Her long, brown ponytail flew back in the wind created by the speed of her boat. She was a member of the Seattle Canoe and Kayak Club (SCKC), racing in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, at the 2018 Sprint National Championships. As she crossed the finish line, multiple seconds before the rest of her competition, the announcer exclaimed, “And lane 5, Nevin Harrison from Seattle takes the gold yet again! 200m sprint champion.”
Nevin had always been one of the fastest female sprint canoeists in America. She started when she was 12 years old, in 2014. She first heard of the sport through a sailing camp at Greenlake. Her counselor, Angela Wang, told her about how she was involved with sprint canoe. Nevin fell in love with the idea of being advanced at a particular sport and being passionate about it, since running, soccer, and softball didn’t necessarily satisfy her. Angela also mentioned all of her accomplishments involved with the sport, including that she was apart of Team USA and made the finals at the ICF (International Canoe Federation) Junior & U23 Canoe Sprint World Championships. Being open to try it, Nevin asked Angela if she could hop into a canoe on the last day of her sailing camp. Nevin had always been a natural, all-around athlete, and thought this wouldn’t be too difficult. However, when she knelt down into the canoe, she felt very unstable, and found it to be much more strenuous than expected. Her perseverance and determination to improve is what drove her to officially join the sprint canoeing realm. She loved how canoeing did not come easy to her, and that she had to struggle to be able to do it. Her hard work since then has paid off and helped her achieve many of her goals.
Traditionally, at the Sprint National Championships concluding banquet, it is normal to announce the athletes who qualified from Nationals to represent Team USA at the Olympic Hopes Regatta (OHR). Nevin was selected to go last year, and she anticipated going again this year, in Poznań, Poland.
As the announcer was reading off the names of people chosen to go to Poland, Nevin heard her name called out. She was excited to get the chance to race at the Olympic Hopes Regatta, but she knew she would have to train diligently, with just under a month to train for the biggest race that would take place in early September.
The national canoe coach, Aaron Huston, who would also be traveling to Poland for OHR, was also an assistant coach for the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team (GHCKRT), located not too far from Seattle. Nevin was able to bring her boat to Gig Harbor and train under his tutelage with the team. This became a part of the regular routine, and the Gig Harbor athletes came to know Nevin better, welcoming her into the team family, even though she was still an athlete for SCKC.
When the time came to race in Poznań, Nevin felt ready, even though she was extremely nervous. She knew that before every race she consistently became anxious, but her training with GHCKRT and Coach Aaron had prepared her well for this kind of discipline.
After going through a proper warm up for her race, Nevin was ready. Butterflies were flying in her stomach. However, she knew she couldn’t let nerves get in the way of her performance, or disappoint Team USA, Coach Aaron, or even herself.
“1 minute to start,” the starter shouted to all the young ladies participating in the competition.
“Okay, Nevin, you can do this. Don’t worry about the other girls, just focus on what you have been practicing and your technique. You can do this!” Nevin said to motivate herself.
The starter of the race said, “Ready, set,” and then blew the air horn.
And the girls went off. They were flying down the race course, since it was only a 200 meter sprint. As Nevin was paddling, she felt a lot of pressure. The United States was counting on her to win. She was expected to be first. So, to encourage herself as she zoomed past her competitors, she thought, “I am the best. These girls can’t beat me, I have to win. Let’s go!”
Approaching the finish line, Nevin watched herself inch closer to the end of the course to set up her timing right so that she could shoot her boat forward just before she crossed the line. Out of breath, she looked back to see how close she was. The second place recipient had just crossed the line. The others followed in succession.
After the awards ceremonies and returning home, Nevin had decided she would switch paddling teams and join Gig Harbor’s team, since the national canoe coach was part of that team. It was a long process of convincing her parents. Because she lived in Seattle, the commute would be about two hours, round trip. But her parents finally relented and agreed that with Aaron as her coach, she would have more potential in her paddling career.
In addition to this new agenda with all the practices an hour away from home, Nevin had the dream to go to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Knowing this would be the start of a very long journey, she began by making her idea known, and asked for donations to afford this once in a lifetime experience. She also talked to her coach and wondered if this is a reasonable goal for her.
“Yes, this is a really cool opportunity for you, and I believe you are ready. You have a long road of training and hard work, but you are capable because of your persistence, motivation, and talent. You know I wouldn’t say this just to make you happy and fulfill your dreams. I truly think this is something you could do, and do well in it,” Aaron reassured her.
Nevin set up a GoFundMe website, offered to babysit kids, and do anything to earn the money to go to Tokyo. She stopped her regular dinner dates with friends, Starbucks runs, and attempted to save up the money that was needed to attend canoe camps that would prepare her for the strict competition in Tokyo, and to actually travel to the Olympic Games.
As time went on, training became more serious than ever. Nevin started to monitor what she was doing each day. She had a notebook full of what she ate, how much training she had done, the intensity of her workout, and her heart rate at certain times of the day. She became aware of what her body could handle, pushing it to its limit almost every day. She emphasized how much sleep she received, as well as maintaining a strict, healthy diet. She set small goals to accomplish as baby steps to her final desire. Nevin also went through rigorous mental training. To be able to race at the Olympic level, she learned that she couldn’t just be physically in shape. Having mental strength is paramount. Knowing about the race, the competition, and her own race plan could change the outcome of her performance.
At this point, it was November of 2019. Nevin had participated in numerous races nationally, including Seattle, Georgia, and Oklahoma, and internationally in South America and Europe. She raced at the 2019 Sprint National Championships and the 2019 Olympic Hopes Regatta. She, of course, competed well and received a gold medal for all of her races. She also was able to afford intense canoe camps, based in Canada and Florida. She learned many new things, including many different coaches’ opinions on how to race, and their input of strategy for success.
