23 August 2008
It never seems to get less sweet. Tim Brabants came towards us fresh out of his kayak, hugged his coach, Eric Farrell, in a wondrously sweaty embrace and said: “It’s unbelievable. I know it’s what we’ve all been talking about, what we’ve been working for all these years. But now Olympic gold, it doesn’t seem real.”
It was the 18th time this Olympics that a British gold has brought the participants up like this but as the 31-year-old paddling doctor from Twickenham spoke on, we bathed in his happiness just as thrillingly as with all the others. “I owe so much to Eric,” he said, again hugging the stocky coach whose day job is a damp-proofing business in Twickenham. “Fifteen years he has coached me. This is what we’ve been working for. All that work during the winter, when your body is in bits from the intensity of the training. That’s what this is all for.”
As a man who qualified as a doctor at the same time as training for the Olympics and who took 18 months off after Athens to work 80 hours a week as a hospital doctor in A & E, Brabants is no stranger to hard work or tough decisions. But here he was before us, 6ft 2in, 14st of honed athlete reliving the most demanding 3½ minutes of his sporting life with a joy beyond imagining.
“I knew from the first two strokes,” he said, his eyes blazing, the sweat coursing off his balding head and a smile so deep his face will hurt in the morning. “It may sound stupid but after those first two strokes I really knew I was going to win the race. I had got the advantage and I felt so strong and determined, that I was absolutely certain that I’d win this race. I just feel fantastic.”
That sense of belief had radiated 1,000 metres across the water as the hunched blue figure launched off, paddle whirling at some 130 strokes a minute with only his old rival, the Canadian Adam van Koeverden, able to match his opening speed and be just 0.38sec behind at the 250m mark. “Has Brabants gone out too fast?” called the excitable commentator, and to nervous British eyes, big Adam seemed to be going the easier.
The Canadian was still within a boat’s length of the leader at the 500m and 750m mark but then Brabants dug deep, as gold medal winners have to do. The prow of the kayak bit sharp into the water, the Canadian, uncharacteristically, began to slip away and it was the Norwegian defending champion, Eirik Larsen, who came through to challenge.
There was a fright as the green shape of the wisecracking Aussie, Ken Wallace, closed up from right out the back. But they were not going to catch the paddling doctor. Too much had gone into this.
Up in the stands, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had flown in via Afghanistan to clock his first Olympic gold but made no attempt at public congratulations. The rest of us made up for it but the joy was not without its poignancy. Brabants’ father, Peter, was there but his mother, who had first introduced him to the sport at Elmbridge Canoe Club when he was 10 years old, died of leukaemia in 2005.
“She would have been very proud of all this,” said Tim, adding that he will again take 18 months off to continue his career in medicine before returning to prepare for London 2012.
Three months ago, Brabants looked across the Thames where he trains from Trowlock Island next to Kingston Bridge. “I just want to know,” he said, “what it feels like to win Olympic gold.”
He knows now and in this afternoon’s 500m race may get to feel it once again.