Women's Sports: Mallory Franklin on the new equal playing field in canoeing

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a historic event for canoeing: it is the first time there will be an equal number of events for both genders. With the introduction of the canoe slalom for women replacing the men’s double, there will be two events for men and women – the kayak which women already competed in and the canoe.

Britain’s representative in the new discipline will be slalom canoeist Mallory Franklin. The 25-year-old, who has been canoeing since she was five, is Great Britain’s most successful female canoeist, after winning a record eight individual and three team medals in 2018. Her 2019 season was also successful, she won gold in both the canoe and the kayak at the Canoe Slalom World Cup in Lee Valley. 

After a mixed World Championships for Franklin, she qualified for Team GB’s canoeing (C1) spot but not for the kayak which she was also targeting. As a result, Franklin reflects that qualification is “a bit weird for me because now I’m only racing one boat when I’m used to racing two.” She adds: “Because it’s the first Olympics for C1 it is nice to be part of that story.”

Franklin explains that she thinks equality in the Olympics could have a big impact on canoeing as it increases the opportunities for girls: “I think over time more girls will start to compete because they’ve got more options.”

Historically, Franklin says that the sport hasn’t always been the most friendly environment for women, describing it as “a bit funny”. She explains that she thinks this is because women have always been competing for limited places in the team, increasing the tension and friction between female competitors.

With the development of the canoe at an elite level for women this is changing: “For girls, it’s always been that you’re a kayak against all the other girls at events. Now the C1 is there you can have friendships across those disciplines which is what the guys have.”

Before this expansion, Franklin recalls women were always in direct competition with each other. She says: “When you get to a higher level there’s a limit to how much you can be friends when your overall aim is to beat that person. Now that you can have people you don’t compete against and have a friendship with I think that will help the sport grow because girls will see that it’s easy to be friends.”

Franklin has noticed the sport’s culture is changing as well, she says: “The culture that slalom is developing more is that if someone else is doing well, it doesn’t mean you’re doing badly.”

For someone who has been crowned the sport’s best Franklin is modest, recalling her surprise at discovering she was Britain’s most successful female canoeist: “That just sprung up, I hadn’t been paying any attention. I’m not trying to belittle it at all but I got involved in C1 when it was still quite new – winning a medal in 2012 was a lot easier than it is now and a lot easier than it has been for a long time for kayak women. At the same time, it’s cool and for me. It’s nice that kayak is part of that as well and it’s not just all in C1.”    

The reason Franklin is happy the kayak contributed to her record is that she when it comes to the two disciplines she competes across, she can’t pick a favourite. After qualifying for the Olympics in the canoe class but not the kayak class, however, Franklin is having to reconsider how she trains.

“Ordinarily, when I was racing both, I balance myself 50/50. That isn’t logical now because my aim is to win the Olympics, so I have to prioritise the canoe. I do still kayak and I will still kayak, at the moment it’s a nice release for me.”

Mentally, competing in one boat but not the other is something she is still coming to terms with: “Going through Olympic selection I knew it was perfectly viable that I’d end up in this situation, but I hadn’t comprehended ending up in this situation. So my brain doesn’t know what to do but it will come over time, I think.”

Franklin is candid about the qualification process explaining she is disappointed not to have qualified in the kayak too: “I didn’t really do myself justice within the World Championships. I struggled a lot with the mental implications of what that kayak run meant and given the fact that I didn’t do a very good run I was very close which for me is a bit of a shame. I think that it’s more of a hit that I didn’t get the spot in the kayak because I was so close even though I struggled.”

She is positive too, calling it a “learning experience” and explaining that competing for the kayak spot – which went to Kimberley Woods – was always going to be close.

This will be Franklin’s first Olympics, having been a spectator at London 2012. Se is still working out how to process the unique pressure of becoming an Olympian: “At the moment it is solidly exciting, but I think mostly this is because the pressure hasn’t hit yet.” 

One element that is helping Franklin stay relaxed in the face of next year is the amount of time she and the team are spending out in Tokyo, practising on the venue. When we meet, she has just returned from a spell out there and says: “It’s so relaxed, the culture of Japan is nice to be in – I would happily spend lots of time in Japan just chilling. I think you can’t enjoy being here.”

Tokyo looks set to become a home away from home for Franklin as she explains Team GB have around ten weeks’ worth of camps planned out there ahead of the Olympics. The reason for this is so that come race day the team is as comfortable as if they were racing at Lee Valley, their main training centre in the UK.

For Franklin, this is already working: “I can only speak for myself, but the impression I get across the team is we’re already at that level.”

Any pressure Franklin may be feeling hasn’t tainted her love for the sport. In fact she still loves it as much as when she was younger playing on the water, even though she is certainly no longer playing: “Now my mindset is more about trying to perfect the sport and spending my time working on projects, trying hard things and seeing whether or not I can do it.”

She adds: “It’s pretty much everything I’ve known and when we come back from a race everyone’s like, ‘Right, a bit downtime,’ and I’m like: ‘Okay, I’m going canoeing.’”

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