Hear the story of Team GB kayaker Emily Webb

Posted 9th August 2017

During the summer of 2016, we conducted a series of interviews with Team GB kayaker Emily Webb, entitled: 'The Diary of a Wannabe Olympian'. You can read the series in full here.

Part 1

This summer promises to be a huge summer for sport. With the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the European Football Championships, Wimbledon and of course the School Games 2016 National Finals, to name but a few, all on the horizon – teachers across the country are no doubt eagerly anticipating months of distracted students, youngsters screaming out the names of their heroes as they best their friends in a playground showdown, and those eagerly anticipating their opportunity to show what they themselves can do during their School Games Day.

Emily Webb is just one of these young people anticipating an exciting summer of sport. Whilst her schools days might now be behind her, the 23-year-old Team GB sprint kayaker will join us over the next four months to give her peers an insight into the world of an Olympic hopeful. If you’re a young person hoping to emulate her, a teacher hoping to inspire similar levels of dedication, a friend catching up on her progress, or anything in between – we hope you’ll enjoy the thoughts of our latest guest writer, in this ‘The Diary of a Wannabe Olympian – Part One’.

Emily Webb Canoeing 2

“I hope I’ve got what it takes to make it, but there are so many things that can still affect me.”

“We’ll normally do two big sessions each day – one in the gym and one on the water, or both on the water depending on our schedules. We train six days a week, with shorter days on Wednesday and Saturday, but it makes going home almost impossible. Our schedules are always busy – we’ll have fitness sessions with running or cycling, yoga, pilates, psychology and team meetings, in addition to our big sessions – all designed to make us the best that we can be,” Emily tells me, as I ask her to describe an average day for an athlete with aspirations of reaching the world stage.

Although this summer’s event in Rio will come too soon for her, she retains realistic aspirations of reaching the 2020 Games in Tokyo, having been picked up by the Girls4Gold programme in 2014. But as she tells me, with the events in Brazil the only thing currently standing between herself and British Canoeing’s next ‘four year cycle’, the pressure levels are starting to be raised even higher – and she must hit her targets to guarantee further funding.

“Everyone will be talking about it,” she admits with a knowing smile. “I hope I’ve got what it takes to make it, but there are so many things that can still affect me between now and then. Some of the boys are particularly grumpy,” she adds with a laugh. “We’re training with athletes who are aiming for Olympic and Paralympic selection this year and you can see that without the necessary guidance from their coaches and support staff the pressure could start to affect them.

“I think we can learn a lot from watching their preparation. It’s all very carefully planned – they know what they’re doing and they know what they need to achieve. I think the key thing for them will be recovery, particularly in the heat of Rio, they need to make sure that they’re doing everything right in their training and doing what they can to avoid injury and illness.”

Thankfully, there have been plenty of lighter moments as well; including one delightful story Emily tells me about an impressive Lithuanian kayaker who lives almost solely off a diet of grated carrots.

“We have to eat six times a day. One of the goals that my coaches have set me is to gain weight, through eating lots of carbohydrates and protein, drinking plenty of milk and then working hard in the gym. I’ve found that if I don’t keep up with that schedule then the weight quickly drops off again.”

Alright for some, isn’t it?!

“The challenge is obviously to put on good weight. I can’t reach my goal by just scoffing a couple of donuts now and then. I need to eat a good variety of food, including eight to ten fruit or vegetables a day, and keep working with my coaches and nutritionist to ensure I’m moving in the right direction.

“Everyone has a slightly different approach – and watching girls from other countries is very interesting to see how the approaches vary. The Lithuanians, for example, just eat loads of grated carrot – like, tonnes of it! There was also a girl, who was particularly fast, who’d told us she’d never eaten jelly. We didn’t know how that was even possible!”

There were other highlights too, during a recent training camp in Portugal, where the pleasant weather, large natural lakes and warm, still water made for much more pleasant kayaking conditions than an average Monday morning in Nottingham – an enthusiastic Emily telling me that even a back injury and a week of illness could not prevent her setting a new personal best over 200 metres. Nonetheless, she is refusing to get carried away with any such success.

“It’s sometimes quite hard to distinguish when you’re getting faster,” she explains. “There are so many things that can have an impact on your speed, even a couple of degrees in water temperature can make all the difference, so it’s important not to get too down heartened if things don’t always go your way. There are definitely bad days, you expect them here and there; the important thing is how you deal with those bad days.

