IT’S A picture-perfect Friday evening by the banks of the River Nore in Thomastown. The sun is still shining, its rays bouncing off the river and back into the cloudless sky, writes Trevor Spillane.
It might sound like the perfect time and place to sit back, relax and watch the water flow by - but Cait Broderick has a much busier evening in mind.
The latest in a long line of Paddlers who have represented the club on the international stage, Broderick is busy cramming in as much practise as possible before jetting off to Italy for the Marathon Canoeing World Championships.
Although a slight 17-year-old, she makes it look easy as she walks to her canoe and, in a split-second, hoists it on to her shoulder and heads for the water. As they say, never judge a book by its cover- this girl has come through some tough challenges on her way to becoming Irish junior champion and earning a shot at international success.
She’s only been in the sport for four years, but Broderick has made plenty of waves in that time.
“I began paddling when I was 13, starting off in slower and steadier boats,” she said. “I gradually progressed into racing boats which are unsteadier, but they’re much faster. A lot of hard work has gone into my training, especially this year.”
Having won the Irish junior title, not to mention medalled in the Liffey Descent - she won the seven-mile Junior Liffey Descent and then stormed to success in the Girls’ GP class on the 18-mile course in the main competition - Broderick really put in the hours to make the national selection.
“All during the Summer I was training twice a day,” she said. “It was either on the river or in the gym, where I’d work on the paddling machine or do weights.
“We have a good gym at the club where we have paddling machines and weights, as well as mirrors so we can watch our rowing stroke when we’re on the machine,” she said. “This is handy as it helps us to make alterations to our stroke which can help improve our performances.”
Bitten by bug
It’s been a hard challenge, but one that Broderick has undertaken ever since she was bitten by the canoeing bug.
“When I was in primary school I went on a trip to the University of Limerick where I tried paddling there for the first time,” she recalled. “I really liked it and wanted to do more of the sport. A neighbour of ours, Robin Newsome, was chairman of the Thomastown Paddlers at the time so my father got in touch with him and that’s how I became a Paddler. I loved it from the off.”
While getting to represent Ireland has been a reward, Broderick was more content just to dip her toes in the sport first.
“At the start it was more about seeing whether I liked the sport or not, if I’d keep it up,” she said. “As I progressed it was my dream to compete for Ireland, so I can’t believe it’s happening now.”
Broderick is not alone on the water this evening. All around here, other members of the Thomastown Paddlers are hitting the water for a training session, one that will give them a good test.
“Every time we go out on the water it’s for at least one hour, usually two,” she said. “Some days you’d be in the boat for four hours, but now that I’m back in school (Broderick attends the Presentation in Loughboy) there’s not as much time for training. If I don’t get on the water in the evenings however, the club allow me to use the paddling machine.”
Training was just one part of making the Irish team - Cait also had to race for her place.
“There were three long- course races, each of which was 20km long,” she said. “You had to do two to be eligible for selection, so I raced on the canal in Celbridge which was flat-water and had two portages. I did well in that, considering the conditions. After that I competed in the National Championships in Kildare in July where I won my division. It was after that race that I found out I had made the Irish team.”
Needless to say, it was a great feeling knowing she’d made it.
“It was brilliant,” she beamed. “The lads in the club were so good to me once I got the news. They have really helped me out with training, especially (club chairman) Donnacha (Brennan), who has been out on the water with me most days providing tips and encouragement.”
It’s that sentence alone which proves there is a great spirit in the club.
“The club is brilliant,” she said. “Everyone gets along and is happy doing what they do.”
That happy spirit has been helped by the number of awards the club has won over the years, not least at the Liffey Descent - the big attraction on the calendar.
“The competition gets tougher every year,” she said. “You get more and more pressure every year- the Liffey Descent is quite tough as it’s really long with lots of obstacles such as rapids and weirs.
“It’s a tough and unpredictable race,” she added. “You could get through it fine one year, then the next you’re left swimming at a big weir!”
The competition might be getting tougher, but that’s because other clubs have raised their game as Thomastown’s reputation grows and grows each year.
“We bring up beginners every year and get them racing before progressing to K1 boats which is where a lot of competition comes from,” she said. “You’d have a good challenge from other members of the Thomastown Paddlers, but our main competition comes from the clubs in Kildare (Celbridge and Salmon Leap).”
That competition has paid off. Now Rome awaits - Broderick can’t wait to get there.
“I’ll head out on the Thursday (tomorrow) morning and come back on the Sunday,” she said. “I’m travelling with my family but will be part of an eight-strong Irish team competing. The rest are all from Kildare.
“I’ll be competing in a 17.5km race, which is four laps of a course on the River Tiber,” she said. “That means you’ll be going with and against the flow of the river’s current.
“There’ll also be a portage on each lap - you have to get out of the boat and run with it for a distance before getting back in,” she added. “It consumes a decent amount of time too, slowing down your pace. Getting that back can be hard.”
This is where all the training will count, but what goes through an athlete’s mind when they are on the water?
“You just concentrate, taking your time,” she said. “You try to stay in the boat - that helps! - and keep focussed on your stroke.
