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Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 17:12 UK

Long paddle to London begins

Supporters watch a medal ceremony at the European Championships
Holme Pierrepont played host to hundreds of British supporters

By Ollie Williams

"There's never normally a crowd - in fact, there's never a crowd," said a British slalom canoeist as the European Championships drew to a close in Nottingham.

Britain's finest slalom competitors are not used to much support.

Prior to last weekend, their careers had been spent either competing abroad in front of foreign fans, or training at home with coaches and colleagues for company.

That all changed with this year's Euros, which concluded in Nottingham on Sunday - the first major slalom tournament to be held in the UK since 1995.

British athletes in all 26 Olympic sports have three gruelling and vitally important years ahead of them if they are to reach London 2012.

It was great to see British competitors followed by crowds of their friends and team-mates, the local crowd shouting at them, flags flying

Helen Reeves
2004 Olympic bronze medallist

But less is made of the similar step change British organisers are having to make.

If none of the GB paddlers were around for the 1995 World Championships at the same Holme Pierrepont course, you can bet few - if any - employees of organisers the British Canoe Union (BCU) were in their current jobs.

And, privately, plenty of people involved in the sport are prepared to confess they thought the 2009 European Championships had the potential to underwhelm.

In past domestic events, British organisers have not always managed to keep races on time, while there were doubts the venue would shine on television and bring in the crowds.

As one colleague put it, "I have heard Holme Pierrepont called many things, but 'gorgeous' is not one of them."

Yet that is exactly what it was throughout the tournament.

606: DEBATE
wilsbowski

The sunny weekend was a lucky break, but it is still difficult to envisage how the BCU could have made the concrete course look any better.

"It's been excellent. It looks good, the paddlers have paddled well, and the foreign teams are buzzing and say it's been excellently organised," said Helen Reeves, former Olympic bronze medallist turned BBC commentator.

"It's gone really smoothly. People are really pleased with the crowds and we've been lucky with the weather."

The venue looked glorious, decked out in banners and flags with a superb sound system and ideally placed big screen.

On top of that, the races produced some memorable battles in front of hundreds of cheering supporters.

"It was so great to see British competitors coming down followed by crowds of their friends and team-mates, the local crowd shouting at them, flags flying," added Reeves.

Britain's Lizzie Neave is interviewed by BBC Sport
Top British canoeists like Lizzie Neave gained rare TV exposure

"We've seen it for years and years as competitors in Germany and Slovakia, so to come to Nottingham and then we have it for a change is amazing, it's so exciting.

"On Saturday, the camaraderie when Britain collected all those medals was amazing.

"When you become a team where everyone has a medal but a few, the others want a medal as well, so it's a real encouragement to them."

Nobody will understand that better than the canoe double of Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott.

The British pair have endured a miserable couple of years - having failed at vital moments in major championships, they ultimately missed the Beijing Olympics and lost their funding.

"After missing the Olympics it was hard to fully engage with paddling," Baillie told BBC Sport.

"I didn't have much faith in what was happening, but we decided to keep going and not stop at anything.

"We trained really hard in winter, in cold, unpleasant conditions, and the plan was just to do as much as we could straight away - the way the funding works, you've got to get results year-on-year to stay on funding."

We were uncertain how the event would come across and we weren't sure how good the race would look on TV

Etienne Stott
GB canoeist

That dedication paid off dramatically as the pair won European Championship bronze on Saturday, against a field peppered with the sport's leading lights.

"That bronze medal is a marker," said Baillie.

"We want to become the best paddlers we can, so we need to train full-time, so we need results to earn our funding each year.

"That's something we've missed but we've been getting nearer, and now we know what we're doing for the year and we can make plans."

The funding a bronze medal brings is crucial, but the wider benefit of the tournament for this Olympic sport is seeing an event in the UK pass off so successfully, both on and off the water.

Etienne Stott (left) and Tim Baillie
Stott (left) and Baillie won European bronze in the C2

"It's greatly surpassed my expectations," said Stott.

"We were uncertain how the event would come across and we weren't sure how good the race would look on TV - whether there'd even be a crowd here.

"It's unknown territory racing in front of a home crowd and we had nerves, not knowing whether our grannies would come up and speak to us on the start line, or people would wave banners in our faces going down the course.

"But in the end, it worked out brilliantly. It was a lovely feeling being supported by that many people."

Stott can pinpoint the moment when he realised how an Olympic appearance in his home country might feel - just as he and Baillie emerged from the fifth gate of the course.

"At that point the crowd were roaring, and I felt that real exhilaration and excitement.

"It makes my hair stand on end thinking about it, and I'll treasure that for the rest of my life."

Campbell Walsh, Richard Hounslow and Huw Swetnam

Highlights - GB win double canoeing gold



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see also
GB canoeists miss out on medals
31 May 09 |  Canoeing
GB teams snatch two slalom golds
30 May 09 |  Canoeing
Our man at the slalom Euros
01 Jun 09 |  Canoeing
Canoeing tips
04 Aug 08 |  Canoeing
Get into canoeing
23 Jun 09 |  Canoeing


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