“Our psychologist once reminded us that the only thing you can control is how hard you try. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control if your coach is annoying you, or if your boat is broken, you can’t control anything apart from how hard you try. I always try to remember that.”

Perhaps her biggest source of pride is her achievements outside of the boat. Already a gymnastics teacher in her spare time, Emily has recently begun lending her assistance to youngsters – ranging between the ages of 13 and 15 – as part of a new talent identification scheme for British kayakers.

“It’s really fun! To be honest, they’re falling in a lot at the moment, but I know exactly what that feels like. I was them two years ago, making a fool out of myself and wondering what I’d let myself in for. It’s reaffirms for me how far I’ve come, but more importantly it reassures them that if they apply themselves then they’re going to get better – which is great to see.

“I was particularly pleased that one of my gymnasts is now training with British canoeing. I did some talent id tests on her and they invited her along for further phases of selection. I’m delighted for her. I’ve even managed to get one of my kayak coaches to try adult gymnastics classes, and it’s nice to see new people enjoying two sports that I love so much.”

Emily finishes by telling me about an important month ahead for her, which will include both national competitions and a prestigious domestic regatta in Germany – an event that will see paddlers from around Europe coming to compete. Join me again in May for our next update.

Part 2

It’s been a busy month for Emily who, since our last catch up, has competed in both a national Regatta at Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre in Nottingham – winning three of her four events – and during an international competition in Essen, Germany, where she again produced some positive results despite facing a number of difficulties – including poor weather, a broken camera, and a group of enthusiastic locals determined to party until the early hours of the morning. With less than a month to go until one of the most important decisions of her fledgling career, there’s plenty to discover in this, ‘The Diary of a Wannabe Olympian – Part Two’.

Emily Webb Canoeing 5

“Honestly, it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Sleeping in the gym was the highlight of the trip, despite all the difficulties, because it was something that I’ll always remember.”

“It definitely feels like race season,” Emily tells me with a smile, having just returned from a trip to her physio to treat a sorely elbow. “Last month started really well for me. I won the 200 metres event and came second over 500. I also won both the K2 events with my partner Tanisha Clayton. She’s great – a real powerhouse – and we were delighted with the progress we’d made. It feels very different having someone else in the kayak, but she’s really easy to work with.”

Unfortunately, things did not run so smoothly in Germany. Already facing a tougher standard of competition, with athletes from around the world included in the various events, Emily was forced to battle bad weather, tough living conditions and simple bad luck in the pursuit of her passion. In singles competition she successfully qualified for the semi-final of the 200 metres, only for the camera monitoring her lane to fail, meaning she received no time and no official placing. The next day, whilst going well in the K2, the skies opened and the poor conditions caused Clayton to drop her paddle. The race was stopped and restarted and the duo recovered to a respectable finish, but the damage was already done.

“These things happen,” Emily agreed with a grimace. “It was so frustrating because I’d not had much luck with my K1 and it felt like things were going really well until that happened. But I’m sure we’ll get another opportunity and next time we’ll do better. We did well to avoid last place, which was something, but obviously we didn’t get the time or the finish we were hoping for.”

I ask Emily if there’s anything else that might have caused such a change in fortunes in events held just weeks apart. She pauses before saying with a laugh: “Well, I guess the preparation could have been better! Our training was excellent, but all eight of us, plus our coach and another girl from the Netherlands, were crammed into the boat house gym overnight. We slept there, amongst the bench press, leg press and ergos [rowing machines]. There was a party in the restaurant upstairs that night which went on until at least 3am. None of us could sleep, the bass was so heavy and the room was shaking!

“It was very basic,” she admits, when I ask her to tell me more about her time off the water in Essen. “We didn’t have any cooking facilities and for the first few days we had to feed ourselves,” – not easy when you’re meant to be having six meals a day and keeping yourself in peak physical condition. “On the plus side, we made best friends with this lady at the local ice cream parlour and every night we went for a scoop of ice cream. Just please don't tell our nutritionist!”

Oops.

Still, the trip had its high points, as Emily tackled an extended 5,000 metre race – a relatively new experience for her – while she was quick to point out the many positives from the experience as a whole.