“You want to go at a steady pace you can hold the whole way through the race, rather than darting off at the start and not be able to lift it at the end of the race,” she said. “There’s no point in dying off midway through as you won’t be able to reach the finish line.”
She’s not even there yet, but Broderick can already visualise crossing that finish line in Rome. While the question was put to her about medal hopes, she’s just looking forward to the event.
“I’ll do as well as I can be happy with,” she predicted. “I would be happy with any time of less than an hour and 40 minutes, but I don’t think there’s a medal hope this year - maybe next year (she’ll still be eligible), when I’m a bit more experienced.
“Conditions will play a big part too,” she added. “Wind and a warm heat could knock down my time too. We’re expecting good weather - warmer than we’re used to - but it’ll be great.”
Broderick is the latest chapter in the success story of the Thomastown Paddlers, a tale club chairman Donnacha Brennan was happy to share.
“The club was formed in 1996 on the backbone of a group of guys who bought a boat for the craic,” he said. “The club, which was founded right here by the river, was initially a ‘roof-rack club’ - at the start the guys came from home and brought their boats on the roofs of their cars and paddled here. It grew from there; we got different premises and as time went by we upgraded and, through a voluntary effort.”
Those upgrades have yielded a new base for the Paddlers, right on the water’s edge.
“This year we managed to get a shed right by the river with parking, which is great as it means we have our fleet of about 40 or 50 kayaks right by the water,” he said. “We had a base a little further away from the water which was difficult for our junior members and elderly members - it was a good 500-600 metre walk where you also had to hop a wall. The logistics are much-improved now.
“Some of the boats are very light, but when you’re starting out some can heavy, which is a deterrent to some people,” he added. “Hopefully the new base means we will be able to increase our membership numbers again.”
And the Paddlers have been busy attracting a potential fleet of new members.
“This year we held four beginner courses over the Summer,” he said. “We get about 10 people per course and if we can keep 10 long-term from that you’d be doing extremely well. Some people are just happy to do a course but our aim is to keep the club going - hopefully there’s some new potential in the people who took to the water this Summer. We had youngsters as young as 10 or 11 there. The idea is to introduce them to the various disciplines and spark an interest in the sport.”
It’s one thing bringing in new blood - but are many of the founders still involved?
“The mantle has passed on to a degree, but a lot of the founding members are still paddling away,” he said. “A lot of them are still out and about on the river, competing in races.”
Talk turned to Cait’s participation in Rome for the World Championships. She will be the latest in a growing line of Paddlers to rise to international level.
“We have had a good number of people make it to international squads, which is a huge achievement for a young club,” said Donnacha. “In 2002 I was the first to go at junior level at the world championships in Spain as part of the Boys’ K1 team. Two years after that my brother Michael competed and finished in the top 15 of the double racing kayaks category at the world championships. Following on from there we had Tina Kelly (senior ladies) and Clodagh Doyle (junior ladies) compete admirably in wildwater racing.
“Most recently we’ve had a new family, the Forristals, take up the mantle,” he added. “Anthony, who did his Leaving Cert this year, competed twice in 2010 and 2011 at the junior boys’ K1 world marathon championships. Michael, my brother, made the transition from the marathon to the wildwater events with great success and has been in France competing at the world championships. He had the best finish of an Irish person at the event and will be training hard again to improve on that again.
“Then you have Cait, who is the Katie Taylor of our club,” said Donnacha. “She is a fantastic girl who trains unbelievably hard and is so dedicated to the sport - she leaves nothing to chance. Every aspect of her training is scrutinised. She’s 17 and is junior again next year, so we’re hoping she’ll get to represent us again in 2013. All we can do is wish her the best when she competes in Rome.”
Mention of Rome led the conversation to the race itself.
“It’ll be tough,” said Donnacha. “It’s a 17km course on the river Tiber which has four portages - you have to get out of your kayak and carry it to the water. It’s no mean feat but Cait will be well able for it.”
The expenses of getting to international level can mount up, but canoeing is not as costly as some might think.
“Canoeing is seen as expensive, but it can be modest starting out,” the chairman said. “Our beginners’ course costs €100 for the week and comes with all the gear. We hire the gear after that so if someone is new to the sport there’s no onus on them to buy a lifejacket, wetsuit and so on - we have all that here and it costs €5 a week after that.
“The people who do keep the sport on pick up what they need over time,” he added. “The gear lasts a long, long time so while it can be expensive the stuff lasts. When you get into the competitive end of things like a lot of other sports, such as cycling, you’ll spend as much or as little as you want. A top-spec kayak like Cait’s will cost around €2,000 but you can go up again if you want - the paddle she uses is made from carbon fibre and is very light and rigid to give her the optimum speed in the water.
And between the Paddlers themselves and the community, everyone rows in behind a club where anyone is welcome to join.
“Everyone is welcome to paddle - that’s what we always say,” he said. “We try to cater for everyone’s budget. Bit by bit you get the gear - if you have the talent the rest will fall into place. The community and club are very good to help people out when it comes to fund-raising.
“It is a minority sport in Ireland, but as you saw in the Olympics we seem to do better in these sports!” he smiled. “Maybe it’s the dedication people put into it, but whatever it is people get behind it.”