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Jenny Egan: 'We want four, five, six-year olds and beyond to see as they are growing up, it's not women’s sport - it's just sport'

Thu, Apr 09 2020

None Credit: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Jenny Egan is a canoeist from Lucan, County Dublin with multiple World Championship medals, a European Championship medal and multiple World Cup medals.

She is the only Irish athlete female or male to date to win an International Canoe Federation (ICF) Senior Canoe Sprint World Championship medal, a Senior Canoe Sprint European Championship medal and ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup medals.

She is also currently ranked Number 1 in the World in the ICF Senior Women's K1 5000m.

A very impressive CV to date, conquering the best that the European and World canoeing scene has to offer over the last number of years.

The 32-year-old Dubliner still has plenty of dreams both on and off the water having also graduated from DCU with a first class honours degree in Athletic Therapy and Training together with winning the Research Achievement Award for her Thesis, ‘The Effects of Acute Intermittent Normobaric Hypoxic Exposure on a Range of Physiological Parameters.’

She is a serial high-achiever with lots done but a whole lot more still to do in her mind with qualification for what Toyko 2020 in 2021 still very much to the forefront of her thoughts and preparation despite the current disruptions and changed world that we are living in.

The world of sport has been completely decimated and disrupted indefinitely in recent weeks and canoeing is no different.

"Our club, Salmon Leap Canoe Club in Leixlip, Co. Kildare, did the responsible thing and closed over two weeks ago now," explained Egan.

"The committee aren't sure when it will be reopened, so we took our boats away and we've had to train in different locations since.

"I did my last on the water session last Thursday, since then I'm continuing to train at home. Luckily, I've got a kayak ergometer I can use which is an on-land canoeing machine.

“I've also got gym equipment and I can go running within a two-kilometre radius of my house so I'm ok to the extent that I'm still able to train.

“Of course, you can't beat being on the water but we have to make the most of what we have at the moment in these challenging times.

With the European Continental Olympic Qualifiers scheduled to take place in the next two months, preparation for an event she had been focussing on and timing her training towards every day for the last number of years was in full swing before the devastating news came through that there would be no qualifying events until next summer.

A tough one to take for her but one which she has accepted quite quickly by putting things into perspective and focusing on all of the positives that she has right now.

The International Canoe Federation has cancelled almost all international canoe competitions for this year.

"I was away in Florida for a six week training camp with the Danish Women’s Olympic squad just recently and my plan was that I would come home for ten days and then I would be heading to Portugal with them again for another training camp.

“So the preparation and focus was really ramping up but then everything changed so quickly in such a short space of time.

"I was on the Virgin Media Six O’Clock Show just over a week ago and it had just been announced that day that our European Olympic Qualifiers had been cancelled and then the same week and just a few days following that, the Olympic Games gets cancelled.

“When myself and so many others have been focusing, training and dreaming of this competition for years, it is disappointing, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than people’s health and lives and that's the way we have to look at it.

"I think all of this will make people so much more grateful for what they have and will allow people to realise what's important in life and what makes them happy.

“It’s so unfortunate that things like this have to happen but I think it will result in people being so much more appreciative for what they have when we eventually get over the worst of it and out the other side.

"We all have a lot of time now on our hands to think about what's important to us in life and how lucky we are to have the family and loved ones that we have for support and to help us through it.

"The sooner we all work together and do what we are asked to do, hopefully the sooner we can all get back to as close to normality as possible. Society has to help society and we all have to work together."

Canoeing and water are two things that Jenny Egan was always going to have a close attachment to and love for, having experienced her first paddle in a canoe several months before she even entered the world.

As a child, it was sports and acting that consumed almost all her time as she tried her hand at many sports and was also very fond of the arts with a love for music, dancing and drama.

It is now a quite a different stage she is used to, one with a lot of water and gruelling training, but despite the change of stage she has become accustomed to producing magnificent performances for her audience.

"I first got introduced and started learning the ropes with this sport when I was very young and I was even on the water before I was born because my mum used to paddle when she was pregnant with me, she just loved it so much.

"My mum and dad have always been involved and that's how myself and my brother got involved in the sport of canoeing. I first sat in a boat on my own when I was three years old.

“I did my first race in England when I was eight and then I became British National Sprint and British National Marathon under-14 Champion.

"At that stage, my love for the sport was really growing and I decided that canoeing was what I wanted to focus on.

“When I was younger, I was doing many sports and I also loved performing. I was always involved in different stage shows, drama classes and any performance related hobby I could find. I'm still trying to perform but it's on a very different stage now.

"I think it’s so important to get involved in as many different activities as possible when you are young.

“It's good to get a real taste for everything and then you can focus on the one that you enjoy the most."

Despite having such a fondness for so many sports at a young age, it was unrealistic for Egan to believe that she could keep the same commitment to each of them. Something had to give.

"For me, it was when I became British National Champion at fourteen that I decided this is the sport for me.

“To be good at anything you need to put your absolute everything you have into it and that's when the sole focus turned to canoeing.

"I raced at my first Junior Marathon World Championships just a few years later, when I was sixteen in Spain in 2003, which was an invaluable experience that I absolutely loved.

“So I knew even after I had made the choice of canoeing, that it was definitely the right choice for me.

"In the years following that, I won a Junior Marathon World Championship bronze medal in 2005 in Perth, Australia, my last year as a Junior which was the same year that I was doing my Leaving Cert - what a year that was!

"That was the year I really learned to hone my time management skills to perfection! I used to train before school in the morning.

“My mum used to have breakfast in the canoe club ready for me and then off to school I went then straight after school mum picked me up again to go to do another training session.

“My homework and study would still have to be done when I got home too, so it was a challenging year, but one I really enjoyed and one in which the hard work has stood to me.