“The long distance was hard,” she admitted. “We paddled in a loop that we had to go around three times, so you only paddled for about 750m in a straight line and then had to change direction, so it was kept quite interesting. Unfortunately, the final standings were heavily dependent on how well you do in the first 200m, because everyone sprints at the start to try and get in front. It’s so washy, and if you get washed out then you have no chance. I had an okay start and ended up roughly in the middle of all the girls I was against, and stayed in that same position the whole way round.  

“I must sound so negative,” she laughs. “Honestly, it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Sleeping in the gym was the highlight of the trip, despite all the difficulties, because it was something that I’ll always remember.”

It was that same personal belief, along with an uncanny ability to always pick out the positives and move forward with her racing, that saw Emily return to England and land a personal best over 500 metres – her first since January and a long awaited moment of success.

“The personal best was fab,” she says with enthusiasm. “It was definitely overdue, and I hope I can continue to push on during the next set of races I’ve got coming up this weekend. They could potentially be quite important ones for a number of reasons, because they could shape my final decision as to whether I stick with kayaking long term or whether I go back to my studies.”

For Emily, like many young athletes, she has now reached the metaphorical crossroads where she must decide which path she continues to pursue. The nature of her nursing degree dictates that she must complete her studies within five years to be eligible to qualify. Having begun her degree in 2012, that time is almost at an end, and with Universities up and down the country now well into their preparations for the 2016/17 academic year, that decision will need to come sooner rather than later. And while she’d clearly prefer to continue her training, she’s realistic about her options.

“I will take a look at my times this weekend and go from there,” she says. “I’m probably going to stay. I definitely enjoy it more here than I did at university, and that’s an understatement, but I have to be sure I’m making the right decision for my future. I need to be seeing progression to reassure me that I’m making the best call. If I don’t believe in myself that I’m going to be representing Great Britain at the Olympics in Tokyo, then no one else is going to believe in me either.

“There have been plenty of positives recently, despite a couple of disappointments in Germany, but there’s not been any final decision at this stage. I still have a few more weeks left to make my mind up and I’ll be letting the university know before the end of the month.”

So there you have it, another exciting month to come for Emily, with some tough decisions ahead. Of course, she’ll also have the pleasure of choosing our Summer term prize winners as part of the Reward and Recognition Scheme. Remember, if you’d like Emily to read your blog, get involved via your school dashboard. For more information, please click here or contact your School Games Organiser. Join me again in June for our next update.

Part 3

It’s been an exciting month for Emily who, since our last catch up, has become a National Champion for the very first time – winning the Under-23 K2 200m alongside her new partner, Lucy Lee-Smith. Unfortunately, mixed fortunes in her singles events have seen her facing something of a mental dilemma for the first time, and she talks openly here about how she as an athlete has to deal with disappointments and setbacks. As always, there have been plenty of lighter moments too, as she discusses the hidden dangers of sugar-free jelly and the stress relieving games that the seasonal weather is finally allowing; This is the ‘The Diary of a Wannabe Olympian – Part Three’.

Emily Webb Canoeing 3

“I really needed a result like that in K1 and hopefully I’ll be able to carry that form into the next national regatta next month.”

The month started with a very difficult decision for Emily. As mentioned in part two, the 23-year-old had the choice to either continue with her sprint kayaking or return to university, as the deadline on her place at Southampton University rapidly approached. She admitted that it was a difficult decision, and that there were naturally doubts in her mind, but ultimately her once in a life time chance to compete at the Olympics was not something that she could turn down.

“I can do a degree at any stage of my life, but this is now or never,” she enthused. “I discussed my concerns with a lifestyle support adviser from the English Institute of Sport and that made up my mind. I didn’t really discuss it with anyone else. For me, it was a very personal decision, although I’m sure everyone knew what my choice was likely to be – I love doing this too much to give up now!”

Her faith in her own abilities was almost instantly rewarded, as she enjoyed arguably her biggest moment of success since taking up the sport two years ago. It could have been a very different story however, as two days before the regatta her partner Tanisha Clayton – with whom she’d been enjoying a blossoming partnership – fell ill and was unable to race. Thankfully, Lucy was ready to step in. Despite having only one training session together – the day before the event – the experienced racer partnered Emily to her first National Title.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” she grinned. “It was so unexpected. Lucy is brilliant, she is very skilled and experienced, but I don’t think we could ever have imagined that result after just one training session together. To be National Champions is amazing and something I’ll never forget.”

