David Florence became the latest in an increasingly long line of genuine British medal hopefuls to endure a dreadful day at the office, finishing dead last in the final of the canoe slalom and missing out on victory by a titanic margin of more than 14 seconds.
A series of consecutive downstream blunders just before the halfway point ruined any chance the 33-year-old Scotsman had of making the podium and adding to the consecutive silvers he won at Beijing 2008 and – in the C2 with Richard Hounslow – London 2012. The French paddler Denis Gargaud Chanut took gold, conquering the white waters of the course in a time of 94.17sec, beating the early clubhouse leader, Matej Benus, from Slovakia by less than a second.
A race against the clock through a combination of 24 up- and downstream gates suspended over a choppy course, canoe slalom challenges competitors to work with the flow of water while maintaining their trajectory, balance and speed on assorted eddies, stoppers and waves. Time penalties of two seconds are incurred for touching a gate, while missing one altogether results in a 50-second race-ender. The combined score of time and penalties determines the finishing order of the contest and Florence’s four ricks meant he stopped the clock at exactly 109sec, scant reward for the six reconnaissance missions he made to Rio since finishing first in the test event in November.
With his hands clasped in repose on the waterproof spraydeck stretched across the cockpit of his vessel and his paddle balanced in front of him as he floated on the water and calmly surveyed the big screen broadcasting footage of one rival after another finishing far more quickly than he had, Florence certainly did not have the air about of him of a man who had completely blown his latest chance of winning Olympic gold. It is the one glaring omission on a jam-packed CV, but there were no tears or tantrums; at least not from him.
As soon as Gargaud Chanut was confirmed the winner, Florence was first to paddle across the holding area where he and his rivals were convened to congratulate his weeping Japanese rival Takuya Haneda, who was overcome with emotion having taken bronze.
Florence’s quiet calm appeared to belie an inner turmoil to rival the choppy waters that had got the better of him. “It’s disappointing,” he said. “You don’t get to go to the Olympics very often. London was very disappointing and today was very disappointing. Hopefully, in a couple of days it won’t be as disappointing, but who knows?”
Having qualified with such ease from his heat for the semi-final that he decided to forego the option of a second run in order to conserve energy for Monday’s C2 team qualifier with Hounslow, Florence had finished a lowly seventh of 14 competitors duking it out to make the 10-man final. A mistake soon after he left the starting gate cost him three or four seconds, but thereafter his split times were as good as any of his rivals. The hope was he had kept his powder dry for when it really mattered, but a mid-table finish in qualifying proved as good as his day was going to get.
“You get pretty used to disappointment in sport,” he said. “It’s not just the three guys on the podium that had the potential to be there. Unfortunately, you generally don’t win them all. Even the guys, the leaders of our sport have had huge disappointments. That is an accepted part of it. I was a bit tight on the first gate of a difficult three-gate sequence and it was unrecoverable from there. It left me so low. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to make a mistake like that.”
Florence, the current world champion, is a tremendously interesting character. Born in Aberdeen, he first began paddling canoes as a 14-year-old on the Union Canal in Leith where, rather than steering a wide berth of dangling poles, his early schooling in the discipline of slalom involved avoiding the fishing lines of irate anglers and assorted random canal detritus including, on one occasion, a submerged car. Having obtained a degree in mathematical physics from Nottingham University, he set about winning World Cup events and world championships before qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. Around the same time he applied for a job that would almost certainly have curtailed his burgeoning career as a canoeist, given the extreme paucity of water in the working environment where astronauts ply their trade. The intergalactic gig for which he’d thrown his hat in the ring eventually went to somebody far more qualified: a former military test pilot.
“I think if I’d been accepted for Tim Peake’s job I probably would have retired from canoeing,” Florence has said. “It seemed like an incredible opportunity. It’s something I would have absolutely loved to do, not because it was any childhood dream of mine, but because I thought it would be an exceptional thing to do.”
After today’s Tuesday’s uncharacteristic shambles, Florence could be forgiven for wishing he was alone with his thoughts on the International Space Station, but must now regroup in order to contest the final stages of the C2 slalom with Hounslow on Thursday. It will not, he insists, be a problem. “He’ll be there and ready to paddle,” said Florence. “I hope he knows I will be ready to give it my all. Hopefully, we’ll put in a good run, get to the final and then … who knows?”
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