Here’s a list of reasons why Finland’s Lisa Maenpaa should NOT be doing canoe slalom as her chosen sport.

  1. Finland has no history in the sport. The country has never had a slalom competitor at an Olympic Games.
  2. There are no real slalom training facilities in Finland.
  3. She has no-one to train with.
  4. Winters in Finland are brutal. Six months long, with temperatures dropping to -25.
  5. When she was 13 she had a major health problem which almost cost her her life.

And these are the reasons why she SHOULD be doing canoe slalom as a sport.

  1. She is very, very determined.
  2. She has obvious talent.
  3. She made a promise to herself when she was her sickest that if she ever got through to the other side, she would move heaven and earth to get to the Olympics.
  4. Did I mention that she is very determined?

The near-death experience came five years ago, when Maenpaa was just 13-years-old. She collapsed at school for no apparent reason. Then it happened again, and again, each time accompanied by fits which had everyone very worried.

Maenpaa was taken to hospital and diagnosed with what she calls “serious head trauma” at the back of her skull. It was a scary time, and it lasted more than a year. Doctors couldn’t guarantee she’d ever get out.


In Pau last week those traumatic events of 2012 seemed like a lifetime ago. There was Maenpaa, now 18 and most definitely the life of the party, among a group of 28 athletes from countries all around the world where slalom is still a developing sport.

 She had that infectious zing and energy you often find in someone who has stared down a major life challenge, and in someone who had made a big promise to themselves while they lay in a hospital bed watching the Olympics.

“For me, it was like íf I ever get better from this, if I can walk on my own, if I can take care of myself, I will do my best to improve in slalom. And that’s what I did,” Maenpaa said last week.

“I watched a lot of races during the 2012 Olympics in London. I remember Daniele Molmenti breaking his paddle, and I just thought ‘some day I want to be there’.

“But I never pictured that I was actually going to meet these other athletes and experience this week.

“I recently came back. For now everything is good. We got the right medication and treatment, everything is good now.”

There were already signs Maenpaa was a stayer even before 2012. Her destiny was probably set the day she was born.

“I was born next to a river, and when I was a small kid I used to swim a lot,” she said.

“My family is really musical, but for me it never did fit.

“I kept telling my mum that I wanted to do something in the water. There was this one guy from France who happened to know about slalom. He took me to the rivers and knocked on my door telling me to come to the rivers.

“I did that, but not long after I had some hard times. I spent a lot of time in hospital, and I watched the World Cups. I just kept telling myself that some day I wanted to be there.”


It didn’t take long after getting the all clear from the doctors for Maenpaa to make it back onto the water. Of course, there were the aforementioned challenges of cold winters, no facilities and no training partners, but when you’ve stared down serious illness, these sorts of hurdles are merely blips.

“In Finland the winter is really long. It’s six months of dark and cold, so you struggle a lot with the motivation,” she said.

“When it’s minus 25 degrees, you ask yourself ‘should I go paddling’. This winter I was wondering íf there was something wrong with me because I’m doing this under this bridge, all alone and in the darkness. Why?

“But always when I get there, and get an invitation from the ICF to come and do these races, these camps with the TIP, I’m just overwhelmed to have this experience.

“I know why I do this, and why I want to improve.”

And now an appetite for success that was already voracious has become insatiable. Maenpaa is yet another success story for the International Canoe Federation’s TIP, which has taken canoe slalom and sprint to some of the world’s least likely waterways.

Like Finland, these countries in Africa, Asia and South America have very little infrastructure. There is no reason why the sport should succeed in these climates, but it does.


Some of the very first participants in TIP are now coaches; several are Olympians. Places where a racing canoe had never been seen now house two or three, and there’s a long line of potential future paddlers queueing up to have a go.

It brings a tear to the eye of Pierrick Gosselin, the ICF’s Slalom Development Co-Ordinator who pours his heart and soul into the program and celebrates every success story as if it was an Olympic gold medal.

Just this week he shared a video of 18-year-old South African, Sandile Makubo, a member of the TIP camp in Pau.

It was the first time Makubo had ever left South Africa, the first time he had ever been in an aeroplane. He didn’t win a medal or make a final, but he returned to his township with a brand new boat and paddles donated by boat manufacturer Nelo and paddle suppliers, Brasca.

Makubo was lauded like a king upon his return, his new boat even more so. The video captured the full emotion, a moment which makes it all worthwhile for Gosselin and his team.

And it’s the feedback from athletes like Maenpaa.

“I had such a great time,” she said.

“My first run I was really happy, I just went straight down, for my second run I had some more trouble, I went down some of the way backwards, but it was a good experience. I really enjoy learning new things.

“Here it was my third time in the downriver boat, and it was extra exciting. But I was super nervous when I started, but I’m happy. It’s amazing.”


So what about that promise made in a hospital bed five years ago? At 18, time is on her side, probably for the first time in her short career.

The cold winter has already started rolling into Finland, but it won’t stand a chance against the burning desire of a teenage athlete who has set her sights on making history.

 “I’m really, really optimistic about the future, because during this summer I’ve seen a lot. What it takes to be champion or in the top ten,” she said.

“I think because I meet a lot of people, and if I take my chances to improve, and I stay motivated as I am, I can definitely get to that top ten or top 20 of slalom. That’s my goal. I really want to be the first one from Finland to go to the Olympics in canoe slalom.

“Sometimes I just sit and look back, and I think ‘how did I end up here?’ I get these goosebumps. It’s amazing to be here.”

Amazing indeed.

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