Sport: Canoe-Kayak Slalom
Event: Men’s K-1
Local Club: Ottawa River Runners
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC BOUND: Imagine spending six months in France, adding a whole new essence to winter and spring. Ah, the cafes, the shops, the ambiance. Life would be grand. Pass another croissant, please. Merci.
But slalom kayaker Michael Tayler, who along with four canoe/kayak slalom teammates spent the first half of 2021 in France, never found the cafes, the shops or experienced the French culture. He was all business in his bubble existence.
But living in Pau, in the southwest of France for the first two months, and then Paris until July when he departed for Tokyo and his third and final Summer Olympic Games, was wonderful in so many other ways.
“The training was great, but we didn’t see the sites,” Tayler said in a phone interview. “We were happy to get training and home-cooked dinners. It was a different setting, but like at home. It wasn’t your typical European vacation.”
When in Pau, Tayler trained at the Pau-Pyrenees Whitewater Stadium, the home base for the French team. When in Paris, he practised on the new whitewater slalom site for the 2024 Summer Olympics. It’s similar to the Tokyo course.
Canoe Kayak Canada slalom officials considered several trips to and from Europe for training and meets, but the COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible. The best solution was to locate in France for consistent pre-Olympic training.
The travel, quarantine accommodation and training costs were covered by Canoe Kayak Canada, a special Sports Canada COVID-19 fund, and the athletes.
“It was something we had to do,” said Tayler, who trained on Ottawa’s Pumphouse course during the shutdown 2020 season. “It’s what was most cost effective.”
“It has been a great experience with quality training,” added Tayler, who missed qualifying for the semifinal round at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics by 18/100s of a second. “I was almost eight months (2020) in Ottawa with no competition.
“That was the longest time I had spent at home. Now, this is the longest time I have been away from home. I have only had to deal with a few nagging injuries. But you need consistency of training in a technical sport.
“You can spend time in a gym and that’s beneficial. But there’s no replacement for the real thing.”
Besides all of his consistent training on world-class courses in France, Tayler was able to compete on Tokyo’s Kasai Canoe Slalom Course during the test event in October 2019. Over two weekends, he had two top-15 results.
“I’m lucky. It was a long time ago, but I’m familiar with the course. I was able to experience the Tokyo course and that helps a lot. They’ve made a few changes to the course. It’s quicker in places,” continued the Nepean High School and Carleton University grad.
“You must be precise. Things can change quickly. I like it. I spent so much time over 2020 at the Pumphouse. It’s not at Olympic standard, but it’s similar with the gate distance and gate closeness. It fits my style of paddling.”
Precise is a good word to describe slalom kayaking. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Tayler made some mistakes in his first run, but delivered a quality run on his second leg, which left him a split second and one place shy of the semifinals.
“It was tough to be so close and not get into the semifinals, Eighteen one-hundredths of a second is a tiny margin. If I did a few paddle strokes different… But that’s the nature of the sport,” he recalled.
His first Olympic Games in 2012 was an overwhelming experience. At the age of 20, Tayler won the Canadian trials against an experienced field. And he was the only Canadian whitewater slalom paddler to qualify for the London Games.
“I was so young, shocked to qualify for the team,” said the Ottawa River Runners product. “Being on my own as the only Canadian in slalom, it was a different experience with my coach. It was a great time, but a different dynamic. We’ll have a full team in Tokyo.”
Despite all of what has happened in the past 16 pandemic months in the world, Tayler feels ready to perform at his third and final Olympics.
“Absolutely. The date (Aug. 28) has been on my mind for the last six months. We’re almost there. The men’s kayak (K1) is so tight and competitive. You’ll need a good performance in the qualifying (round) to make it through (to semis).
“It’s different than a World Cup or World Championships. It’s the best. It’s extremely competitive and all about performance. I have that experience. I’ll be relaxed and treat it like any other race. That’s what it is.
“I can feel that improvement (since 2016 Rio). That top-10 (result) is within reach. Consistency is so important. Over the last four years, my consistency of runs has improved my ability to deliver.”
At the Canadian Olympic trials in 2019, Tayler was behind after the first race in the best-of-three series. But he rebounded and delivered wins in the final two races to earn the nomination to the Olympic team.
An RBC Olympian the past four years earning valuable off-season job experience, Tayler is about to end his Games’ career.
“It has been a great experience, but I look forward to what’s next. The (slalom) time commitment was crazy.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.