gold.

“I didn’t switch sports to win a gold medal, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to complete the set,” Henshaw said.

“It looks lovely, the bronze and the silver, but it looks much better when there is one of each colour. I knew I wanted to try and do it, I mean I wouldn’t be involved in the Paralympic movement if I didn’t want to win a gold medal, but I didn’t ever assume it would be an easy road, and it hasn’t been at all.

“I just knew that I wanted a new challenge, and I just knew that there was an opportunity for me to learn something new. I had no idea if I’d be any good, I’d never sat in a kayak ever, so it was a real stab in the dark. I’m very fortunate to have found another sport that I love as much as I love swimming.”

Like so many athletes Henshaw found the Covid lockdowns challenging, but she said it also gave her extra time to learn her new sport. And she credits the lockdown with allowing her to look at new ways to prepare for competition.

“We were learning how to train for canoeing on our patios and in our gardens, and I actually think we’ve unlocked things that perhaps we would not have had if we were not forced into that situation,” she said.

“There have been things we have learned about our training that perhaps we wouldn’t have tried before, and now we know it’s a really valuable thing to have in our locker.”

Adding to the drama, Henshaw was diagnosed with an abdominal problem which required hospitalisation and an operation in December, and gave her sleepless nights wondering if she would still be able to comete in Tokyo.

I missed a good chunk of training over the winter,” she said.

“It was tough to agree to have surgery in a Games year, but it was what I needed to do for my health. And the team at British Canoeing assured me I would recover quickly enough to be back on the water training by February, and they were right.”

Henshaw said she has gone from thinking her Paralympic career would be over post-2016, to planning how to defend her paracanoe title in Paris in 2024.

Great Britain Charlotte Henshaw Tokyo Paralympics

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