The charity making life better by water

The towpath to Tokyo

Time by water is just as important for elite athletes during lockdown as it is to millions of us who use our canals for daily walks or runs. The canals of Birmingham have been essential to Paralympian Rob Oliver’s preparations for Tokyo. After a chance towpath meeting with one of our volunteers, we’ve been following the progress of the K1 200m kayaker.

Close-up shot of Paralympian Kayaker Rob Oliver training in his kayak on the canal

August 2021

I should be out at my training camp in Japan now but I caught coronavirus about four weeks ago. Even after my isolation finished I kept coming up as positive on the PCR tests and so I haven't been able to fly out with the rest of the team. I'm clear of it now and I'll be flying out next week.

I've kept up my training on the canal. Now that I'm able to train at the National Water Sports Centre in Nottingham again I'm there three days a week but I'm still out on the canal one day each week. It saves me a lot of travel and it's great to vary my training regime. Being out on the canal so close to home means that my kids can see me training too. They have been cheering me on.

Training on the canal is much more relaxed. When we had the snow in April I went out on the canal and just stopped. I sat there with nobody around me. Everything was white and the snow was falling. It was really peaceful and I was thinking that it was better than any normal day job.

Before I went professional I was out on the canals all of the time. When I started training over in Nottingham the canals were lost to me. It was lockdown that made me make my way back to them and I'm so pleased to be back. Getting back to the canal has been the best thing I've done since going professional.

From a performance point of view it's so good to be able to mix your training location. I don't have to turn around every two kilometres, I can just keep on going. I actually got a bit lost today. I just kept on going.

My training has been going really well. I'm really excited about going out to Tokyo now. When I went to Rio I felt so much pressure. I don't really remember the event. Just the way I felt about it. This time I'm going to take it all in, get across to see some of the rowing and enjoy the event. After the year we've had it's just going to be great to be somewhere new.

The Canoe Sprint events start on 2nd September

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“I'm the fastest I've ever been at this point in my training year, which considering it's been the most disrupted year I've ever had is remarkable,” says Rob, eager to explain how well his training is going. “In the second half of my most recent race, I was almost half a second quicker. In a 200m sprint that's huge and down to the miles I've been doing on the canals.”

In normal times, Rob's Paralympic preparations would be tightly monitored at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham. But since lockdown, he's had to train independently at home, in Birmingham. His daily routine begins at his mum's house.

“Mum's place backs onto the North Stratford Canal. I keep my kayak in her back garden. It's been bizarre really. I let myself in by the side gate, wave to her through the conservatory window, because obviously I can't go inside, and then just get on the water.”

“After a bit of trial and error I found the perfect spot just two minutes away from her house, near where I grew up. The canal is just a bit wider there and sheltered from the wind. It's 560 metres long and perfect for training. As a body of water, it's actually harder than Holme Pierrepont because it's shallower, the sides are closer so it causes more turbulence and drag, but that's just made me stronger. When I go back on a big kayaking lake, it's like the shackles are off and I can go faster.”

Close-up shot of Paralympian Kayaker Rob Oliver training in his kayak on the canal

Rob also told us why he loves the water so much. “That feeling of movement, the boat surging with the ice-cold spray smacking you in the face. It's a sensory overload of wind and water that's like another world, especially to a boy like me who grew up living on a dual carriageway, not even knowing the canal was there.”

It's been a long, hard journey onto the water for Rob, who lost his lower leg after a fracture playing football turned much more serious. “Unfortunately, I spent the next nine months in hospital and underwent 17 operations. I developed compartment syndrome, which was misdiagnosed and led to the amputation. I was only about seven stone when I left hospital.”

With the help of a gym instructor friend, Rob built his strength back up and soon tried out for various Paralympic sports, one of which was kayaking. His performance was so impressive the coaches put him in touch with Solihull Canoe Club. “Canals are where I started out ten years before I got into the elite team, so it's funny that it's come full circle and I'm back on the canals now.”

Close-up shot of Paralympian Kayaker Rob Oliver training in his kayak on the canal

The pull of the canal is the same for Rob as it is for most of us.

“It's just so tranquil. When I paddle long stretches to build up stamina, I lose myself in nature and the environment. It's you, the boat and the sound of the water."

“I wish I'd known the canals were here when I was younger. We just never knew the canals were there. But now I've discovered them like a lot of people around here. Especially during lockdown people seem to be into the wellbeing, the headspace. I mean, who doesn't want nice place to walk? Why would you walk around a housing estate when you could walk by a canal?”

With Rob reaching the end of his elite career, he's looking forward to taking things easier and kayaking the canals with his young family, as they grow old enough to take up the sport. First though, there's still one important challenge to take on.

“Rio was disappointing for me because of injury, so now I almost want a bit of redemption in Tokyo. I'm really positive at the moment. Touch wood, I'm in good shape and hopeful of a medal.”

Fancy taking to the water on a canoe or kayak?


Follow Rob's training for Tokyo on twitter


Last Edited: 20 August 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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