Sadly, Emily found things tougher in her singles events. In the second of two recent national regattas she started brilliantly, winning both her 200m and 500m heats in the ‘Women’s C’ category – impressing with the fastest times in both events as she aimed for promotion to the B category. But by her own admission, the pressure got the better of her in the finals, as she came second over 200m and ninth over 500m – the first time she has come last in any event.

“It was an interesting experience,” said Emily, who to her credit took the defeat graciously. “I don’t really know what happened. I was just disappointed that I’d ruined my chances of moving up to the next category again. It’s definitely shaken my confidence. When I came to my next set of K1 races, despite it being the same weekend as my success in K2, I knew I wasn’t paddling well.”

Emily came fourth in the Under-23 K1 200m heat, missing qualification for the final by one place, but qualifying for the B Final – held for the fastest runners-up – with the quickest time. Again she struggled in the final, finishing fourth. “Missing out on the A Final gave my confidence another hit,” she admitted. “After messing up on my last set of finals I knew that having the fastest time didn’t mean much and so it proved.”

Thankfully, the weekend still ended on a relative high, as Emily turned in a solid result over 500m – finishing second in the B Final. This, despite only coming fourth in her heat, the first time she has improved her position in the second round of races.

“I was very pleased,” she said with a smile. “I really needed a result like that in K1 and hopefully I’ll be able to carry that form into the next national regatta next month. I have been working closely with a psychologist to try to find ways of increasing my confidence and reducing my anxiety around my performance and I hope that the results will start to show sooner rather than later!”

The pressure is only likely to intensify over the coming weeks and months. As the racing season passes its halfway point, Emily must continue to reduce her race time in the K1 500m event to guarantee her funding from the British Canoeing programme from October onwards.

“It’s a difficult situation. As the pressure goes up and my confidence goes down, it means I’m less likely to produce the results I’m aiming for,” she explains. “I think what’s important now is that I learn to relax and enjoy paddling again, because continuing to get stressed isn’t going to help anyone. I’m feeling more positive now, but I know I can’t afford another slip up like that.

“Training has been going well and my times have been consistently improving. I’ve been working with my nutritionist to help with my weight [muscle] gain and that’s finally starting to show results as well. It’s incredibly frustrating when the progress is slow, as it makes you feel like all the hard work isn’t paying off, but I think that lately I’ve finally started heading in the right direction again. Now I just need to take that and show what I can do in a race environment.”

As Emily has always been quick to point out to me – there are plenty of fun moments outside of the rigorous training schedule that help take at least some of the metaphorical weight off the shoulders of these young athletes. The summer weather and extended daylight hours allow them to have some fun of their own on the water after training, challenging each other to stand up in their boats or perform other such tricks, while Emily has found a new hobby as a ‘start gate assistant’.

“It’s just the silly things that make you smile,” she tells me, when I ask about what else she does to relieve the inevitable stress. “Before one of the races in May, Tanisha and I decided to eat some pots of jelly to give us more energy, and it was only after we finished them that we realised that they were sugar free – and would make no difference to us whatsoever!

“Working the start gate has also been fun. It’s been a great insight to get involved with a different side of the canoeing world – helping take the start gates out of the water and disassembling them. It’s an energetic job that takes a couple of days to complete after each regatta.”

We ended our interview by discussing the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, with Emily having recently watched the Paracanoeists – who she trains alongside – tackle their final selection races, aiming to land a spot in Rio. “It was a big highlight for me,” she said. “Their commitment and fight is so inspiring and talking to them as they tackle their own ups and downs always helps me to feel better about myself. They are so level headed and I really value the support that they’ve given me.”  

So, a month of ups and downs for Emily, with the high of becoming a national champion and the low of underperforming in what are usually her stronger events; nonetheless, we’re sure her commitment and preservation will see her through. Join me again in July for our fourth and final update of the series.

