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Canadian paddlers feed off local crowd for gold medals at world championships

DARTMOUTH, N.S. — Canadian canoe racers demonstrated endurance and power at the world championships Sunday on Lake Banook, taking home gold, silver and bronze medals to the roar of an approving local crowd.
From left to right, Sophia Jensen, Sloan MacKenzie, Katie Vincent, and Julia Osende, of Canada, react after winning gold in the C4 women’s 500m during the ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Championships in Dartmouth, N.S. on Sunday, August 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

DARTMOUTH, N.S. — Canadian canoe racers demonstrated endurance and power at the world championships Sunday on Lake Banook, taking home gold, silver and bronze medals to the roar of an approving local crowd.

Katie Vincent and Connor Fitzpatrick started slowly and picked up the pace early in the afternoon as they drove their canoe to a victory in the 500-metre distance to become world champions in the mixed event.

About 30 minutes later, Vincent won another gold medal in the 500-metre C-4 race with teammates Sophia Jensen, Sloan MacKenzie and Julia Lilley-Osende in a come-from-behind victory.

At the end of the day, Vincent won the five-kilometre women's race, complete with a series of portages, beating German Annika Loske in a sprint over the last 500 metres, to take her third world championship title.

"With the crowd backing us, and being in front of home fans, I had adrenaline flowing all afternoon," Vincent said, after collecting her third victory.

Vincent, 26, is the veteran among her C-4 teammates, with Jensen and MacKenzie only 20 years old, and Lilley-Osende just 21. Fitzpatrick is 23. The sport often sees athletes peak in their late 20s or early 30s.

The Canadian wins came after a silver medal earlier in the day by Jensen, from Chelsea, Que., who finished less than a second behind world champion Liudmyla Luzan of Ukraine in the 500 metres.

She paddles a distinctive green boat, with red, green and yellow leaves on its side, which Jensen said evokes the forest alongside the Gatineau River where the Cascades Club is located. 

The rising star of women's canoeing was exuberant with the result in an event included at the next Olympics, saying the crowd's cheers kept her aware she was vying for a medal and lifted her adrenaline in "a crazy fight to the end."

"I knew I could be up there, but I didn't know I'd be top two. It feels very good," Jensen said, standing at the wharf of the Mi'kmaq Aquatic Club, waving at local fans. 

The Halifax duo of 26-year-old Craig Spence and 24-year-old Brett Himmelman also held on for a bronze medal for Canada in a gruelling, 1,000-metre canoe final in intense mid-day heat.

An exhausted Spence had to sit on the wharf with ice on his neck after race, but said winning a medal on his home lake before friends and family was "a dream come true."

"To get a medal at home, what an amazing feeling," said Spence, still gasping to recover his breath. 

His teammate, Himmelman, said to hear the cheers of Canadian fans en route to winning a world championship medal at home is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

The strong results came after Vincent, a 26-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., relinquished her title as reigning world champion in the 200-metre women's sprint, an Olympic event, placing fifth in race where less than a second separated the top athletes.

However, the medal performances by the younger athletes on the team, in some cases partnered with veterans, were encouraging for Ian Mortimer, who has been the team's chief technical officer since the Tokyo Olympics.

In those games, Vincent took a bronze medal in the debut wom-n’s C-2 500 race, blazing a trail for female paddlers who battled for years to have the event introduced to the games. 

Since Tokyo, the kayak and canoe teams have been rebuilding, and bringing new athletes into senior level races, said Mortimer.

"It's quite a young team with a lot of promise for the future," he said, shortly after Jensen won her silver medal.

"The goal for Sophia is the top. She's a top-level athlete," he said. "Everything is a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal at the Paris Olympics (in 2024)."

The Canadian team was able to take advantage of an intimate knowledge of the lake, using its varying waves and currents in their race plans. 

Fitzpatrick said they kept a steady start at the beginning of their 500, knowing there are windy conditions at the top of Lake Banook that stir up waves known as "wash."

"I said, 'We'll make our ground in the middle 250 metres,' and that's exactly what happened," he said.

"That was one of the best experiences I ever had," said Vincent, standing alongside her teammate. 

"Have you ever heard a crowd like that? It was so fun, so cool," said Fitzpatrick. 

Fitzpatrick said he heard the horns of his home paddling club blowing in the last 200 metres and then knew he was sprinting for gold. 

"We hear that Canada noise, and we just take off from right there," he said.

On Saturday, two-time Olympian Andreanne Langlois, 29, and Toshka Besharah-Hrebacka, 19, showed their new partnership in the women’s kayak was paying dividends with their bronze in the K-2 200-metre sprint.

Canadian para-kayaker Brianna Hennessy took a silver medal in a 200-metre race on Friday, and then a bronze in a 200-metre race in a different category on Saturday. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press