Echo Sport Replay: Egan- blazing a trail for Ireland and helping inspire the next generation

By Stephen Leonard

IF YOU'RE looking for a competitor to inspire the next generation of Irish female athletes, look no further than senior international canoeist Jenny Egan.

The Lucan woman, who herself is hugely passionate about increasing female visibility in sport and the profile of canoeing itself, has blazed a trail for her country in the sport she loves and finished the 2019 sprint racing season ranked Number One in the World in the ICF Senior Women’s K1 5000m.

Jenny Egan competing in the Liffey Decent 1

Lucan woman Jenny Egan has blazed a trail for Ireland in Senior Women’s International canoeing over the past ten years

Since her move into the senior kayaking ranks in 2006, Egan has broken new ground for Ireland, from winning the nation's first medal and, later, first gold at an ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup to becoming the very first Irish athlete to stand on the podium at both the ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World and European Championships.

In 2017, her most prolific year to date, she captured five major international medals and bridged a 21-year gap since Ireland boasted a medallist at the ICF Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships when she won bronze in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. And that incidentally was the very first medal won at the event by an Irish female athlete.

Egan has always been quick to credit the support system that surrounds her whenever discussing her glittering career so far, and that support starts with her family.

“Both my mum and dad started canoeing in their late teens and they're the ones to thank for getting me into the sport” she told The Echo.

“Yeah my mum used to paddle when she was pregnant with me, so you could say my mum was a bit of a trailblazer, because back then it would probably have been very unusual to keep training when you're pregnant.

Jenny Egan wins a bronze medal at ICF Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships in Pietermaritzburg South Africa in 2017 1

Jenny Egan celebrates winning bronze at ICF Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships in South Africa in 2017. It was the first time in 21 years that Ireland had an athlete on the podium at this event.

“I sat in a boat on my own when I was about three years old and did my first race in England when I was eight in Nottingham in the National Watersport Centre.

“I became Under 14 British National Sprint Champion and Under 14 British National Marathon Champion and that was the time when I was like, this is what I really want to focus on.

“I started training to race at my first World Championships in Spain in 2003. I would have been 16 competing in my first Marathon World Championships so that was a special occasion.

Jenny Egan with Fiancé Jon Simmons after winning a silver medal at Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup 1 in Poland 2019 1

Jenny Egan with Fiancé Jon Simmons after winning a silver medal at Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup 1 in Poland, 2019.

“So I worked my way up as a junior and my last year as a junior was in 2005 and that was quite a busy and stressful year because I was doing my Leaving Cert as well and I really wanted to be on the podium at the Marathon World Championships that year.

“I was training before school in the morning. I'd be out on the water at 7am, go to school, go back to the canoeing club again for another training session and then go home and do my homework and study.

“So it was very regimented, but it worked out in the end because I won a silver medal at the Junior World Cup in Crestuma, Portugal in the Junior Women's K1 event and then I went on to win the Junior Marathon World Championship bronze medal in Perth, Australia in 2005 also.

Jenny Egan celebrates winning bronze at ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships in Montemor o Velho Portugal August 2018 1

Jenny Egan celebrates winning bronze at ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships in Montemor-o-Velho, Portugal, August, 2018.

“So it was a stressful, busy year, between Leaving Cert and then competing internationally, but my family were so supportive.

“It's a team effort, like anything in life. You have to have a support system around you and I'm very lucky that I have that and I had Pete [her brother] to look up to from Day One as well.

“So then I moved into the senior ranks in 2006 and, yeah, definitely the last five years have been extremely exciting.

Jenny Egan with her family Dad Tom brother Peter and mum Angie Egan 1

Jenny Egan with her family- Dad Tom, brother Peter and mum Angie Egan

“I've medalled every year at a World Cup, Senior Europeans or World Championships over the past five years and that's really something I'm proud of.

“I got accepted into the Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Athletic Therapy and Training in DCU straight after my Leaving Cert, to start in September/ October 2005, but I was going to be racing the Marathon World Championships in October 2005 and I decided to defer my course for a year.

