The audible sigh around the Tacen whitewater venue on Friday as Czech Gabriela Satkova pushed her kayak away from the starting gate and down the slalom course reflected a year of despair, frustration, fear and confusion.

The stress 2020 has taken on people all over the world cannot be underestimated, and athletes and officials are no different to anyone else. Quarantine, travel bans, competition cancellation, and, of course, the fear of getting sick has tested everyone’s resolve.

On the ICF 2020 calendar, almost as a beacon of hope, three events always remained, while everything else was cancelled – a sprint and paracanoe world cup in Hungary, and slalom events in Slovenia and France.

The events in Hungary and Slovenia have happened. The racing, by usual standards, was nowhere near as strong as one would normally expect of an ICF world cup, but that didn’t matter. For the sport of canoeing, the events were a triumph over diversity, a sign life outside of Covid does exist, and there is hope it will get better.

Both events were conducted in the surreal environment that should come with a pandemic. Face masks, hand sanitizing, social distancing, team bubbles, regular testing – incredible burdens to place on event organisers, but in reality there was no other way.

The ICF wanted it to work, but to get there it needed willing partners. It worked because both Hungary and Slovenia wanted it to work, and when the ICF and others started to question if it was possible, the answer was always yes.

But mostly it worked because the athletes, starved of competition, desperately wanted it to work. These are people whose lives revolve around training, dieting, and exercising, and if they have nothing to put it towards, than what is the point?

So back to Friday, and Gabriela Satkova’s journey down the K1 course. It came after a week when several countries had been forced to withdraw because borders were closed, other athletes had to cancel because they needed to isolate, and, to cap it off, torrential rain threatened to flood the course.

There were so many reasons why Satkova’s run might never have happened, but it did happen, and the collective sigh of relief was the lifting of an enormous burden that had almost brought canoeing to its knees.

I was so excited and so ready to be in the Olympics, and then everything fell down

Over the weekend athletes were talking about the year that was. No-one had a good story to tell; some spoke of their struggles with mental health issues, others of the stresses that come with the unknown.

Brazil’s Ana Satila, a two-time Olympian set for her third Games when, and if, Tokyo happens, found herself stuck in Brazil training on flat water for a large slice of this year.

“It’s been really hard, I wasn’t really expecting all of this,” Satila said.

“We spent four months training at home on the flatwater. I could overcome it with the support of my team, my boyfriend and my sister, who both paddle. We just tried to help each other. I think we could all leave this feeling much stronger.

“I’m an athlete that needs to work really hard always, to come to race and feel prepared. For me, this was hard. We didn’t have any goals for the future, we didn’t know if we could race this year, and for me that was the hardest part.

“Even when the Olympics was postponed, I was so excited and so ready to be in the Olympics, and then everything fell down. It was a hard moment. But I think we managed well.”

Ukraine’s Viktoriia Dobrotvorska is another who has spent this year stranded, stuck in an environment where she can only train on flat water. The 27-year-old desperately needs time on whitewater to help her final push for Olympic qualification.

2016 Rio Olympian Michal Smolen was training in Australia with most of the world’s other top paddlers when word of this strange new virus that had surfaced in China began to make news. By the time he got to New Zealand, the world had started to react. Borders closed, flights were cancelled, many people found themselves stuck a long way from home.

Smolen was one of them.

“It was quite a rollercoaster, because after last year’s world championships I was in the mindset of preparing for our Olympic qualifiers,” the American said.

“Everything was getting close and we were getting ready to head home to compete for the Olympic spot, and then we got hit with the coronavirus wave in Australia, and that’s when everything changed.

“I was there in New Zealand, I couldn’t get back home, I couldn’t get to Europe, and then when I finally did get out, there was no certainty.”

I’m here, and I’m just trying to make the best of this opportunity

Which is where the sense of relief for those athletes fortunate to get to Ljubljana on the weekend, and to Szeged in Hungary before that, becomes understandable.

Smolen didn’t have his best weekend of racing, far from it, but that was not important. For three days, life almost had felt normal again.

“For me especially, I’ve struggled with the mental game for quite a while, so I’m just trying to stay calm and try to keep working on the things that I can fix right now and not get too caught up in worrying about what’s going to happen,” Smolen said.

“I think you just have to stay focused on your goals, no matter what happens. It’s the same for everyone. I’m here, and I’m just trying to make the best of this opportunity.”

Next month the plan is to hold another canoe slalom world cup in Pau, France. Covid cases are increasing quickly all through Europe, and France is struggling more than most.

But there is a sense of optimism that the world cup will happen. Szeged and Ljubljana showed it is possible, and Pau has learned a lot from watching those two cities.

Though in 2020, who would be willing to predict anything?

2020 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup Ljubljana Slovenia Michal SMOLEN

Canoe Sprint
Canoe Slalom
Kayak Cross
#ICFcanoeslalom #ICFcanoesprint #ICFparacanoe