There are so few top American canoeists and kayakers that growing up in Seattle, Nevin Harrison’s idols were athletes in other sports such as Gabby Douglas and Allyson Felix.
Now aspiring American canoeists can look to the 19-year-old as an icon after she won the women’s canoe single 200m sprint on Thursday in the flat-water race’s Olympic debut.
Canoeing’s Olympic history dates back to 1936 but no American had reached the podium since Rebecca Giddens won a women’s slalom K1 silver in 2004. This was the country’s first canoe or kayak sprint medal since 1992.
Harrison was the only US canoe or kayak sprinter to qualify for Tokyo, so the talent pool is still shallow, but she is indisputably a global star in the sport.
“It’s been a hard journey because I didn’t have anyone to really follow in these steps. But I’m hoping I can be that person for the next generation in the US,” Harrison said. She entered the final as the current world champion and the strong favourite but still looked astonished after her victory.
“It’s such a crazy, big dream and it doesn’t ever seem like it’s actually achievable so crossing that finish line and looking around and seeing I was first was really surreal. Like everything I ever dreamed of as a kid,” she said.
The race under Tokyo Gate Bridge along a canal set between two artificial islands was anticipated to be a showdown between Harrison and a Canadian, Laurence Vincent-Lapointe, the C1 200m world record holder. They did finish first and second but it was closer to a procession than a duel, with Harrison winning in 45.932 seconds, 0.854 ahead of her 29-year-old rival. Liudmyla Luzan of Ukraine was third.
Vincent-Lapointe was delighted with her medal, especially given that for a while the former world champion seemed unlikely to compete in Tokyo. “It’s so relieving and exciting. It’s just crazy after all I went through,” she said.
In 2019 she became embroiled in a doping nightmare that started with a kiss. She tested positive for a trace amount of Ligandrol, a banned muscle-building drug.
The Quebec native protested her innocence but was suspended for six months before being cleared and reinstated by a tribunal after she provided a hair sample from her now ex-boyfriend. She persuaded the authorities that she had been the victim of third-party contamination caused by the transfer of bodily fluids.
But her suspension meant she missed the 2019 world championships, which were won by the then-17-year-old American paddling prodigy. Harrison had only taken up canoeing five years prior, focusing on the sport after a diagnosis of hip dysplasia ended her track-and-field ambitions.
Naturally, she has no regrets about focusing on water-based sprinting. “This is so much better for me, the people are one of a kind, the community’s amazing,” she said. “I love being on the water, I love being outside. So it’s perfect.”