Road to Tokyo: Kimberley Woods on Olympic qualification and Rio inspiration

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The Road to Tokyo series continues with British slalom canoeist Kimberley Woods, who spoke to GiveMeSport Women in an exclusive interview.

Tokyo 2020 will be Woods’ first Olympic Games, but the environment will not be completely unfamiliar to the 25-year-old. She was part of a group of athletes who travelled to Rio 2016 as part of the Team GB Ambition Programme.

“I got selected from my results from 2015 – we had a home World Championships and I made the final in both of my classes,” she explained to GiveMeSport Women. “I was selected, along with three other athletes and a coach, and we went to Rio.”

“We went to the holding camp and you’d kind of move from each scene very quickly, we were only there for five days. It was a really long flight just for five days.”

“But we saw so much – the whole Olympic Village, the Team GB house, the food hall, which was absolutely insane, like massive. It was weird because I saw people in there from our sport, but they're all really in the zone, they're in that game of being in the Olympics and we were just there watching behind the scenes.”

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(British Canoeing)

Woods said she was “very fortunate” to participate in the programme, and revealed how the trip gave her an added drive in the months after.

“It actually took place halfway through our season, so when we got back I had a couple of World Cups, and also the Under-23 European Championships. I just got such a buzz from being at Rio and seeing what it could be like.”

“I absolutely smashed the Championships, became Under-23 European champion, and also got the silver medal in my other class. Then I also went on to win the last World Cup of the season.

“Then for the following season – 2017 – I was on a winning streak. I won the senior European Champions and then went on to win in the first World Cup and got a silver medal in my kayak class.”

The whole Olympic experience really spurred me on to achieve things that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t felt so inspired by it.

Woods is a multiple world and European medallist in both the C1 and K1 and will contest the latter class at Tokyo 2020. Canoe slalom is perhaps one of the more unconventional Olympic sports, but Woods was inspired to take it up by her family members. Her aunt had been a silver medallist at the Junior World Championships in 1994.

“When I was younger, I watched a recording of one of her races where she won the silver medal at the Junior Worlds in 1994,” Woods said.

“I was watching the recording going ‘oh I want to do that’ because it was different. So my grandparents said that as soon as I could swim they’d get me on a boat and go from there."

“I got my 50 metre badge and went back to my grandparents and told them I could swim, and they took me to Rugby Canoe Club, which was actually the same place where I learned to swim.”

“We went into the pool first, they got me into a boat, and I just absolutely fell in love with it. I learnt all the basic skills and then moved on to the lake when the weather got warmer. I loved being able to do something different that no one else at my school did.”

Woods secured her place at Tokyo 2020 back in 2019, some time before the Games were pushed back by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After postponement was announced, the British Olympic Association and British Canoeing confirmed the five athletes already nominated for Tokyo 2020, including Woods, would remain selected.

Despite qualifying some time ago now, Woods could still recall the emotion as she found out she would be on the plane to Japan. “I was a mess, to be honest,” she laughed.

Woods had to navigate a complicated selection process first, which eventually came down to the 2019 World Championships in La Seu d'Urgell in Spain.

“I was going into the last race of the season, which was the World Championships in September, with two second places, and I was sitting as the reserve boat for the Olympics,” Woods explained.

I never really thought about the Olympics until it almost happened, because I wanted to focus on each run in front of me, on each race I had. I was really hungry for it, but I really wanted to just kind of perform on the day.

“So, it was the semi-final of the World Championships, and I was the first British girl down. And so I went down, did a solid run, I was pretty happy with it, and I just wanted to qualify to the final, and I did. I was really really happy I’d done that, and had a little cry of happy tears. It had been four years since I last qualified, so I was really up for doing a final good run.”

“While I was getting ready to cool down from my semi-final, I thought to myself: ‘hang on a minute, if my teammate [Mallory Franklin] finishes behind me and doesn’t make the final, I could be going to the Olympic Games’. The top British boat would win the selections and then be put forward for going to Tokyo.”

“So yeah, she went in behind and I just collapsed on the floor in front of everyone – all of my competitors and people from other classes and I just fell on the floor crying.”

After a year’s delay, the Olympics are now set to take place this summer. Woods, who thanked her grandparents, sponsors and British Canoeing for their support during her journey, did not seem too concerned about the hold-up.

“I sat down with my team, and we went: ‘you know what, if anyone on that start line is going to benefit from an extra year, it’s going to be me.’ So I've been making the most out of everything.”

“Personally I feel like I'm in even better shape than I was last year, just so excited to get back on the start line.”

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