Aware that the summer of 2020 was just around the corner, Nevin planned her last minute training ideas and strategies. She was thrilled that her dream was becoming a reality, and that she now had younger paddlers from her team to look up to her, despite the fact that she still felt pressure. However, she did feel pressure. She assumed her team was just expecting her to win at the Olympics. Nevin also had doubts, and questioned how fast these people competitors really were going to be. Although she saw most of her competition at the trials race, she thought about how much they had trained since.
A few months went by, and Nevin found herself exiting an airplane that had landed in Tokyo. Words could not describe her emotions. She was severely nervous about competing, but also elated to have finally made it.
At last, it was time to really focus and block out all the distractions, with only four hours to the start of her race. To warm up and fully prepare herself for the biggest race of her life, she started by thinking everything through. She recalled that having a mental side of the sport really helps. Nevin talked herself through her race plan, strategizing that she would start with fast, short strokes, then gradually lengthen them out into longer and more powerful ones, and finish strong with throwing her boat forward.
Realizing how this event was and how immense the competition would be, Nevin was overwhelmed. She began to doubt herself, and asked if everything she had worked on for the past few years had been enough or even worth it. Tears rushed down her cheeks. She had never been so nervous in her life. She remembered how close the other ladies were to passing her in the Olympic Trials races. Feeling the stress and pressure from the whole world watching, Nevin tried to pull herself together and start physically warming up.
First, she went on a short run, just to get her blood flowing. Next she started her dynamic stretching, including pushups, squats, and shoulder exercises.
It was about an hour and a half to the race now. Nevin decided to go out for a double warm up, meaning she went out on the water for her first warm up in her boat. On the water, she did some technique drills, just as she had practiced at home. She broke down each part of the stroke to master the entire stroke. Then Nevin spent time on her start. She put her boat to a complete halt, and pretended it was the real race. She whispered to herself, “Ready, set, go!” and was off, only practicing the first segment of the race. She thought her practice performance was good, and that she had a positive connection with her boat and the water.
When Nevin got off the water, there was only about an hour left until her race. She grabbed her phone, plugged in her earphones, and relaxed her muscles and nerves until it was time to get back on the water. Music really helped her concentrate. She had a playlist specifically to energize and incentivize herself.
Time flew by, and it was time to shine. The whole world would be watching on television, and her family and friends would be cheering her on. However, she couldn’t let her emotions affect her racing. As she set her boat down in the water, she did her last set of stretching and warming up. Finally, she paddled away from the dock, and slowly made her way towards the start line.
Typically at races in the United States, she would encourage her fellow competitors, to be polite. But when it came to international racing, she could not talk to the other racers. Nevin had to convince herself that they are her enemies, and that they had to be intimidated by her. For example, earlier, during her warm up, she had to act tougher and faster than what she might be able to maintain, just to strike fear into the others.
“Approach the start, one minute to start,” the starter of the race shouted.
Each racer lined up in their assigned lane.
“I can do this, this is just like at home. It’s just a regular 200 meter race. Pull yourself together, Nevin!” she said to herself. She tried to suppress the nervous feelings in her stomach.
“Ready, set, go!”
Just as the official yelled “Go” in the microphone, Nevin was off. She had catapulted her boat at the start, and was neck and neck with her competition.
She recognized that she needed to keep up her speed so that she wouldn’t fall behind. These women were really fast.
Nearing the finish line, Nevin pulled slightly ahead of the pack. She only had a few meters left to go. She kept sprinting ahead, and started to expand all her energy. There were two other ladies ahead of her, and she knew a bronze medal wouldn’t be sufficient. She put in everything she had, using every last bit of energy. It was only 10 meters left now, and she started to time herself so that she could shoot her boat forward abruptly. As she leaned back and threw all of her weight to the back of the boat, her canoe exploded forward, crossing the line.
“Wow! We have our top three racers at the finish. It’s hard to tell who snatched that gold medal, with just the naked eye. We will have to look at the photo finish to determine the champion of this race,” the announcer said excitedly.
The air was tense. People were silent, waiting for the results to return. The Americans watching were hoping that Nevin was able to pull through and capture the gold medal.
“Oh, and now it looks like Nevin Harrison, for Team USA has taken the gold medal title!” the announcer proclaimed.
Nevin was overjoyed. She could not contain her emotions, and as a result, began to sob. She could not believe how close the race was, and how much strength it took. When she pulled her boat out of the water and carried it up off the dock, people were swarming her. They told her that she had just broken the World Record with a time of 00:00:40.08. She was shocked. Not only could she pull off a first place, but she also made history with a new World Record and Olympic Record.
Shortly after the finish of her race, Nevin was invited to rise to the first place podium. No words could describe this feeling. Standing before the world, representing Team USA. As she stepped down from the podium, reporters were swarming around her eager to get an interview. They asked her many questions, and Nevin tried to answer them as accurately as she could. She was overwhelmed by all the attention and the sensation of being victorious.
“I just want to say thank you to all my supporters out there, back at home in the United States. I wouldn’t be here today without them. I’m just so grateful to be here, and have this amazing opportunity to have raced. I also want to thank my coach and friends for pushing and encouraging me through this whole journey. I couldn’t have done it without any of them,” Nevin explained. She was just so cheerful to have made it all the way to gold.
When Nevin returned home, she was surprised to see the Gig Harbor paddling team welcoming her effusively. She was happy to see them, and was thankful they were there with her. On the inside, she began to reflect and notice how much people cared about her, by donating and being there for her. She knew she would never forget this unique chapter in her life, and would always be thankful for the people encouraging her. Also, her friends and family granted her so much that she could never repay. This was truly an unforgettable event in her life.