“Pimenta is back”

The words uttered not by commentators, but by Fernando Pimenta himself, spoke volumes for the statement he was intent on making in the men’s K1 1000 at the ICF canoe sprint world cup in Szeged, Hungary, on Saturday.

From the moment the Portuguese strongman relinquished his world championship crown on the same course in 2019, he began plotting his revenge. Always confident of his own abilities, and with the results to back up that confidence, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be the perfect setting for King Pimenta to return to the throne.

But that opportunity was snatched away from him, and for a long time it seriously looked like the 2012 K2 1000 silver medalist would have to wait another 12 months to seek revenge on Balint Kopasz, the Hungarian who last year managed to do exactly what Pimenta had done 12 months earlier – thrill an adoring home crowd with victory in perhaps the toughest race in canoe sprint.

When Szeged confirmed that it was confident it could host a world cup this year, Pimenta was one of the first to put his name down. And when Kopasz also entered – well, the scene was set, and it did not disappoint.

Pimenta flew out of the gates early, determined to make his mark and, he hoped, kill off the chances of anyone crazy enough to try and go with him early. By the halfway stage he had opened up a two-second gap on the rest of the field.

Watch the men's K1 1000 final here

But if he looked over his shoulder, he would have been disappointed in what he saw. Kopasz knew his opponent well, and chose not to go with him, biding his time, waiting for Pimenta to run out of petrol before mowing him down in the final 100 metres.

Covid had kept much of the canoe-crazy Hungarian fans away. Perhaps if the stands were full, as they were last year, Kopasz would have made up the 0.24 of a second that separated he and Pimenta in the end. It was a thrilling finish, but it was Pimenta with a fist in the air.

It’s good to feel this again. Last year was not the best, I won medals in every race, but not gold

Kopasz is still the world champion, and will go to Tokyo next year with that crown. But Pimenta is pleased to have made his emphatic statement on Saturday.

“Now I think Pimenta is back,” he said.

“It’s good to feel this again. Last year was not the best, I won medals in every race, but not gold. I need this. I need to compete and give the best show for the Planet Canoe family.

“I tried just to focus on my race, listening to my coach, and fight, fight, fight. Fight every metre, because I know there are two young Hungarian guys who are keeping my feet on the ground.

“They are making me work hard, every day, every week, all season, because next season is the important season for our life.”

Watch a video interview with Fernando Pimenta here

Fernando Pimenta is no stranger to pressure. In 2018 Portugal hosted the ICF canoe sprint world championships, and he was the face of the event. Fans packed the stands, wanting to see their man stamp himself as the best in the world, and he didn’t disappoint.

Since then all the talk has been about Pimenta winning Portugal an Olympic medal in Tokyo. For a country that won only one medal at the past two Olympics, it’s a lot of weight on his broad shoulders.

This has been a hard year, I’ve had good times, bad times this season

So spending this year well and truly out of the limelight may have been a good thing for the 31-year-old may have been a good thing. But Pimenta has hated every minute of it.  

“This has been a hard year, I’ve had good times, bad times this season,” he said.

“I’ve spent too much time training alone with my coach. Sometimes I train with my Spanish team, which has been good.

“This season has been so long, and so hard. It’s good to be back with a gold.”

Pic by Bence Vekassy

Canoe Sprint