O'Hara ready with new tricks to win back her freestyle crown

What more is there to say about someone who is already the most successful athlete in her field of all time, an eight-time World Champion who has taken her sport to a whole new level?

Except that Claire O’Hara isn’t finished. Not by a long shot. At next week’s ICF World Freestyle Kayak Championships in Argentina 38-year-old O’Hara is promising to go to another level yet, rarefied air indeed in a sport where she is already the undisputed Queen.

Her opponents may not want to read any further….

“I have new tricks this year that I will be putting into my rides for the first time at a Worlds competition and that is really exciting,” O’Hara said this week from San Juan, the venue for the 2017 World Championships.

“Especially if I make it through to finals then there will be scope to add some variety and try to get some epic big rides. In the prelim rounds I'll be playing it a bit safe to make sure I make the cuts, but in finals it's going to be time to really play.

“I foresee we are going to see some big rides being thrown in all the classes and potentially some new record breaking high scores. It's going to be exciting to see if the infamous 2000 and 1000 point barriers will be broken in the different categories.”

O’Hara, British born but these days residing in Australia, is leaving nothing to chance next week as she celebrates a decade competing at the top in both freestyle and squirt boat.

She knows she has to bring something special. After winning both the freestyle and squirt world titles in 2011 and 2013, the only athlete to have ever done both, she had to settle for bronze in the kayak event in 2015 behind USA’s Emily Jackson.

She’s already set up camp at the “boiling hot desert” venue in San Juan, she’s fine-tuned all her tricks, and she’s prepared her contingency plan.

“Part of my preparations is to create a 'what if' plan,” O’Hara said.

“Look at all the potential 'what if' situations in the lead up to and during the competition, and then there are less surprises I have to deal with, less added extra pressures on the day.”

PRESSURE

Pressure comes with being the best in the world, always being the hunted, entertaining a crowd that has come a long way expecting to see some magic.

Luckily O’Hara loves competing, although she’s not sure she handles the pressure that well. But she knows as long as she feels prepared and that she’s done all the work, the rest should look after itself.

And she has no doubt she’s ticked all the boxes in the lead-up to this event.

“I feel great. I've been training hard with my coach the last two months and all my tricks are ready and I'm feeling fit and injury free, so I'm excited to get started and give it my best shot,” she said.

“I left my training camp in Nottingham super excited with a real big high scoring ride. Since I've been in Argentina I've had to adapt it and simplify it a fair bit to suit the style of feature out here.

“But less than one week to go now I'm feeling ready and excited for the event to start.”

CREATIVITY

Of all the International Canoe Federation disciplines, and Claire O’Hara has tried a lot of them, none offer the reward for freedom and creativity that comes with freestyle.

It’s not about going fastest, shimmying through gates, scoring goals or surfing a wave. It’s about doing things no-one has ever tried before.

Because for sure if you turn up at a World Championships with exactly the same box of tricks you used two years earlier, it’s going to end badly.

The goalposts are changing all the time, and O’Hara is always moving with them.

“It's challenging, it really is,” O’Hara said.

“It takes a lot of hard work and training and a lot of drive and determination. This will be my 10th year competing at the top in ICF Freestyle Kayak World Championships event.

“I won my first medal, a silver, at the 2007 ICF World Championships on a snow melt high level Ottawa river in Canada, a complete contrast to this boiling hot desert venue in Argentina! 

“The sport is also always moving forward, the levels and standards constantly rising and the depth of competitors paddling at the highest level is always strong.

“It means that there is no margin for error. You have to keep paddling explosively and technically perfect in order to stay at or near the top.”

PROGRESS

While she’s been competing at the top level for 10 years, O’Hara has been competing since 2001. She has every award and every title a freestyle athlete could ever dream of, showcased the sport at the 2012 London Olympics, and sits on the ICF’s Athlete Committee.

Her role in the sport’s success and continued growth can’t be understated. She’s loved watching the development of the competition and the athletes.

“Since I started in 2001 it has changed a lot,” O’Hara said.

“Many of the tricks remain the same and several of the athletes are the same. But it has changed a lot. The rides are a lot more complex and faster. This is in part down to boat design and also down to it being much more an athletic focused sport now.

“I would say back in the day there were several athletes who were training and taking it seriously and were at the top. Now every competitor at the worlds is training all year round, on and off the water working with coaches. Mixing on and off the water training to help them progress and succeed.

“The generation of paddlers who have come before us have inspired us to push further than we thought possible in the sport, and that really shows where the sport has come to and is now.”

SAN JUAN

There’s a buzz among the athletes with the World Championships heading to South America. O’Hara has competed on every continent in the world, and is expecting San Juan to be up there with the very best hosts.

“This venue really is amazing,” she said.

“For freestyle the hole is awesome and allows every hole trick and even some wave tricks to be performed. That said, it is also super challenging and needs precision, power and perfect timing in order to make them work. It's a really nice mix of fun and challenging.

“This is not a traditional squirt boating venue, as it's shallow in most places and doesn't really have a significant mystery seam, so paddlers are going to have to be really creative with their rides.

“It's going to be a lot more like the 2013 NOC venue where athletes will perform a whole mixture of different routines in very different sections of the arena. It's going to be quite exciting seeing what different people come up with for their rides.

“I don't think we will see any record score rides here in the squirt boating, but we will see some spectacular displays of athleticism and skill.”

And who better to lead the way then Claire O’Hara, searching for world title number nine, maybe even number 10?

Great Britain Claire O'Hara squirt freestyle world championships

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