Jennifer Egan has been here twice before.

In 2012 and 2016, the Irish paddler got within touching distance of getting to the Olympic Games. But sport can be cruel, and on both occasions Egan fell one place short of that cherished Games ticket.

Now the 34-year-old finds herself on the cusp again. She’s in Barnaul, Russia, lining up against Olympic hopefuls from around the world for the one remaining Games ticket in the women’s K1 200.

“I’ve been so close to it before, and it’s tough when you are so close, and you miss out,” Egan said.

“But thankfully I love our sport, and I love everything about our sport, and I’m very passionate about K1 5000 metre races, which is in the European Games. For me there is so many more aspects to it than just the Olympic Games, so I’m lucky that I have that passion for other distances.

It will be no easy task for Egan, who has made her name as one of the toughest, hard working long distance paddlers in international canoeing. But when you are the only elite female paddler in your country, the responsibility for getting to the biggest sporting event in the world falls on your shoulders.

“We had one woman back in the seventies, and we haven’t had a women since then,” she said.

“The last time we had a man was 2012, and before that I think Sydney 2000. The qualification is what it is, but it is definitely harder for the smaller nations.

“If anything it has gotten harder. You had to be top five in the world at the world championships, or top two at the Olympic qualifier for European athletes, and then there’s just one place up for grabs here.”

It’s been a long time since Ireland had a female canoe sprint athlete at an Olympic Games. Almost 50 years. It weighs heavily on Jenny Egan’s mind as she sets off for a warm-up paddle on the picturesque Siberian sprint course.

I’ve been so close to it before, and it’s tough when you are so close

She’s never paddled in Barnaul before. Never even visited it. She’s using a rental boat, but so is everyone else. It’s as close to a level playing field as you can get after a year when covid has wreaked havoc on the sport program.

At the other end of the last-minute qualification spectrum is Brandon Wei Cheng Ooi of Singapore. He’s hoping to earn a ticket to Tokyo in the men’s K1 200, which would make him just the second Singaporean, and the first male, to compete in the canoe sprint at an Olympic Games.

As the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it, but Cheng believes Paris in 2024, or even Los Angeles in 2028, are much more realistic options.

“I’m a little bit nervous, I’ve never been here before, so I’m excited to see this place and excited to race again,” Cheng said.

“Of course the world stage is definitely not an easy place to win, especially if there is only one place available. I’m just going to take this as an opportunity to test myself and see where I’m at. As in every four years, we will see where we are.”

What is important for Cheng is that canoe sprint in Singapore is once again getting attention. The tiny island country has a good chance of earning a Tokyo quota in the women’s event, which would be a good result after several years of steady growth.

The Singapore Canoe Federation is very proactive, and has signed up two leading Hungarian coaches to help build the elite level athletes.

The world stage is definitely not an easy place to win.

“I think because of recent success in Asia, and South-East Asia, it really shot the popularity up,” he said.

“We managed to get quite a bit of funding for the kids events, a pipeline to the high performance side, and to help participation as well. It’s a really good sign for us for the future, and we’ll see how it goes.

“2012 was a very proud moment for us Singaporeans, to show that we can compete on the world stage. I think if we are able to qualify here, or in Paris or Los Angeles, it will show that we have something to show the world, and will definitely  bring the level of the sport up in Singapore.”

Cheng is determined to make this trip to Barnaul count. In 2021 international travel is not easy for anyone, but for Singaporeans it is particularly onerous. Elite athletes can get exceptions allowing them to leave the country, but on their return they face three weeks in compulsory hotel quarantine.

If Cheng has to serve those three weeks after the Tokyo Olympics, won’t care a bit. He’ll have plenty of time to reflect on his Olympic debut. But if those three weeks come before Tokyo – well, plenty of time to dream about Paris and Los Angeles.

Singapore Brandon Wei Cheng canoe sprint

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