In the four years since County Antrim-born canoeist Hannah Craig narrowly missed out on a place at the Beijing Olympics, her focus has been on negotiating the choppy waters between her and the London 2012 Games.
At the recent European Championships in Augsburg in Germany, Hannah steered her K1 racing kayak safely through the same waters. As she sat on the river bank with her coach and partner Hans Bijen watching other competitors, she became aware that she had gained her place at the Games.
'I don’t pay attention to times until afterwards at an event, when I look at the results,' said Craig. 'However, people began congratulating me. Even when I got the official results, which were signed by the chief judge and had ‘qualified for Olympics Nations place’ opposite my name, it still didn’t register with me. It all felt very surreal.'
The 27-year old's meandering journey to the greatest sporting event on the globe – where she will represent Ireland as the country's sole canoe slalom competitor – began nearly two decades ago. 'We had a sheep farm in Armoy, but when I was nine, my parents moved us all to France,' recalls Craig. 'We lived beside a river and that’s where I got into paddling. It all started from there.'
It has been a hard road to the top for Craig, who started a business selling custom made t-shirts at the continental Christmas market in Belfast to help fund her full-time career as an athlete. More recently she has been assisted by the support offered from the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland.
Slalom canoeing – also known as whitewater slalom – made its Olympic debut in 1972 in Augburg, and has been a regular event since Barcelona 1992. Canoeists are required to paddle down a course of rapidly moving water and navigate through a set of hanging gates in the fastest possible time. The canoes are made of lightweight materials such as carbon fibre or Kevlar – hence their huge expense.
'For me the attraction of slalom is that every time you get on the water, it is never the same. There are constant challenges,' says Craig. 'There is the combination of the thrill and skill that I have never found in any other sport. No matter how good you get, you can constantly push yourself.
'The challenge for me is to always try and use the water to the best of my ability. You can use the energy of the water and when you achieve that, there is no better feeling.'
While the effort to excel at her sport has caused Craig a great deal of heartache, the highs and lows that come with any competitive sport – particularly a non-team sport – are also part of its attraction.
'It is the beauty of our sport that makes it very cruel at times. The water constantly changes and at this particular course in Germany, the water shifts a lot. Sometimes there are waves, often it’s flat. Even though there is a set sequence of gates, each competitor has to be able to adapt on the spot. You have to work with the water. If you start fighting it, that will be the end.'
Craig has already tested out the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which is the venue for the London 2012 Olympic Games competition, and has given it her full approval. Craig and her partner Bejin have been doing a lot of work in Ireland in recent years to promote the sport and to get more people paddling. Olympic qualification can only aid that cause.
'The Olympics is the biggest exposure that our sport gets,' Craig concludes. 'Everybody wants to know about it. Obviously that is very exhilarating. I wish more was done for the sport outside that time and I hope that the Olympic exposure that Irish athletes will get will bring more and more kids to our sport. It is a very exciting sport. Ireland is a country of water and we should make the most of it.'