Nevin Harrison was certainly disappointed last year when the Olympics in Tokyo were postponed until 2021, delaying the fulfillment of her dream, but the 19-year-old canoe sprint racer from Seattle has a different perspective now.
As the 2019 world champion in the 200-meter canoe race, she would have been one of the top contenders to win a gold medal. But looking back, Harrison said she wasn’t ready for the moment last year.
“It was devastating, but I tried to look at it as a blessing in disguise,” said Harrison, a Roosevelt High School graduate whose medal quest will start Aug. 2. “I think physically and mentally, I was not in my top shape and not as strong as I am (now), and as fast as I am. And I also think I wasn’t as mature or as confident in myself as an athlete and as a person, and I think that has changed a lot in the last year.”
Indeed, it has been a year of change for Harrison after the Olympics were postponed last year because of the coronavirus. Before the postponement, the plan had been to start college this fall.
Instead, she moved to Gainesville, Georgia, so she could begin working full time with Zsolt Szadovszki, the national coach for the U.S. canoe sprint team. She trains at Lake Lanier, a venue in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“He is by far the best possible person to coach me,” Harrison said. “We have a really great athlete-coach relationship. The venue is amazing, the water is great, and the weather here is the same as in Tokyo, so it made sense to transition here leading into the Games.”
Harrison said the move was not that difficult, comparing it to moving to college. She rooms with three male canoe competitors — down from six — “and they are an incredible group of people, like my second family.”
“We got really close and had an incredible training camp,” she said.
Harrison competed just once last year with sports shut down by COVID-19, winning a 200-meter World Cup event in Hungary. She has competed twice this year, winning another World Cup event in Hungary and the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I am right where I want to be,” Harrison said. “I am on a really good track. I am happy with my performances at the two competitions, but I do think I have a bit more in my tank and I’m excited to show that off at the (Olympic) Games.”
When Harrison was younger, she dreamed of being an Olympian — as a runner. But at 13, she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, the medical term for a hip socket that doesn’t fully cover the ball portion of the upper thighbone.
She turned her attention to the water, rapidly becoming a star in the sport. She won the Pan-Am Games and the World Championships in 2019 after just turning 17. And now she will live her Olympics dream.
“It’s pretty crazy to wrap my head around,” she said. “It still doesn’t quite feel like real life. I feel so blessed every single day.”
Harrison’s biggest competition in Tokyo could come from Canada’s Laurence Vincent-Lapointe, who holds the world record in the event (44.504 seconds). She missed the 2019 World Championships that Harrison won.
“I would say Canada or Ukraine or China, those are the ones I have my eyes out for, but I am just going to do my race and hopefully I won’t have too much of a challenger,” Harrison said.
This is the first time that women’s canoe races are being contested in the Olympics. Had the Olympics been held last year, Harrison would have had a chance to be the youngest Olympic gold medalist in kayak/canoe history (Birgit Fischer was 18 years, 5 months when she won gold in 1980).
Not that Harrison is complaining. The only drawback is that her parents will have to watch from Seattle, with spectators not allowed at the Games in Tokyo.
“I am nervous, but I am excited to get back on a racecourse and hopefully do what I’ve been working on the past couple of months,” said Harrison, who will start college in the fall at San Diego State while continuing to train. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing (I am most excited about) because the experience is so crazy and life-changing. I am excited to meet other athletes, but most of all I am excited to race.
“It’s what I have spent my whole life preparing for. Those 45 seconds I will be racing will be my make-or-break moments, and that is what I am anticipating the most.”