White-water merchant Walsh on course for reaching gold standard

SO ADEPT at craning his neck to squeeze boat, paddle and body beneath a penalty barrier, Campbell Walsh also has a happy knack of slipping under the radar.

Few members of Britain's Olympic team will set off for Beijing with such plain confidence in their chances of winning a gold medal, and few have more genuine prospects. Yet few medal-hunters carry quite such a low profile at home, and especially on the side of the border whence Walsh came.

The 30-year-old from Bridge of Allan, crowned European kayak slalom champion for the first time last month, has lived in Nottingham ever since enrolling at university in the city in 1995. This is the operations centre of British canoeing, and it's where Walsh will reside, at least until the London Olympics are done and dusted in 2012. Not that he considers himself more British than Scottish – but more of that later.

Four years ago in Athens, the white-water merchant muscled in on the holy trinity of Chris Hoy, Shirley Robertson and Katherine Grainger to plant a fourth medal back north of Hadrian's Wall. His was a silver, but as a former world No1, a top-class competitor and a man with four years' experience of reflecting on that Athens performance, all that is required is to derive the extra five per cent required to turn second into first when it matters most.

By the evidence of his European triumph in Krakow, where it all came together in a sublime second run to bring Walsh his first major title, he is paddling into form at the right time. The only cloud interfering with his sunny outlook is a curious impasse with aviation authorities.

"Six months ago BA banned all windsurfs, surfboards and kayaks from their planes," Walsh said. "They weren't specifically targeting the GB canoeing team. But I'd think that with BA being one of the main sponsors of London 2012, they might want to be more supportive of the Olympic team for 2008."

The ban means that all three Olympic hopefuls – 25-year-olds Fiona Pennie from Crieff and Dave Florence from Aberdeen make up this exclusively Caledonian club – are slightly hamstrung in their preparations for Beijing. The irony of river rats losing their way because of a dispute 30,000 feet in the air would be hard to miss, but Walsh hopes it will not prove detrimental in the final analysis.

"It would make our lives a lot easier and I believe negotiations are going on. The inconvenience to me is not major, but to the team it is a huge expense. We could be spending thousands of pounds on another aspect of preparation instead of cargoing our boats around.

"To the athletes, the inconvenience is that we are without our boats a week before we set off for a competition, and for another week after we get back. We have two identical boats for that sort of situation, but still everyone has their favourite boat. So it's quite a hassle."

Walsh, though, has more than memories of his recent triumph in Poland to nourish his hopes of mastering the greatest conquest of all. "I seem to be getting stronger, fitter and faster and my performance hasn't shown any sign of peaking out yet," he said.

"I fully intend to go on competing until London 2012, but that will definitely be the last one for me. I do enjoy the lifestyle, and the training. But it always drives me that I haven't won an Olympic or world title yet, and that's what I want to continue aiming for."

Competition, as you would expect, will be rife and Isaac Walsh, who despite having no personal inclination to the activity ended up with two avid kayakers in his family – Campbell's sister Kimberley has now retired after a successful career – will travel to China as his son's only link to the outside world. But you get the impression Walsh, so focused, is a difficult athlete to ruffle.

"Realistically, there are five to ten guys who it would not surprise me to see win in Beijing," he said. "But I'm actually the sort of person who won't get excited until nearer the time, maybe even the week before the race. It's too early."

Returning to the question of profile, Walsh's patriotism inadvertently diverted a few eyes his way in Athens. He maintained his lifetime habit of painting a Saltire onto his helmet as he ducked, steered and weaved his way through the Olympic rapids. It was a defiant gesture that some mistook as a political statement – but it's not something he will be able to repeat in Beijing.

"I don't have the Saltire on my helmet any more. I just got a new helmet a few weeks ago and usually I'd take it and spray-paint it blue and white, but I know I can't wear that for the Games so there wasn't really any point this time.

"I was aware in Athens that I wasn't supposed to be wearing national colours, but I just did it anyway. The good thing is that my new helmet is the one I wore at the European Championships, which I won. So it's a lucky helmet for me so far."

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