Sam Curtis, 24, from near Dunboyne in Meath, is the reigning three-in-a-row Irish senior K1 slalom canoe champion. He has a degree in industrial design from Dublin IT and is currently finishing his Masters exams in strategic management. Then, he faces a busy summer, starting with the European Championships in Prague on June 1-3, followed by competing in the World Cup series.
Q: How did a lad from Meath get involved in slalom canoeing?
A: I played a bit of hurling and gaelic but I was rubbish at football. My older brother Joe used to canoe with a friend of his and I just tagged along. Our house is only about 15 minutes from Lucan where most of the Irish team train.
Q: When did you start taking it seriously?
A: When I was 14 (three-time Irish Olympian) Eoin Rheinisch was running a few talent ID days and training camps and that gave me a lot of encouragement and I started racing then. Eoin is my coach now.
Q: How quickly did you make progress?
A: I made my first Irish junior team in 2010 when I was 16 but the thing that really made me committed was when I made the Irish senior team in 2012. I was still in school doing my Leaving Cert and it was the year of the London Olympics.
Q: We know the difference between flatwater and slalom canoeing but what does the K1 and C1 mean?
A: I’m in K1 which means you’re seated and have a two-bladed paddle. In C1 you’re kneeling and have a one-bladed paddle. I’ve tried C1 and your legs go dead. I don’t know how they do it.
Q: Ireland doesn’t have a lot of natural fast, rough (white) water so is it hard to get decent training here?
A: We travel abroad a lot for training camps alright. There are plenty of places with gates here but the big issue is getting gates with white-water. The best place is at the sluice in Lucan but there’s actually a good slalom course in Clonmel, right in the middle of the town.
Q: Wasn’t there talk recently of building a slalom course in the International Financial Centre in Dublin?
A: Yes! It would be a dream come true but we’re not placing too much stock on it yet. I’ll believe it when I’m looking at it.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about your sport?
A: The biggest is that it’s rowing! (laughs) I’m always asked ‘you’re the rower aren’t you?’ People also get confused by the gates. We train in the middle of the park in Lucan with families walking around and people are always like ‘so what’s the story with the gates then?’ It brings such a smile to little kids’ faces if you wave back to them.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
A: Finance is a big issue because we have to travel so much for training and competition. Funding from Sport Ireland is a Catch 22. It’s hard to win things without the funding but you can’t get the funding if you don’t win things, so whenever we’re away we’re very much cutting costs.
Q: So how do you manage?
A: I’m very well supported through my scholarship with DIT Sports who really keep me afloat if you’ll pardon the pun. I’m also lucky enough to be sponsored by an art gallery in Mullingar?
Q: Hold up. You’re sponsored by an art gallery? From Mullingar? That’s gotta be a first?
A: Yes, it’s called The Chimera Gallery and it’s run by Dave O’Shea. He’s interested in minority sports and it was a massive and lucky coincidence. I ran into him two years ago coming through the departure gates of
Dublin airport. I was carrying a boat as I was coming back from a World Cup and heard someone say ‘there’s Sam Curtis’ and thought ‘Oh?’ and it turned out he was
following me on social media.
Q: Given that you train twice a-day, six days a-week, our weather this year must have frustrated you?
A: It wasn’t much worse than usual. Our boathouse in Lucan is a glorified container so, if you leave your buoyancy aid out, it’s usually frozen to the floor or the wall next day. But once you get out and begin moving it’s pretty OK because we wear wetsuits and don’t have too much skin uncovered.
Q: But are your hands not frozen in Winter?
A: We have gloves. They’re like a mitt that you’d wear on a motorbike, in that it goes around your hand and the paddle. Generally, I don’t like to use them because they’re a bit heavy but some days it is a necessity.
Q: How important is it to a paddler to find a boat that suits them and are they customised for you?
A: Very. You get very attached and superstitious about your racing boat. With slalom the big difference is in the tail, the back half, which allows us to do all the extreme turning. They’re composite carbonfibre, hand-built (mainly in the Czech Republic or Slovakia) in a mould but there will be tiny minute adjustments that, at my level, you can feel. Cockpits are standard but we put padding in and shave them down to make them fit us personally.
Q: Travelling abroad with boats must be a right nightmare.
A: Ordering a new one is worse. They get shipped to Ireland and that’s the most stressful month of your life because composite carbon-fibre is prone to getting broken. We tend not to look at what baggage handlers do to them either, although Ryanair are quite good with boats.
Q: Eoin Rheinisch famously finished fourth in the Olympics but how competitive is the Irish K1 scene since he retired?
A: It is a minority sport here and there aren’t huge numbers but the top five to six guys in my category are all extremely close in standard so it’s very competitive. Noel Hendrick, who I train with, is getting very quick and so are Eoin Teague and Ali McCreery from the North.
Q: Your big aim now is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. What do you need to do?
A: I need to make the Top 20 nations at next year’s World Championships in La Seu D’Urgell in Spain.
Q: How far away from Olympic standard are you?
A: I’m not where I need to be right now but I’m hopeful that I’ll be knocking on the door of Top 20 in the next year when I’ll have more time to train. I’m going to be staying on in DIT for this pre-Olympic year but am also planning on locating myself as much as possible in La Seu D’Urgell to make it like a home course for me. We already a lot of training camps there.
Q: Is it true that paddlers get a bit of a farmer’s tan?
A: It is, I have horrific tan lines. They’re currently at my wrist because of a long-sleeve wet-suit but I’m changing over now to the short sleeves so it will move up from my wrist to the top of my biceps. Our tans and farmers’ have a lot in common!
Q: The only Irish canoeing event that most of us have ever heard of is the Liffey Descent. How well have you done in it?
A: I’ve never actually done it. I’m sure I’d kick everyone’s ass in the first two minutes and then die a death. I alway go to watch it though because it’s a fair spectacle.
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