Paddle Australia’s top Paralympic sprint paddlers met at Adelaide’s West Lakes over the weekend (6-8 December) for the first hit-out of season, the 2020 Canoe Sprint Grand Prix 1 (GP1).

Exactly nine months out from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, GP1 was a welcome opportunity for Australia’s Para-canoeists to get some first racing in before the national and international nomination season next year.

2016 Paralympians Curt McGrath, AJ Reynolds, Susan Seipel and Dylan Littlehales already secured Australia four quota spots at the 2019 International Canoe Federation Canoe Sprint World Championships in August, but the final team is only expected to be named at the end of the domestic season and performance reviews in March.

2016 Paralympic champion and 10-time world champion McGrath made the most of the first racing opportunity of the season, competing in both the men’s kayak KL2 and men’s va’a VL3 over 200m.

“It was the first 200ms I have done of the 2020 season, so it’s nice to see where we are at, and I’m feeling pretty good,” McGrath said.

“Tokyo is still a long way out, but you want to identify where the weaknesses are and fix them up. But overall, I had pretty good races and I’m pretty happy with where we are at considering we haven’t done any speed work so far.

“The whole team’s going really well and I think everyone’s on track. Hardly any of us have done any racing training, so it’s all been fitness and power work, trying to get fit and strong for the big season ahead. It will be interesting to see how everyone develops over the next couple of months, and we’ll see how we go as we get closer to Nationals [in March].

Para-canoe will be part of the Paralympic Games program for the second time in Tokyo, and the level of competition has been on the rise around the world, with McGrath only winning his ninth and 10th world titles by the narrowest of margins.

“Everyone’s stepped up, and everyone is excited about Tokyo being just around the corner and wanting to qualify strongly and cementing themselves in the top spots for the Tokyo event. And I have to race those competitors,” McGrath said.

“Generally, I’m not that great out of the start gate and I come through at the end – and that’s obviously something we will be looking at to really fix come September [for the Games].”

Following a short break over Christmas, McGrath will be back on the water for the Paddle Queensland Canoe Sprint State Championships, then the Canoe Sprint Grand Prix 2 and Canoe Sprint National Championships.

“That’s the next three months, and there are obviously a lot of competitions in that time and also a lot of training and trying to fix those faults.”

2020 will also see the Australian Para-canoe team go for world champion glory ahead of the Games.

McGrath explained: “We have the opportunity to be world champions because our pre Tokyo international event in Duisburg [Germany] is a World Championship, unlike the able-bods – they just have a World Cup. That’s our second qualifying event, so that will be a bit about testing the waters to see where everyone’s at, and it will also be the opportunity for some countries to qualify.

“It should be a good event. I really like racing in Duisburg.”

Littlehales is also looking forward to competing at a World Championships before Tokyo.

“It will be a great hit-out – to get the seeding done for the Tokyo Games, and to see where everyone is at coming into the most important year,” Littlehales said.

At only 20 years of age, Littlehales was one of the most improved athletes on the Australian team in 2019, setting a couple of personal bests and finishing the World Championships only 0.09 seconds from the podium.

“I’m feeling very good at the moment. We’ve got a great program down at Narrabeen [NSW] and it’s working well.  I had a great season last year and I can continue that this year.

“It’s [the GP1] a good hit-out for the first event of the year. We’ve done a lot of longer distance work, just trying to build the aerobic base down at NSWIS [the NSW Institute of Sport] over the past few months, so it was good to have a good hit-out in Adelaide, and we’ll then build up the speed slowly over the next couple of months.

“The point of going to the GP is to get that race experience – you plan your days out, and you know exactly how you are going to be racing in Tokyo, and just be prepared for any situation.”

Process was also the focus of Paralympic bronze medallist Seipel at the first event of the season.

“It is still early in the season, so I wasn’t too concerned with my 200m race times, and just going through the process. It’s good to be back racing, though, and we had some good conditions at West Lakes,” Seipel said.

“I’m excited for the coming year, and especially the Tokyo Paralympic Team selection.”

For Paralympic silver medallist Reynolds, race experience is key.

“I’m happy with my progression this weekend as I’m still in an endurance block, and this being our first hit out of the season, it was good to stretch the wings,” Reynolds said.

“Things are starting to come together – during the off-season, I managed to get some cross-training in with surf lifesaving and gained my bronze medallion, so I’m pretty stoked with that. It gives me the opportunity to give back to the community and learn new skills.

“My focus now is on the oncoming session for kayak, and to keep dotting the ‘Is’ and crossing the ‘Ts’. I know it’s going to be a challenge, as the KL3 class has a few new paddlers that have lifted competition, but I’m not one to say no to a challenge, so as I see it, bring it on!”

Reynolds dedicated her weekend’s racing to her childhood friend Darren, who passed away unexpectedly last week.

Paddle Australia’s Para-canoeists will be recognised for their achievements at the Australian Institute of Sport’s Sport Performance Awards (ASPAs) tonight, with McGrath and Seipel amongst the finalists for the Male and Female Para-athlete of the Year awards.

“It is truly an honour to be nominated for Female Para-athlete of the Year at the ASPAs. There are so many incredible performances from female Para-athletes this season, it is fantastic to see and be a part of,” Seipel said.

McGrath, who won Paddle Australia’s Para-athlete of the Year award in November, acknowledged the team effort that goes into any award nomination.

“We’ve got a really good team, and to have the support of everyone around you and helping you achieve those goals and dreams of getting to the Paralympics, and then being recognised for the work that goes in, is not just for myself but everyone around me,” he said.

View the results here.

By Paddle Australia
Posted: 10/12/2019