“Unfortunately in 2006 I got glandular fever and I was out of training for about three or four months, but I still manged to recover to compete in my first Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships in Tremolat, France.

“So in September 2006 I started in DCU. It was extremely difficult trying to combine competing internationally at a top level and also wanting to succeed in my academic studies.

“Thankfully the Institute of Sport and Sport Ireland brought in a scholarship to help athletes spread their study out and be able to combine their studies with their sporting careers, so I took a bit of the longer route, but that helped me combine training and studies. I graduated in 2013 with a first class honours degree.

“In 2010 I won my first senior medal at the ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup in Szeged, Hungary. I won silver in the K1 5000m. It still gives me shivers down my spine to this day.

“I had a great start. I got up into the lead group and it eventually whittled down to three of us.

“It was Renata Csay from Hungary who's a multiple World Champion in Canoe Marathon and also has K1 5000m medals throughout the years, myself and a German girl and there was a sprint for the finish. Renata led it in and I finished just behind her.

“My mum and dad and brother were there. There was so much emotion because there were so many aspects to it for me.

“It was my first Senior World Cup Sprint medal, my first senior medal in any distance or discipline and then to add in the first one for Ireland is something very special. That's ten years ago now. It's mad.

“The following year, in 2011, I won silver in the K1 5000m at the ICF Senior Canoe Sprint World Cup in Racice in the Czech Republic.

“It was great to be able to get back on the podium a year later because sometimes you might win a medal and then you never get back on.

“Coming into the European Championships in 2015, I was probably in the best shape of my life. It was the fittest I'd ever been so I felt positive going into the championships.

“Of course there are so many other aspects that you have to think of. The 5000m is so tactical and you always have to be aware of what's going on around you. Anything can happen in the race, so thankfully everything came together for me that day and I won bronze.

“Again it was another major goal of mine to win a European Championship medal for Ireland. That was my first Senior Championship medal and the first European Championship medal for Ireland, so that's major.

“I think I felt I had hit a bit of a plateau in my training when competing in 2013/2014 and so I reassessed my training plan with my coaches Jon Simmons [Jenny’s fiancé] and Peter. I had a great winter's training that year.

“I did a lot more land based training that winter, a lot of running, a lot of gym and it worked.

“And that's what I'll say to people. You have to learn from your failures. I say that to kids as well because kids get so run down and disappointed if they don't win all the time.

“But you need to use those moments to learn from them. If I hadn't had those bad races in 2013/2014 I wouldn't have reassessed my training plan and said 'Right Jenny, I need to do something different' which then led me to win medals consecutively every year for the last five years.

“I won two World Cup medals in 2016. That was a first gold for Ireland [in Portugal] and that was very special because to hear your national anthem while standing on the podium was just unbelievable, just surreal. And what made it extra special was that my dad is team manager for Ireland and because I won gold, he got to present the medals to us.

“2017 is a year that will always be so special to me. I won five major international medals.

“It started off by me winning a gold medal in Portugal at the World Cup Sprint. I then went on to win bronze at the third Sprint World Cup in Belgrade.

“And then there was South Africa, winning bronze at the Senior Canoe Marathon World Championships. No words can describe it.

“It was celebration, it was relief that I'd finally done it. I'd been fourth in the Marathon World Championships in 2015 and, in 2016, I was in the leading group and the handle on my boat broke and I dropped off the front group, so 2016 was very painful.

“And so to come back then in 2017 and get on the podium. It had been a dream of mine to win my first World Senior Championship medal for Ireland and it was the first Senior Women's K1 Marathon World Championship medal for Ireland.

“We've only ever had one other medallist at the Marathon World Championships and that's Gary Mawer back in 1996 in Vaxholm, Sweden and I was actually there watching that event, because my brother Peter was competing in the Junior Men's K1 event there.

