Before we talk about a sport that’s like juggling mercury, and the nomadic lifestyle of living in a converted HiAce van on Europe’s riverbanks that goes with it, we need to talk first about the accent.
How does a 24-year-old who’s spent two thirds of his life in France sound like he’s stepped straight out of Wild Atlantic Way’s central casting?
Liam Jegou grins.
“Yeah, it’s got a bit of French and a bit of Clare and a few more! I think maybe I lost my (Irish) accent when I was younger but then, well I’ve got a grandfather in Shannon, a grandmother in Mayo, a good friend from Castlebar and another from Northern Ireland, so I’ve just got this weird mix now,” he says.
When your family moves from Ballyvaughan to your father’s native France when you’re seven and you haven’t a word of French you’re quickly christened ‘the Irish kid’ — and Jagou has always embraced that.
His new home of Huningue (population 6,500) was a melting pot anyway, virtually a suburb of Basel (Switzerland) but on the French side of the Rhine in that unique intersection of the French, Swiss, and German borders.
When his mother, Denise Sheridan from Shannon, went on holidays to Switzerland once, her rafting guide was a Frenchman called Marc Jegou.
Now their 24-year-old middle child and only son will race in the C1 slalom canoe for Ireland in this summer’s Olympics.
His international opponents recognise the tricolor on his boat, but often wonder about the saffron and blue banner he has also incorporated.
If the Jegous had stayed in Clare he might have been a runner, a Gaelic footballer, or a rugby player. Those were the games of his childhood — he’s still a mad Munster fan — but genes and geography diverted his sporting course.
“We moved to France because dad got a job coaching in the local canoe club and I only started slalom then, but I’d been paddling since I was four,” he says.
His new land-locked home was a far cry from the wild foam of Fanore but, like many French towns, theirs had a small artificial slalom course “perfect for learning on”. Jegou’s lightbulb moment came when his father brought a gang of local teen paddlers off to eastern Europe, the real home of roaring waters and canoeing.
We were competing in these U14 ‘team cups’ where you get world ranking races, and for us, the Slovenians were the ones we always looked up to. When I won two races in Slovenia, that gave me more motivation to train.
Slalom canoeing is quite a precarious event. He competes in C1 — the kneeling version — and racers are separated by eye-blink errors and video appeals, getting churned around in thunderous water for 90 seconds while trying to avoid touching a series of overhanging gates.
It’s the physical equivalent of a video game; the slightest touch adds on two seconds. Missing a gate is 50 seconds. All that’s missing is a giant screen blaring ‘GAME OVER!’
Jegou’s strength is reading the flow, but even that doesn’t help sometimes when “you can lose by 0.01 of a second because you just hit the wrong bubble at the end of a course.”
His big breakthrough was winning silver at World Juniors in 2014 when he was 18.
He devoted his first year out of school to qualify for the Rio Olympics and was heartbroken to narrowly miss out. To make the leap to senior, he flew the family coop and headed south west to Pau, one of slalom canoe’s high altars. It’s got the biggest artificial course in France, and is a stop-off on the World Cup tour. Paddlers flock there for training and competition.
Jegou initially went to college as well, but has taken this year off to train full-time and shares digs with other paddlers.
He pays an annual pass to use the course and another for a local gym. To offset the costs of accommodation on the World Cup circuit, he customised a van which now has a bed and doubles up as boat rack/workshop/mobile home.
Jegou has been grant-aided (€12,000 annually) by Sport Ireland since 2016 and is also the recipient of an Olympic scholarship through the Olympic Federation of Ireland, so he regards himself as very well supported.
As a ‘carded’ athlete he can also avail of the suite of services available at the Irish Institute of Sport in Abbotstown, which proved vital when he needed to rehab after hip surgery in 2017.
He was ninth in the (senior) 2019 European Championships and won bronze at the World U23s last July — “a huge result for me, but gutting in another way, because I was just a touch away from winning it”. And while an Irishman is a novelty among the giants of European paddling, sometimes his heritage proves useful.
Irish canoeing is a tiny world and he met Mike Corcoran at last year’s World Cup finals in Spain.
Corcoran is Ireland’s only previous Olympic C1 paddler; in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in ’96, the year that Jegou was born.
He is now based in Washington DC and “decided to give me my best opportunity to make the Games by funding my coach. That’s unbelievable generosity on his part and it’s paid off.” Getting French Olympian Nico Breshier as coach for the last 16 months was the final piece of the jigsaw, but qualification still wasn’t straightforward.
Like a lot of Olympic sports, the person who secures the ‘nation place’ doesn’t automatically get it.
Kildare’s Robert Hendrick actually secured Ireland’s C1 ‘nation’ spot for Tokyo by making the semi-finals at the 2019 World Championships.
But Canoeing Ireland had a two-event qualification system and when Jegou beat Hendrick twice at the subsequent British Open, the place was his.
Like most Irish paddlers, Jegou was enthused, not dismayed, by Dublin City Council’s controversial plan to build a €20m white-water course in the Docklands.
Given the city’s homeless statistics and hospital queues, it drew opprobrium — yet Jegou’s experience in central Europe is such that facilities are commonplace community centres that turn a profit.
“In Ireland, we’re surrounded by water and rivers, so it’s amazing that we don’t have more white water venues, especially with our Olympic history,” he notes.
“Ian Wiley (K1) came eighth in ’92 when Mike Corcoran was a touch away from bronze and Eoin Rheinisch (K1) has medalled at World Cups and was fourth in Olympics (Athens 2008).”
His plan to be practising on the Olympic course in Tokyo was scuppered by the coronavirus, so he’s back training in France, with plans to do two World Cup races and the European Championships in May before the big dance in Japan.
“I like a lot of volume, so I can really bounce off the waves and use the water, that’s what I love about the sport. Getting to use what I call those motorways on the water, catching one left or right, finding the good lines, knowing when I need cut the line or when I can go around it to pick up speed or conserve a bit of energy by using my edge.
“When things go wrong in slalom, they really go wrong,” he smiles. “But when you’re ‘on the line’, it honestly feels like you’re not even working.”