"I was really happy with my Leaving Cert results and also ended the year with a World Championship Bronze medal for Ireland so all in all it was a fantastic year."

As well as her parents being lifelong fans of canoeing, the family connection and input doesn't end there. Her two main coaches are Jon (her fiancé) and Peter (her brother).

A very close-knit family with the exact same aspirations, they are all happy to work hard and invest whatever it takes to witness Egan succeeding.

"I'm very proud and very thankful for the support from my family, my club, Canoeing Ireland, Sport Ireland, the Institute of Sport and the Olympic Federation of Ireland. They've all been so good to me especially during these difficult and testing few weeks.

“It's difficult for them too, as they had all the programmes planned for the year and now, they have to reorganise them all again.

"My whole family is involved: my dad is the team manager of Canoe Sprint Ireland, my fiance Jon is my coach and my brother Peter is another one of my coaches too.

“It really is a family affair which is great because we are all so close and share the same passion for the sport.

“A lot of people ask me about it and joke about it too. I always say we don't have arguments we have debates!

"My mum used to drive me all over Europe. One year we did twelve ferry crossings to take part in competitions in both the UK and Europe. There were also a few flights thrown in for good measure too!

“I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if it wasn't for the support of all of them. It has been a successful journey to date thankfully and it's really nice when the hard work pays off, not just for me but for my whole team.

"We're very good at balancing the two different aspects of our life, which is a great way to be and very important for our health too.

“When we are at training or competitions that's work for us and that's what we really put all of our focus on, but then when we come home we try and shut off and do our best to talk about and enjoy other things apart from canoeing or the water.

“Work is work and home is home and it's very important to have that family time. A balance to life in general is so important, you should have a good balance in your life between family, friends, sport, education and whatever else you might enjoy.”

In conjunction with Egan’s training regime of 14-16 sessions a week, she is the only athlete representative on the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Steering Committee, which was established in March 2019 to steer the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Policy launched in September 2019.

Egan is also one of 20 female athletes chosen to represent the 20x20 Campaign for the year 2020.

The Women in Sport Policy the committee has been set up to steer and guide has four main target areas: Leadership and Governance, Coaching and Officiating, Active Participation and Visibility.

As the sole elite athlete on the committee, it makes sense for Egan to focus on the Visibility pillar of the policy.

Her popular profile as an elite sportsperson, regular media coverage and also her ongoing work as one of just twenty official ambassadors for the hugely popular and successful 20x20 campaign allows her a fantastic platform to improve and steer the visibility of women's sport within this country and grow the game as much as possible.

"I'm part of the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Steering Committee as the only athlete representative and the message we are trying to get across is that we are trying to get more women involved in all areas of sport.

"It's a really exciting time for women’s sport, I'm so lucky to be involved in the 20x20  Campaign as well the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Steering Committee.

“The area that I am most suited to and able to focus on as an athlete is visibility. With the media coverage and competitions like the World Championships, European Championships and World Cups I am ideally positioned to increase the visibility of women’s sport.

"Visibility is so important as it shows young girls that it is possible to achieve both nationally and internationally in their chosen sport. Therefore, it is highly important that women’s sport is covered through all forms of media.

"The Sport Ireland Women in Sport Policy has given funding to different sports and different national governing bodies nationwide.

“The governing bodies are then choosing which target areas they want to focus on. Canoeing Ireland have decided to currently focus on the area of Leadership. They have started a new campaign of their own called 'Bridge the Gap'.

“In January, I completed the ‘Bridge the Gap’ Leadership course, which I am now putting to good use, applying my learnings from this into action towards improving different areas of sport.

"The 20x20 Campaign, people will know more about that one because it has gained a lot of momentum and is out in the public eye a lot more.

"It has been a fantastic campaign that has been so successful to date. It's hard to believe that it will be two years in October since it was launched.

“There is lots of work still to do, but the progress, the positive effect and the success that this campaign has instilled into women’s sport in the last few years is just immense.

"I think it is hugely important that the current positive momentum of the 20x20 Campaign continues to grow in the years to come.

"As one of only 20 athletes chosen to represent the 20x20 Campaign in 2020, I need to help promote women in sport by sharing my knowledge and success stories.”

A critical part of ensuring the upward curve and progression that we have seen in women's sport in recent years continues, lies in the hands of parents and the perception they instil within their children at an early age and throughout their childhood.

"I think trying to change the early perception at grassroots level is such a key area to the success of the 20x20 Campaign.

“Parents have such a huge role to play in achieving and contributing to this. We want four, five, six-year olds and beyond to see as they are growing up, it’s not women’s sport it’s just sport.

"We want them to see more TV coverage of women's sporting events. As the 20x20 Campaign slogan goes #CantSeeitCantBeit and it really is such a powerful slogan and so true in so many ways

"The more that young girls and women see other women competing, achieving and enjoying success and recognition in sport, the more they will realise how accessible and achievable it is for them too, if they do the right things along the way.

"Paul O'Connell’s interview recently where he talked about his own young daughter and the 20x20 Campaign was really powerful and I shared it myself on social media.

"Again, parents are the ones with most influence as they are the main role models for their children.

"I've heard parents before saying ‘ah it's ok if my daughter drops out of sport, she'll find something else, but I really don't want my son to drop out of sport.

“Unfortunately that is the perception and attitude that has been out there in the past, but thankfully, it is changing for the better and something we need to concentrate on continuing to improve into the future.

"Having high profile sports people like Paul O'Connell and ambassadors talking more and more about it, will help parents to relate and come on board. With them on board we can start to change the perception and make even more of a difference.

"It's not just about women supporting women, it’s about women supporting men, men supporting women and society as a whole supporting society.”