TOKYO — Seattle’s Nevin Harrison turned her title of world champion into Olympic champion Thursday in the women’s 200 meter canoe sprint, becoming the first gold medalist in the debut event at Sea Forest Waterway.
The 19-year-old Roosevelt High School graduate posted a winning time of 45.932 seconds, cruising past Canada’s Laurence Vincent-Lapointe and Ukraine’s Liudmyla Luzan in a dominant race that was decided by the last 100 meters. The only teen of eight paddlers in Thursday’s final, Harrison beat out second-place Vincent-Lapointe by more than eight-tenths of a second — a significant margin in the 200 meter sprint.
“I knew I had it in me after the semifinals, that I could win. It was just about execution by the final,” Harrison said, fighting back tears after the race. “Crossing that finish line and seeing I was first was really surreal. I’m definitely still in a dream.”
The 5-foot-9 Harrison, who took up the sport at age 11, was the only American paddler of 30 to medal at the last world championships in 2019 and the only U.S. canoeist or kayaker to qualify for the Olympics. She said she overcame extreme nerves and pressure to win Thursday as the stress of becoming the de facto face of U.S. canoeing over the past couple of years has gradually taken its toll.
Vincent-Lapointe, up in Lane 2 and China’s Wenjun Lin, down in Lane 6, broke out to the fastest starts at the gun in Thursday’s final, sprinting ahead to early leads on either side of Harrison in Lane 4. But the Seattle native had closed the narrow gap and pulled ahead by the first 25 meters. Vincent-Lapointe paddled her way back to even the race at the 50-meter mark as Lin fell behind, but it was all Harrison from there on out. Harrison crossed the finish line about a half-boat’s length of her closest competitor.
Then, the emotions and relief came out in one giant shout of joy. Harrison buried her head in her hands in disbelief. She shared a giant embrace with coach Zsolt Szadovszki and stepped to the top spot on the podium. The U.S. flag rose on a center pole and “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded in the background.
“I couldn’t be more proud and excited,” she said.
Her victory saved the debut event from added controversy surrounding her top rival in the 29-year-old Vincent-Lapointe. The 200 meter sprint’s most dominant female paddler from 2009 through most of the next decade, Vincent-Lapointe tested positive for a banned substance in 2019. The Canadian successfully appealed the suspension and landed in the 200 meter sprint final via a loophole in Olympic qualifying that let her qualify for her country in kayaking then move over to canoe.
Vincent-Lapointe set the 200 meter world record in 2018 with a time of 44.504 seconds. But she came up short Thursday, crossing the finish line in 46.786 seconds. Still, the Canadian paddler was all smiles afterward.
“I’ve been through so much in the past two years,” she said. “I know I gave it my best today, and I couldn’t be happier with where I am. A lot of credit to (Harrison), she deserved to win. I’m very proud to be on the podium.”
After cruising to a then-personal best of 44.938 seconds Wednesday morning, Harrison had the best time of 16 paddlers in Thursday morning’s pair of semifinal rounds. Second-place qualifier Lin finished nearly a half-second behind the Seattle resident, and Vincent-Lapointe qualified for the final in third place.
Harrison and her opponents had just two hours to rest between their semifinal and championship races Thursday. She said her strategy in the final was to sprint the first 50 meters, conserve energy for the second 50 meters and build up to her top speed in the final 100 meters.
“It was scary, for sure,” Harrison said of the short rest. “I just told myself, ‘This is it, this is all the work coming together.’ These 45 seconds really matter this time, and I just gave it everything.”
Harrison said she “definitely” plans to defend her title in Paris. In the meantime, she hopes her example helps canoeing grow in the United States. Though the sport wasn’t her first choice as a child, it ended up being the most rewarding one.
“I love being on the water, I love being outside, and the people are amazing,” she said. “It was my dream to be someone that kids can look up to. And I’m so excited that now I am.”