Saturday Interview: Canoe maestro who turned the white water silver in Beijing

Olympic medallist David Florence has paddled far from the Water of Leith

DAVID Florence knew from an early age that he had a certain aptitude for sport. It just took him a while to find out which one suited him best, despite a rather obvious clue.

Football, rugby, swimming, tennis and table tennis were among the sports he tried. He enjoyed some more than others, was better at some than others, but still his search went on for that one activity at which he could really excel.

And all this time, just outside the Florence family house in Edinburgh, lay an old canoe. It belonged to his father, who had been Scottish champion when much younger, but had given up to concentrate on his career.

One of his uncles on his mother's side had also been a canoeist, and had also won a Scottish championship. In retrospect, then, it may appear obvious that Florence should have taken up the sport, and certainly the minute he got the chance to try it – on a day out with his family on a beach in East Lothian – he realised it was the sport for him.

"My uncle brought some canoes to the beach," he recalled. "I couldn't keep it in a straight line but I enjoyed it, and I quite quickly got into it, really.

"I'd played football in the playground, not that I was much good at it. I played rugby for the school, which I was also not very good at.

"I'd done a lot of swimming when I was very young. I was doing some fairly serious swimming training for a nine- or a ten-year-old, and I stopped when I was about ten. I didn't really enjoy it at the time. It wasn't for me.

"I played table tennis to a reasonable level, played tennis . . . . I kind of went through a lot of sports, doing something for a year or so. I was always very into sport and I wanted to do something seriously. I guess I just took a while to find what it was I wanted to do. Then when I got into canoeing, that really seemed to be what I wanted to do."

Born in Aberdeen in 1982, Florence moved to Edinburgh at the age of seven. It was a further seven years before that day out on the beach, so he was at a relatively advanced age to take up canoeing. Determined to make up for lost time, he threw himself into the sport, thus beginning the journey which ended with him winning a silver medal at the Olympic Games.

"My dad had an old canoe down the side of the house back from when he'd canoed aged 17 or 18. Me and my younger brother, Fraser, wandered down to the Water of Leith with it and set up one slalom gate and just trained on it.

"Then we entered a race, in May, I think, of 1997. I imagine I was last, I can't remember, but I was pretty determined to do some more, and by the end of the season I'd been promoted from Division Five to Division Two in kayak class.

"In '98 I did some training in C1 to try and win the Scottish Schools, and I managed to do that. I decided that C1 was really for me, and I went on to make the junior British team the following year."

The C1 slalom is the event at which Florence won silver two months back. In doing so, he emulated his fellow-Scot Campbell Walsh, who had been runner-up in Athens four years earlier.

But while the results were identical, reaction to them was not. Walsh was mentioned in dispatches and little more, whereas Florence has been hailed as one of our Olympic heroes.

"I think that's because Campbell was leading going into the final round, so some people perceived him as having lost the gold rather than winning the silver medal. I was different. I was seen as having won the silver."

Having won that medal, Florence was able to stay on in Beijing until the end of the Games. He thus saw at first hand his fellow Britons' success, but was still unaware of how people back home were going to react.

"Towards the end of the Games, when Team GB were doing so well, we kept on hearing 'You won't believe what it's like back home. You won't believe the amount of attention.'

"Then when we got back it just seemed incredible – how many people had watched the whole Olympic Games, the amount of media coverage, congratulations cards we got from friends and families. It was such a great reception in general, and to be involved in that was just fantastic."

If Florence had had any lingering doubts about the depth of enthusiasm for the British team's accomplishment, they would have finally been dispelled on the day he and Scotland's three other medallists – Katherine Grainger, Ross Edgar and Chris Hoy – went on an open-top bus parade down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and a crowd of 50,000 turned out to cheer them.

"That was just incredible. It was in the middle of the day, on a weekday, when people were at work, and the amount of people that came was overwhelming. It was fantastic."

That parade was one of the rare occasions Florence has been in his home city since the Olympics. He and the rest of the British team are based in Nottingham, the only place in the country where they can train full-time.

"Which is a shame," he said. "It's a great facility, but it would be good if we had more places we can go. I'd have stayed in Edinburgh if we had a fantastic course here.

"It's the same as Chris Hoy, who lives in Manchester. He has no choice – that's where the national training centre is. But it's irrelevant where I live. I'm proud to get to Olympic Games, be there as a Scot, and represent Great Britain."

Asked to analyse his success, Florence explained that the amount of hard work he does had a lot to do with it, but that in an event such as his there has to be an element of good fortune as well.

"I knew I was in the form to win a medal, and I knew I was very capable of it," he said. "But it's such an on-the-day sport, so I certainly wouldn't say I expected it. To expect it in a sport like canoe slalom would be a bit over-eager, a bit arrogant.

"I train very specifically for what I do, and I'm very fit in terms of canoe slalom. I'm capable of putting in higher volumes of work than anyone else in the world, with one possible exception."

That exception is the man who took gold in Beijing, Michal Martikan of Slovakia. "He seems to train more similarly to me than anyone else in the world, spending huge volumes of time on the white water.

"It's quite an interesting sport to train for, because there are so many different approaches to it. Martikan, for instance, will spend three or four months over the winter where he can't go canoeing because it's so cold, whereas we train all year round. He'll train very hard, just not in a canoe, whereas the approach I take is it's best to do as much work in the canoe as possible."

In common with most people who have achieved a longstanding ambition, Florence has had to ask himself what he wants to do next. Given the location of the next Olympics, however, he did not take too long to come up with an answer.

"For me getting an Olympic medal was everything I'd ever wanted, and I almost felt like 'I've achieved that now – what next?' It took a wee while to think about what more you wanted.

"I think had London not been on the horizon, I'd maybe feel I had achieved that goal in my life and I was ready to move on. But when you've got a home games, and especially to go in there as a medallist from the last games, it's just such an incredible opportunity."

Back to the top of the page