Almost exactly five years ago at exactly the same place, the curtain seemed to come down on the Olympic career of Denmark’s Rene Holten Poulsen.

Poulsen fell short in his bid to earn a quota for his fourth Games, having already been to Beijing, London and Rio. He had won a silver in the men’s K2 in Beijing, and finished top ten in the K1 1000 at London and Rio.

But in Szeged in 2019 Poulsen no longer seemed able to keep up with the world’s best paddlers. When he also failed to pick up a quota at the last chance saloon in Siberia a few months later, more than a few were writing the Dane’s career off.

It was a difficult time for the man who had been a Danish hero for the best part of a decade. He had appeared in Denmark’s version of Dancing With the Stars, and was a regular in the media social pages.

I just wanted to make sure I could get the best race out of me

He had a falling out with his own Federation which led to him breaking away and training by himself. He also went through a very public battle with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Poulsen had dark days, but he learned how to deal with them. He became an advocate for support for athletes struggling with mental health issues, and at the same time, continued to pursue his first love – kayak paddling.

In January Poulsen had another life-changing moment – the birth of his first child, a son. Already determined to prove the critics wrong, now he felt he had an extra reason to keep pursuing his Olympic dream.

“Today, between the heats and the semi, I was looking at pictures of my son and a video of him laughing,” he said.

“It’s really different from before. For me, I had in my mind for a long time that no matter what, you had to set the stage for yourself, and you choose when you’re done, and not anyone else.

“That was also a big part of it for me for the past six months.”

Today was potentially my last day, because I know this will be my last Olympics

So on Thursday Poulsen woke feeling not a sense of excitement, but a sense of foreboding. Maybe this was going to be his final day of international competition.

At 35 he knew this was his last Olympic campaign. And with just two Olympic quotas available in Szeged, and a crack field of paddlers lining up for a shot at the prize, he knew the odds were stacked against him.

“I was not sure if I could finish first, second or third, but definitely top four was in there,” Poulsen said.

“I just wanted to make sure I could get the best race out of me.”

He certainly kept the crowd guessing. In his heat, he eased into the lead at the half-way stage, only to switch off and cruise home for the back half of the race.

He later revealed this was all part of his plan, one of the benefits of his “almost 20 years of experience”. It meant he would have to do a semi-final, but he would go into that race still relatively fresh, and the competition, he believed, would not be as strong.

I never really went to the Olympics and enjoyed it

Of course he then won his semi-final, paving the way for potentially one last big race.

But now it won’t be his last race. Because Poulsen finished second, which was good enough for him to earn Denmark a Paris Olympic quota.

He struggled to put into words how he felt.

“Relief,” he said.

“A whole lot of nothing really. This was the venue I missed out in 2019 for Tokyo, and again in 2021 for Tokyo. Today was potentially my last day, because I know this will be my last Olympics, so it’s very special for me to be going to Paris.

“Today was really hard mentally to try and enjoy it, because you know it might be your last race so you can’t enjoy it. It’s been a very long journey for me, a lot of mental battles, a lot of battles within the federation. Going off on my own, it’s been a long fight.

It’s been a very long journey for me, a lot of mental battles

“It’s really cool to be at the end of it and to start to enjoy it again.”

And does he think he has sent a message to those who lost belief in him?

“They can take the message as they want, I’m just happy that I qualified,” he said.

“I guess there is a message there for everyone, just to remember to enjoy it, because you never know when it’s your last race.

“Especially this year I’ve just focused on enjoying each race, because it might be your last one.”

And a surprising admission from Poulsen on the eve of his fourth and, he says, his final Olympics.

“I never really went to the Olympics and enjoyed it and did my best race,” he said.

“I never came off the water in a final, in any Olympic race, and felt that was everything, that was perfect. It didn’t need to be perfect, but to feel that was it.

“If I can do that, then that will be perfect.”

Full coverage of this week's events in Szeged can be viewed on the ICF’s Premium YouTube channel. There will be coverage of the 2024 ICF Paracanoe World Championships and Paralympic qualifiers, and the ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup.

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You can find all the event details, including schedules and start lists, on our official event webpages.

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