After an exceptionally successful career as one of Scotland’s greatest ever slalom canoeists, FIONA PENNIE had pictured hanging up her paddle in 2020.
Instead, via a winter training block in the freezing waters of GB’s Lee Valley training center in London, she will spend the coming months struggling.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics is the reason behind Pennie’s decision to continue, but for some it would have been too much to think about another year of pushing their bodies to the limit, especially when a position on the plane to Tokyo is just an external possibility.
Pennie, who hails from Dumbarton, is a veteran of two Olympics, competing in 2008 in Beijing and 2016 in Rio, but she was named as a reserve for Team GB after narrowly losing out on guaranteed selection for Tokyo 2020.
And while few would have forgiven Pennie for retiring as expected this year, extending her career for another year was a foregone conclusion for the 38-year-old, and indeed, the break from competition this summer provided a welcome boost to both her mind and body.
“I always wanted to keep going as soon as I knew the Olympics were postponed, it wasn’t a hard decision,” the former world and European champion says.
I’m also as optimistic as ever. I started to get a little exhausted before the pandemic – with all the traveling and all, both physically and mentally, it is very taxing.
It feels like a long journey every season, although this year felt like a bit of a break. I assume that 2020 will see me as excited as ever.
Before the Games were delayed, Pennie had the misfortune of canoeing being one of the few sports to confirm her Olympic choices. However, Pennie plunged herself headlong into preparation instead of taking it easy during the suspension, as well as a variety of home improvement projects, including landscaping her garden and completing an attic.
Spending so much time at home was something of a luxury for someone who has been competing internationally for more than two decades, and gave her a glimpse of what life could be like when she eventually hangs up her paddle next year. And while retirement is still a daunting prospect for someone who has been following the sport for so long, Pennie admits she looks forward to a more normal life.
“The intensity of training takes its toll, and the older you get, the harder it is to get out of bed every day, so I’m pretty sure next season will be my last,” she says.
It sounds a little weird to think of retirement, but this year has given me a taste of it.
“Deep down, I know it’s coming soon, and I know there’s another side to life. It would be nice to keep paddling, but I think my body would just say no at some point.”
British Canoeing is ready for Pennie to join the coaching ranks, but while she is not hesitant to use her skills and experience to help the next generation of canoeists, after retiring as a competitor, it is not an environment she wants to plunge directly into.
She is aiming to do all she can to gain another outstanding medal haul in her final season for now.
The European Championships in May, where she won the K1 title in 2013, would be her first major event before moving to the World Championships in September.
Her past success at those competitions, last year’s most recent K1 team gold World Championship title, gives her the understanding that she always has what it takes to contend with the very best. She is completely focused on leaving the sport in which she has spent her entire adult life on a high, having dealt with the disappointment that the Olympics won’t be her swan song.
“Of course I want to achieve more, and I feel like I have what it takes to still do well,” she says.
“Looking back on my career, I know I’ve had a lot of good results, and while it would have been nice to go to the Olympics again and do well, it is what it is. You get your chance and if you miss it you just have to give it your all for the next best thing, which for me is the World Championships.”