Sport

Paddling her own kayak

June 1st, 2022 8:09 AM

By Ger McCarthy

Anais O'Donovan competeing in Freestyle Kayaking at the Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre in Nottingham.

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Ger McCarthy chats to Irish International Freestyle Kayaker Anaïs O’Donovan about her ambitions in the sport

Irish International Freestyle Kayaker and Skibbereen native Anaïs O’Donovan is living in a van whilst chasing her dream of competing at the 2022 and 2023 World Championships.

From Coornishal between Skibbereen and Drinagh, the 22-year-old rising star is a name to watch out for over the next two years for followers of West Cork sport.

Ger McCarthy (GMC): My introduction to Freestyle Kayaking was courtesy of your Instagram page (@anais_odonovan). Can you explain the difference between freestyle and regular kayaking?

Anaïs O’Donovan (AOD): Freestyle Kayaking is basically gymnastics in a kayak. You are doing somersaults, flips and tricks in a boat. You have 45 seconds to execute as many tricks as you can and accumulate the highest number of points.

GMC: Where did the interest in Freestyle Kayaking originate?

AOD: I am a gymnastics instructor and have been coaching gymnastics for about nine years. I started white-water kayaking and saw someone doing what’s called a ‘loop’. That’s basically a somersault, a full 360 degree rotation, whilst sitting in a kayak. I thought, wow, ok, this is what I want to do. This looks awesome. I have been hooked ever since.

GMC: Explain the kind of training that’s required to pull off those kinds of somersaults?

AOS: It requires a lot of training. In the beginning, we spend hours on the flat and then move to moving water. Most of the time, in training, we are flopping into the water and being completely washed around. Anything is possible with dedicated training though.

I first started kayaking when I was 19 and am 22 now. So, I have been at this for four years now. I thought it would take a lot longer to master Freestyle Kayaking. I’m extremely stubborn and not going to let kayaking get the better of me. When I want to do something, I go and do it.

Anais O'Donovan is a Freestyle Kayaker from Skibbereen.

GMC: That’s a very short period to become proficient at such a difficult discipline. In recent years, you have been over and back to Nottingham with the Irish international team. You must be delighted with your progress?

AOD: I am absolutely delighted; it has been incredible. I had a goal in my head that I wanted to represent Ireland. There is a team selection process every year. I tried out and thankfully, have been selected to represent the Irish Freestyle Kayaking team once again in 2022.

I cannot put into words how proud I am to represent my country. It is such an honour to be able to say I represent Ireland at Freestyle Kayaking. It is an amazing feeling.

GMC: Your recent training regimes involved working out three or four hours a day, five days a week. That is serious dedication.

AOD: I am living in Nottingham at the moment and training five days a week. That’s three to four hours of water training every day. That’s linked in with additional strength and conditioning, cardio training, flexibility and mobility training. Diet comes into the equation as well.

It takes a lot of time and yes, those wet, cold mornings are not easy but the buzz you get at the end of every training session is worth it.

I’ve been chasing my dream and, initially, flying and driving back and forth between Nottingham and Skibbereen. Nottingham is where the 2022 World Freestyle Championships are being held. Living here allows me to train on the ‘feature’ we will be competing in. That is extremely important as I can train multiple sessions at a time on a course containing many different features.

GMC: Anaïs, as Freelance Kayaking is not yet an Olympic sport, your massive levels of commitment and effort require sponsorship. You have been fortunate thus far but you need additional help if your career is to progress?

AOD: Yes, unfortunately, Freelance Kayaking is not an Olympic discipline so I don’t get any funding. I have to be adaptable so I am currently living in a van over in Nottingham to help with living costs and rent (laughs). You do what you can and work as much as you can in the off-season. There are huge sacrifices involved but it is all worth it.

My biggest sponsor so far has been GP Wood. They have sponsored my boat and kit. I would not be able to paddle without their support.

I am also very grateful to have received some funding from Skibbereen Credit Union, The Southern Star, The West Cork Hotel, Drinagh Co-Op, MIG Insurance and Glenmar Shellfish. I have also received support from other companies such as Cosimac, 53 Degrees North, Wildside Sports and Surfears.

The Freestyle Kayaking World Championships are coming in 2023. Those championships will take place in Columbus, America. That will mean a huge amount of time off work and the expense of travelling over there to represent my country.

None of that is funded so I would be thrilled if someone or a company could potentially help me represent my country at those World Championships.

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