2016 just the beginning for Portugal's Laia

There was a moment during the women’s K1 200 at the Rio Olympics that Portugal’s Francisca Laia almost had to pinch herself.

It was only a fleeting moment; 22-year-old Laia had much more important things to worry about.

“In the heat I was side by side with Lisa Carrington and Natasa Janics, two big "sharks" of canoesprint and two idols for me,” Laia recalled.

“It was incredible to compete next to them and feel that I'm in their group. 2016 was the best year since I began canoe sprint.

“It was the year that the dream came true. Achieving the Olympic level was so important for me.”

Later this month Laia will get to compete in front of family and friends for the first time as an Olympian. The opening ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup of the season, at Portugal’s Montemor-o-Velho, will be a special homecoming.

“It's always a great feeling to compete in Portugal with my parents and friends cheering for me,” she said. 

“I feel a bit more pressure due to that, but on the other hand very happy because I know that I'll have those important people there whatever the result.”

Laia made the B final in Rio, where she finished eighth. But she was far from disappointed. Getting to the Olympics capped off a pretty incredible 2016.

“My victory was just to be there, to get that quota and start in Rio,” Laia said. 

“I'm not completely happy with my race there, but I think that when you are there you always want more.

“I also competed last year for the first time at the World University Championships, and became champion in the K1 200m and on K2 500m, and also a silver medal on the K2 200m.”

Laia escaped the post-Olympic blues by getting herself away from Portugal and into a new headspace.

“After the Olympics I did Erasmus in Palermo, Italy, to take some time to think, to rest and to organize my head,” Laia said this week. 

“Basically to process everything, train with an Italian friend in different conditions. That way I came back to Portugal in January with my head in the place, prepared for the new goals.”

“This is my last year in U23’s, year so I'm looking forward to do a good race. I’m also looking to start training a crew boat to reach 2019 and have good possibilities to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

“I want to continue training very hard to achieve the Olympics once more. That's the main goal, to have the experience of going to the Olympic Games once more, with a different age, a different mind, a lot more experience and training.”

Montemor-o-Velho is not only the venue for the first World Cup of the 2017 season, it is also the site for the 2018 ICF Sprint Canoe World Championships.

With the world-class facilities on offer in Portugal, and the added attention the sport is set to get in the next 18 months, Laia is hopeful it will strengthen even further her country’s canoeing stocks.

“I think that Portugal has lots of good young athletes that can achieve a good level soon,” Laia said. 

“We have, probably, the best places on earth to train and prepare high performance canoeists for the most important competitions. 

“I'm a bit sad that canoe sprint is not a big sport in Portugal. For Portuguese people, football is everything, but myself and many more athletes, we train everyday to bring great results to Portugal and to change the statistic.”

The ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup 1 begins at Montemor-o-Velho on May 19.

Canoe Sprint