There was an aura of expectancy surrounding Danish young gun Mads Brandt Pedersen when he turned up at the International Canoe Federation Canoe Marathon World Championships in China in 2019.

The then 23-year-old Pedersen had been the talk of the sport all year. His drive and relentless training and competition form looked set to challenge the status quo in a sport which had been dominated by just a handful of athletes for many years.

He set himself a target in Shaoxing which no athlete had ever achieved before. His goal – to win the world U23 world title on a Friday, and then follow up with the senior title 24 hours later. It seemed crazy, almost impossible, but at least it would provide a talking point.

But of course, Pedersen won both titles. In style. His ruthless race approach killed off opponents who thought they were tracking well. It was an emphatic performance and an entry onto the world stage that forced all to sit up and take notice.

Wind forward to 2023. Pedersen has proved himself on the world marathon stage. He wants a taste of the Olympics. The longest race on the Olympic Canoe Sprint programme is 1000 metres, well below the more than 20 kilometres he paddles in a marathon.

But he believes he can do it. There is a 5000-metre race on the ICF World Cup and World Championship programme, which he has adapted to well. But the best 1000-metre paddlers in the world are very fast over that distance, and Pedersen struggled to keep up in 2023.

Denmark Mads Pedersen

It didn’t go to plan last year. He did become the 5000 -metre world champion, but he lost out to his Danish teammate and Olympian Rene Holten Poulsen for the right to compete in the 1000 metres at the world titles.

Deeply disappointed, he could only watch on as Poulsen fell short in his attempt to earn Denmark a quota for the Paris Olympics. It was a setback for the Danes generally, but the Olympic door, and Pedersen’s opportunity, was still alive.

To get to the top of the marathon world Pedersen had to make sacrifices and work harder than nearly every long distance paddler. He knew he would have to do the same to get to Paris, so he took the bold, and expensive, decision to relocate to Australia for the European winter so he could have an uninterrupted training season.

The road is still long. First, he has to defeat Poulsen for the right to represent Denmark at the European Olympic qualifiers in Szeged in May. If he can pull that off, then he has to win the hotly contested sole K1 1000 quota in Hungary.

“I’m still trying to see if I can get into the 1000 metres, with my marathon background, so I’ve been training with a bit more high intensity,” Pedersen said.

“Last season I was doing the 1000 metres in the World Cups, which was our selection for the World Championships, but it was Rene who qualified for Duisburg. But of course, in the process I got a lot of good experience, so I’m hoping that can help me step up a bit.

“It is a journey, but in this journey there are so many good experiences and opportunities.”

Coming Down Under to train has not been the only tough decision Pedersen has made in his quest to get to his first Olympics. He has also stopped training for his beloved marathon, of which there is a World Championships later this year.

But the marathon world titles are scheduled for after the Olympics, so he is hoping to do both. It will be a good test to see if training for a shorter, faster event can still make you a formidable long distance paddler.

He has an extra incentive to compete at this year’s marathon world titles. It will also be a qualifier for the next World Games, where he hopes to avenge his narrow loss to South Africa’s Andy Birkett in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2022.

“This is really my final shot, there are only a few months to go so I’m putting my full focus on this,” he said.

“I’m not thinking too much about marathon at the moment, but of course the marathon world championships are the last thing in the season.

“It’s also the opportunity to qualify for The World Games, which could be fun, but it’s not really what I’m putting my mind to now. It’s just focusing on the 1000 metres.”

Pedersen has dreamed of the Olympics for as long as he can remember. But very early on in his kayaking career he realised he could paddle all day, at great speed. The marathon was a natural fit, so he set his sights on reaching the top.

With that achieved, in style, he decided to revisit his boyhood dream.

“The Olympics is a big dream for so many people, and it was also a big dream for me when I was younger,” Pedersen said.

“Then I set my goals in the marathon. When I succeeded at that, it broadened my horizons to look for some new challenges, and to go for that Olympic dream again. That’s a big thing.”

Pedersen is kept grounded by his activities outside of paddling. He works for 25 hours a week in the financial department of a global Danish energy company.

“I’m really lucky that I have an opportunity to work there, because it gives me something to do besides paddling. It’s nice to be able to put your mind to something else, it’s a good distraction and good for recovery.

“It’s a nice balance, but it also helps me finance everything a bit. There are not many countries that fund everything, but I’m also lucky to have great sponsors.

“I just love this sport, it’s so amazing to get on the water and meet so many amazing people around the world.”

The Danish trials will be held in April, with the European Olympic qualifiers the following month.

You can hear the full interview with Mads Pedersen on our Path to Paris podcast.

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Canoe Sprint