Successful comeback

2015-03-20 00:00

SELDOM does a top athlete take a multi-year break from a sport and return to it with the same success.

Sometimes, though, there are exceptions, and in very rare cases those athletes come back even better than before. Such was the case with 2015 Dusi Canoe Marathon women’s champion Laura O’Donoghue.

A talented all-round athlete, she had stopped paddling way back in 2008 to start a family. In March 2014 she finally made a return to the water, now a mother of two, and over the course of the next year she achieved outstanding results, both in South Africa and internationally.

Three of her achievements stand out: apart from claiming the Dusi title by a large margin, she also teamed up with fellow Natal Canoe Club (NCC) star Abby Adie to take victory in Spain’s famous Sella Descent, and represented South Africa at the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City, where she and Adie finished sixth in the women’s K2 race.

Having achieved massive success, O’Donoghue will once again be putting paddling on the backburner as she and her family move north to Zambia soon. “It has been an incredible year. I am so sad it is over,” she reflected.

Recalling her experience in Spain, where she and Adie faced a number of the top crews they would later take on in Oklahoma City, O’Donoghue said: “It was the most incredible experience to go over to the Sella. To be a part of the race was amazing. I really look back fondly on that.”

Pulling on the green and gold to represent South Africa at the World Championships was also a high point, although it did not go as well as she would have liked, O’Donoghue explained: “It was a very proud moment. It was really nice to race against, and line up with, the world’s best paddlers on the start line. It was an awesome experience.

“I was so sick, however, so it was quite disappointing to race in that condition. I think, for Abby, who was firing and ready to race hard, and then had to put up with me being sick, it was a disappointment. But these things happen and we made the most of the situation.”

In her final big race, O’Donoghue did her club NCC, the hosts of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, proud when she claimed the title in emphatic fashion to go out on top.

“It was my goal to contest the Dusi after doing it socially last year. My husband and I sat down and said this is the year to give it a go,” she said.

“In March last year I got into a boat with a goal of doing the Dusi. At the time I would never have thought I could win it. It was about trying to race hard and competitively, not to win it. It was great to finish off that year with a win. Unfortunately Abby didn’t race. After training and racing with her for the year, I think we would have had a really exciting dice. I was chuffed with how it all ended.”

Looking back on her paddling career, O’Donoghue said the sport had changed somewhat between the time she stopped competing in 2008 and when she returned in 2014.

“I think the level of paddling has definitely improved,” she said. “The training at NCC, with the High Performance Centre, is really doing good things for paddling.”

As a mother, her focus was different when she gave the sport a good go again, she added.

“I didn’t have as much time to train, but I focused more on the quality of my training. It definitely was more focused, much more specialised this time around. In the past, when I was younger, it was totally different. I took on many different sports. I didn’t focus as much. This past year I have done things much more specifically and scientifically.”

And despite all the hard work she put in, and the extremely high level of competition she faced, O’Donoghue said it was all a wonderful experience.

“It was so enjoyable. I enjoyed every second of the training, and every second of every race. I think that is why I did so well. After having a break, I came back fresh and keen to get back in a boat and paddle. I think that played a big role as well.”

While her future lies in Zambia, O’Donoghue said she would still return to South Africa to contest the country’s most iconic canoe marathon, the world famous Dusi.

“I will definitely be back to do the Dusi. It is such a great race. It probably won’t be from a competitive viewpoint. It has been quite a sacrifice with my family over the past year, so I will be back socially. Definitely,” she said.

NCC general manager and Canoeing South Africa Marathon Committee chairperson Brett Austen Smith praised O’Donoghue for the contribution she has made to the sport.

“Laura was a fantastic ambassador for NCC, as well as South African Canoeing,” he said. “She trained extremely hard and always raced to win. At the same time, she was an absolute joy to be around, and always had a very positive outlook, even when she was so sick in Oklahoma. We will really miss her on the racing scene, and wish her and her family all the best in Zambia. I know they will be back, and we look forward to seeing them again.”

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