Spotlight On... Para-Canoeing

Laura Sugar

It’s a Paralympic summer, but don’t just watch the sports, try them!  

Parasport's Spotlight On… series offers a quick glimpse into the world of a Paralympic sport – the thoughts, feelings, emotions and behind the scenes details that may be hidden to the outside world.  

In the next part of the series, we spoke to Laura Sugar, who has been to the Paralympics as a sprinter – as well as playing international hockey – and is now doing likewise as a canoeist.

Para-canoeing only made its Paralympic debut in 2016 and Laura is hoping to bring a medal home in the women's KL3 200m category. She told us about her journey into the sport and why she thinks it is one to get involved with.

Tell us about how you got into canoeing and your progression to where you are today

"I started as a hockey player and later went into para-athletics after being inspired by the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Before then, I didn’t realise my disability [talipes, leaving her with no ankle movement] made me eligible for any Paralympic sports.

"I went to the Rio Paralympic Games as an athlete but then [British] canoeing approached me asking if I’d consider trying it out. I’d been kayaking before, though only on holiday! But I’d really enjoyed that so I said yes and fell in love with it. I first got in a boat towards the end of 2018 and earned my first GB vest a year later. It’s similar to athletics - you’ve got nine lanes and you just go as hard as you can for 200 metres! I absolutely love it and hopefully have many more years in it."

Why canoeing over other sports? 

"There are such close races, they are really thrilling and different people win each time. It’s fast and furious and the added bonus is it’s outside, on water, and regardless of the competitive side, the sport of kayaking and watersports in general has been great for my mental health, as has been shown through this pandemic – it’s definitely helped me get through.

"Moving across from athletics helped me as I knew how to get the best out of myself on a race day – dealing with that adrenaline, the buzz and the butterflies on the start line. You can’t impact other people, you have to concentrate on yourself, and if you put the perfect race together, you’ll be right up there. The principles are the same but there’s something special about being on the water."

What’s the one thing you now know, that you wish you’d known before getting started in the sport? 

"How much it hurts! When you’ve tapered and you finally get to those races it’s good but the training is pretty heavy. There’s a lot more gym than in athletics – most of the time in winter, my back aches, my arm aches, it’s hard work.

"You learn how far you can push your body in those situations. I jumped in quite quickly and had to take a couple of steps back when I first started – listening to your body is key.

"Recognising niggles is part and parcel of it. There’ll be weeks you’re really fatigued and more perceptible to picking up those niggles. More isn’t necessarily better – sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward rather than pushing the whole time."

What’s been your favourite memory in the sport so far? 

"People falling in doesn’t happen much but it’s always entertaining when it does! In my first ever international in a very windy Poznan, I was caught by a massive gust of wind about 30 metres from the end of the race.

"I kind of let go of the paddle with one arm, was waving one arm up in the air, all while trying to hold on to the boat.

"I was in the lead and ended up third but I was prouder that I’d managed to save it – and it’s a very funny video!

"Shortly after Poznan, there was another trip when I learned Charlotte [Henshaw] was scared of creepy-crawlies. There was a little snake wiggling along next to her boat, I said ‘ah look, a little snake’ – she screamed and her reaction to the snake nearly tipped the boat, there was water everywhere. I did feel bad but it was very funny – and not intentional!

"From a performance side, getting on the podium at the 2019 World Championships was amazing. With athletics, I won seven European medals but always came fourth or fifth in the World Championships or Paralympic Games. To get on a world podium was really special as it proved to myself I could do it and showed the hard work paid off – it made it worth it."

What's the best thing about canoeing? 

"It’s a pure test of speed, endurance and strength. The races are really exciting to watch and once you get started, you can get hooked really quickly."

What’s something only a canoeist would know or appreciate?   

"The feel of the water and being able to use the water to propel yourself. You don’t consider it when you’re paddling along but the water is a powerful thing and you can use it to propel yourself in amazing ways."

What would you say to someone considering trying canoeing? 

"Definitely give it a go. It’s so much fun and there are races from 200 metres to 20 miles, there’s an event for everyone.

"My dream for the future would be to get it out there a bit more in schools. I know they can’t participate straight away on a lake but I’d love to get kids involved on machines, simulators and then putting them in contact with their local clubs. It’s a really good sport for all ages, you can do it as a family or group of friends, and you get to see loads of wildlife!"

Gain an insight into the world of other Paralympic sports by visiting our Spotlight On… series hub page here.

Want to give para-canoeing a try? Check out our club finder!