As the defending champion this Olympic Games was a new experience for Great Britain’s Liam Heath. The outcome was also different, but given his sluggish start in the frantic sprint race he was happy with bronze in the men’s 200m kayak single.
“As much as you try and push it to the back of your mind, coming to an event as a defending champion is very much there in your mind. You try and just push it away and keep focus on what you want to achieve,” he said.
“I’ve had challenges with doing that but at the end of the day I managed to sort my head out. It’s a bit of a mental game. You can prepare your body as much as you possibly can in terms of training it, it’s generally an engine, but it’s the mind of the athlete … That’s the driving factor, is the mind and its state.”
Given how little typically separates the leaders over such a short distance, confirmation of the finishing order can take as long as the race itself. After the rush along the course there was silence and stillness as the kayakers floated and waited in the canal beneath Tokyo Gate Bridge.
“Crossing the line’s always quite confusing in a 200m race, it’s very tight, you never know quite where the finish line is and where you’ve crossed it,” said Heath, adding that he had “no idea” of his position. “I very rarely do. You don’t want to start screaming and celebrating prematurely, you have to wait for the scoreboard,” he said.
The results finally flashed up: Sandor Totka of Hungary in first with a time of 35.035 seconds, Italy’s Manfredi Rizza the runner-up in 35.080 and Heath third in 35.202.
It was a fourth Olympic medal to add to the British athlete’s collection. He won bronze in the K2 200m with Jon Schofield at London 2012 on Dorney Lake, where he currently trains. A silver followed for the pair in Rio and Heath also won gold in the single 200m. The K2 200m was removed from the programme for Tokyo.
Heath took up the sport aged 10 at the Wey Kayak club in Guildford. He turns 37 on 17 August but did not rule out competing in Paris, though he will have to switch events because this one is being culled as well. He sounded tempted but conflicted given the demands that competing places on his family life.
“It’s a unique position to be in because it’s just three years, rather than another four year cycle so it seems to be just around the corner,” he said. “It’ll take me a couple of weeks I suppose to look back, evaluate and see if I have the energy to head towards a fourth games in Paris.”
Regardless of the future, Heath has another medal to take home and show his three-year-old daughter. He suspects she will be more impressed with the item he was holding in his hands rather than the shiny medal around his neck. A stuffed toy mascot, Miraitowa, is given out with bouquets at medal ceremonies. “I think she’ll be more interested in this little guy here with the flowers,” he said.