“That was major for me to have been there and to have seen Ireland's first World Championship medal in 1996 by Gary and then 21 years later to get Ireland back on that podium and to be the first female to win a Canoe Marathon World Championship medal.

“Also in 2017 I was invited to the World Cup in China and I won a silver medal in the K1 Long Distance and then I also won a bronze medal in the Short Distance K1. It was quite an intense one, but that was the icing on the cake for that year.

“Knowing that Ireland had never been on the medal table at a Senior Canoe Sprint World Championships, it was something that I really wanted to achieve. And 2018 at the World Championships, boy did I make it hard for myself!

“It was the 5000m and I had a bad start and I was back in around 19th position, but I said to myself 'Jenny, no matter what, fight to the end. Give it your all'.

“With the 5000m it's very difficult if you don't have a good start, to be up in the top going across the finish line, because it's not that long of an event. It takes 21-22 minutes for Senior Women and there would be a lot of waves created from the boats, so it's very hard to climb your way back to the top group.

“But I just said to myself 'Ok Jenny, just relax, pick off each group, group by group'. So I worked my way back up from 19th position to the bronze medal. It was so surreal because you wouldn't see that happen very often.

“The final 200m of it, I knew I had the bronze medal and I was holding on to it and my dad was following me on the bike and he was shouting 'That's it Jenny, bronze World Championship medal!'. My mum was on the other bank cheering for me. They're the moments you live for.

“So I think the way that I did it was something extremely special. It's something that means so much to me. When I came home, so many parents said to me 'Thank you so much Jenny for teaching our kids never to give up'.

“Winning the medals is one thing, but what makes it special is the people you celebrate it with, the people that surround you, my family, my friends, my club Salmon Leap, then Sport Ireland, the Olympic Federation of Ireland, the Institute of Sport.

“They're all the people who help you to get there. When you win the medal, I always say it's not my medal, it's our medal because I wouldn't have been able to do what I have without all of their support.

“In 2019 the first World Cup was in Poznan in Poland and I won a silver medal there. Then the weekend after I went to Duisburg, Germany and the 5000m there was a really tough event.

“It was probably one of my most proudest World Cup medals because I had to fight really all the way to the line for that one and I won the bronze.

“I had never been on the podium in Poznan or Duisburg so it was the first time to be on the podium in those locations so that was really cool.”

Looking forward to returning to competitive action, Egan spoke of her pride at all that she has achieved so far and her hope that it will help inspire young girls and boys in fulfilling their own dreams.

“I feel proud because I know how much hard work I've put in and how much this has been my life for so many years.

“And when the hard work pays off, it's something that you can't really put into words because you know how many cold mornings you've gotten up when it's still dark outside to go training in miserable conditions, feeling absolutely wrecked some mornings, but knowing you have to get up and get out there.

“I'm always thinking about the goal on those really hard days, so looking back on the last ten years, it's a dream come through what I've achieved, but I really want to look forward and continue to achieve to the best of my ability over the forthcoming years.

“But having a balance in life is something I'm very conscious about as well. So I go to schools and I give talks to kids and one of the things I say is balance is so important.

“You've got your sport or your hobby or whatever activity you have and you've got your school, your friends, your family. And all those pieces of the puzzle come together. You can't concentrate on one without the other piece of the puzzle being looked after as well.

“I feel I have a great balance in life between my training, competing, my family, my friends and I'm also really involved with Women in Sport.

“I'm the only athlete representative on the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Steering Committee and that has given me so many opportunities over the past year and a half. I'm also one of only 20 athletes chosen to represent the 20x20 campaign for the year 2020.

“I’m also delighted to be one of the athletes to have been featured in Jacqui Hurley’s new book ‘Girls Play Too’

“I'm very passionate about increasing the visibility of women in sport. It's not about women supporting women, it's about societal change.

“It's about men supporting women, women supporting men. It's about young girls having female role models to look up to, but also about young boys having those female role models to look up to as well. It's everyone together.”

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