Part 4

It’s been another busy month for Emily as she continues in her attempts to guarantee funding for next year. With around eight weeks to go until British Canoeing make their decision, she knows that she must perform well in both her K1 and K2 events, and not let her disappointments of last month get her down. She talks here about her progress, as well as her own personal determination to prove her doubters wrong. She also looks forward to this Summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio – now less than a month away – as well as the now completed Euro 2016 football tournament; This is the ‘Diary of a Wannabe Olympian – Part Four’, the last in the series.

Emily Webb Canoeing 4

“This will be the first Olympics I'll have watched where I have a good understanding of how hard each athlete will have worked to even be selected.”

“I’m continuing to find training very stressful,” she tells me with a tired grimace. “With my October review getting ever closer I’m starting to get very concerned that I’m not as far along as I should be with my development. I know that trying to enjoy my training is as important as trying to make my required times, but that’s obviously easier said than done.”

Having taken the difficult decision last month to call time on her University course in Southampton – which she needed to complete within five years to earn the qualification – Emily is clearly more motivated than ever to make the most of this once in a lifetime opportunity. But as that opportunity begins to boil down to its make or break moment, all of the doubts and insecurities inevitably come closer to the surface.

“I still haven’t been promoted to the Women’s B category,” she bemoans – and that, despite a historically good record in the C category, the next ability grade down. “A lot of the girls are struggling with injury and illness at the moment as well,” she adds. “That’s made it more difficult too. I was given a week off in the end, which was nice, so I was able to catch up on some rest. But I was still in the gym regularly trying to keep the muscle I’ve been putting on slowly but surely.”

Thankfully, there have been lots of positives to speak of this month as well, as she returned to form on the water despite battling some difficult conditions. She won her K1 200m heat and finished second in the final to K2 partner Tanisha Clayton at the latest National Regatta, while the pair also won the K2 race together, having reunited after Clayton’s illness last month.

“There was a massive headwind on the first day, something I notoriously struggle with, so it was great to be able to get those results and prove a few people wrong,” she tells me with an overdue smile. “A lot of people think I need a good tailwind to paddle well, but to get good results in my K1 and K2, and then to follow that up next day by finishing third in the 500m final was great; I was very proud of myself!”

And so she should be. Not only is she continuing to improve on the water, but she’s also helping the next generation, working closely with the younger Talent ID paddlers and proving to herself how far she has come. She also featured in a short film for HelloU, who are creating a montage of sport in public places for use during the Olympic Games – so make sure to look out for Emily, decked out in boxing gear, showing London tube passengers how it’s done.

Emily spoke excitedly to me about the upcoming games in Rio, which kick off in just three weeks time, admitting that this is the first festival of sport that she has really looked forward to: “I'm so excited for the Olympics, but not just for sprint kayaking, but also the gymnastics, rowing and I love watching the swimming! This will be the first Olympics I'll have watched where I have a good understanding of how hard each athlete will have worked to even be selected for the Olympics and I think knowing this will make it all even more impressive.

“As I've mentioned before, being able to watch the Paracanoe girls and guys prepare for the September Paralympics is proving to be such a great experience and I have learnt so much from them. They're all fantastic athletes with so much pressure on them at the moment, yet they still manage to find the time to support me and make sure I'm okay when I'm having a bad day.”

After predicting a strong performance from her more senior colleagues in Brazil, I asked Emily why her fellow British sportsmen – the England football team – had found life so much tougher this summer, having being eliminated from the tournament in France by minnows Iceland, a result dubbed in some quarters as the worst in the Three Lions’ history.

“I think that the most obvious difference between English footballers and English kayakers is the amount they get paid. If a kayaker does poorly they risk losing their funding, however a footballer can perform poorly and still continue to earn millions and millions each week.

“I'm not in any way suggesting that kayakers train hard just to secure an income. That is totally not the case, there are plenty of jobs out there where we could earn a lot more with a lot less sacrifice, but what I mean is that the implications for a poor football performance by a Premier League player has a lot less implications than a poor performance in my sport. You simply can’t have the same amount of drive when you stand to lose so much less for underperforming.”

Well, we are after a new England manager, maybe Emily could teach them a thing or two...

She won’t have time for that just yet however, as she finishes by telling me that she’s solely focused on securing her funding for next year, and won’t think further than that until she has those guarantees. “The next eight or so weeks are so, so important for me, I can’t really look ahead any further than that,” she adds. “I've just got to get on with it!”

A final thank you from us must go to Emily for her time over the last four months.

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