From Swimming Pool to international Paddler

Nothing better encapsulates the canoe slalom journey of 23-year-old Taiwanese paddler, Wei-Han Chen, than the reaction of mentor Pierrick Gosselin after she made a C1 semi-final on last year’s World Cup tour.

“He said ‘You are a girl from Taiwan, and you don’t have a slalom course, and you don’t have coaches, but you are in the semi-final,” Chen recalled this week.

“I was really happy and I couldn't believe it.

“Okay, I was the last one to get into the semi-final, but it was really fantastic for me. Pierrick was really surprised.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been, given the hard work and determination that Sherry, as she is known by her friends, had shown since being first introduced to the sport as an 11-year-old at a Taipei elementary school.

“Before slalom I never dreamed I would have a life like this,” she said.

“I want to try again and again all the different ideas I have been learning.”

There are a lack of suitable slalom training courses in Taiwan. There’s lots of rivers and lakes, but typhoons and the rainy season wreak havoc with the best made plans.

So in a country where tae kwon do and baseball tend to rule the roost, it was a stroke of luck that Chen and her classmates were introduced to canoe.

“I remember at the school we had an indoor swimming pool, and the school was trying to find new ways to utilise it,” she said.

“A teacher wanted to try some new sports. There was one PE teacher whose specialty was canoe. So we had canoe lessons in the swimming pool.

“I liked a lot of sports, but I thought this one was really cool because I’d never seen it before.”

And so began a career that has seen Chen overcome all sorts of obstacles to win an Asian Championships gold medal and an Asian Games silver medal, as well as her semi-final appearance on last year’s World Cup circuit.

This weekend Chen will take on a quality field at the Asian Championships in Thailand, hoping for a top four finish so she can compete for Taiwan at next year’s Asian Games.

She will focus on C1, which has been her discipline ever since Gosselin suggested she give it a go rather than concentrating on K1.

“In the beginning I was the only woman doing C1 in Taiwan. Some others would try, but found it too hard so went back to K1,” Chen said.

“But now we have four C1 women going to the Asian Championships - three senior and one junior. During these past few years it’s been good, now I have teammates and I have partners.

“I’m not a big girl, I’m quite short. Pierrick told me perhaps I should try C1, because there were not too many girls doing it from the beginning.”

The real incentive for Chen was that C1 was a challenge, and she tends to thrive when challenged. Plus, she believes C1 is “more cooler than K1”.

“I can do C1, and I can also do K1, so that makes it much cooler for me,” she laughed.

“I can handle two sports, two difference categories. It provides more chances for me, I can do more international races, compete at more big events.”

Chen is yet another success story from the International Canoe Federation’s Expand and Extend and the Talent Identification Program, run under the watchful eye of Gosselin, the sport’s Slalom Development Coordinator.

In 2010 she went to the Thailand Open, where a pre-event program was being run for athletes from countries where canoe slalom was still in its infancy. She had helped identify the athletes who would benefit from the course.

There were five athletes in all, representing Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore.

“We created different levels for those girls, and introduced them to new slalom techniques,” Chen said.

“We had a new boat from the Asian Confederation, so we showed the group how to prepare their equipment. I did K1 and C1 with them, to show them how to sit in the water, how to use the wave or the stream to go where you want to go.

“At the start (Thai slalom head coach) Nico (Noel) was with me, but then he said I could handle it myself. He asked me to coach them by myself.”

It was the first time Chen had coached a group that large, and she enjoyed the experience. And then last year, she was invited to Pau in France to take part in another program.

This one was a little different. The first two days involved working with local women, most who came from difficult family situations, to introduce them to paddling.

“We went to the beach with them to share our experiences, and to get these women more involved in sport,” she said.

“I know expand and extend is designed to help women. In Taiwan men and women are equal, so we do these sports and programs, and it helps us understand how to get women involved in these programs and make their lives happier.

“We trained together in Pau. Our levels were different, but we had to respect each others abilities, and help each other.”

C1 for women will be part of the Tokyo Olympics, justifying Chen’s decision to stick with the discipline while many of her teammates were opting for K1.

It’s given her a bit of a head start, but she knows the road ahead will be tough.

“It’s a really good chance for an Asian athlete, maybe me or maybe someone else, to go to an Olympic Games,” she said.

“It’s a goal for me, I have to try even though we don’t have a lot of resources or good conditions.

“Everything for me, when I do slalom, I never thought I would one day go to France, or to London to the Olympic course.”

Her experience with Expand and Extend and TIP has inspired her to follow a similar path to the two men who have helped guide her through her introduction to world-class paddling.

She is currently studying for her Masters in Sports Management, which might keep her off the water more than she would like this year, but she has a much bigger picture in mind.

“I want to have more knowledge about international sports and sport affairs,” she said.

“Maybe one day I can not paddle any more, but I can still stay and do what I love, and that I want to do in sport.

“Maybe many people want to coach or be teachers, but maybe I can do something different, maybe do something like Pierrick does, to help more women get involved in sport.”

The Asian Canoe Slalom Championships begin this Friday and run through until Sunday at Kundanprakarnchon Dam in Thailand.

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