Canoe Slalom legend Fiona Pennie has retired from international racing after nearly 30 years in the sport.
The CR Cats paddler went out on a high coming away from the recent World Championships with a gold in the K1W team event followed by a 5th place in the individual event, to add to the K1W team European Championships gold she won earlier this year.
“It’s been a long 29 years and the sport has changed a lot in that time,” she said. “It’s been a privilege to be on this journey with so many people. The community of canoe slalom is amazing, so it’ll be sad to leave all that behind.
“There have been many highs and lows and it’s a bit of a shame that I couldn’t convert some of those finals into medals but certainly I’m pleased to have had some really good results.”
In a touching conclusion to her career, Fiona won her last international medal on the same course where she won her first. It was in Bratislava, Slovakia where Fiona won her first international medal, a bronze in the K1 event at the Junior World Championships in 2000.
Since then the GB team stalwart has won a raft of medals. In 2018 Fiona won bronze at the European Championships in Prague, having been European Champion in 2013 and bronze medallist in 2012.
As well as standing on top of the podium as part of the World Championship winning K1W team in 2019 and again this year, she won the individual World Championship silver medal in Prague in 2006 and again in 2014 in Deep Creek, USA.
When asked about her career highlights Fiona cites her Olympic debut in 2008 as well as the medals she has won. Fiona is a two-time Olympian with a lifetime best of sixth place, earned in Rio 2016.
“My first Olympics in 2008 were a great experience with so many lessons learned. Both 2013 and 2014 were good seasons; winning the Europeans in 2013 and then silver at the World Champs in Deep Creek,” she said.
“The Rio Olympics were amazing; soaking up the atmosphere and seeing a completely different culture. At the time I was disappointed with the result that I got there but not many people get to go to an Olympics and to finish in the top ten.”
It’s a mark of the champion and character when Fiona says that she is most proud of her resilience and that her ability to bounce back from disappointment has enabled her to be one of the most consistent paddlers on the international circuit.
I’m most proud of my process which has allowed me to keep going for so long. I’ve managed to come back from some very disappointing results to have a good result at the following race or in the following year.– Fiona Pennie
“Although my medals have been so rewarding and will always be special, it’s the processes that are something that I’ll take away with me for sure.”
Fiona learned slalom in Scotland with her then coach Johnny Brown, having been introduced to a kayak by her mother who was herself an international flatwater paddler.
“There have been a lot of people who have helped me along the way; my mum and dad supported me in every way that was possible they could to help me get better at the sport.
“Johnny Brown was instrumental in getting my career in Canoe Slalom kickstarted. I had tried a little bit of slalom but he was the one who spurred me on to do some training and racing. He was the guiding light for many years until I moved to Nottingham and then to Lee Valley.
“I’ve had some incredible coaches over the years on the programme. Paul Ratcliffe has been around the whole time; initially as a senior athlete looking out for me, then eventually as my coach before he moved onto being our Head Coach and then Performance Director. More recently Mark Ratcliffe and Gareth Wilson have been by my side coaching me, but there are many more people I’d love to thank. I hope you know who you are; I’m so grateful.
“Katie Warriner (former British Canoeing psychologist) was instrumental in the results which I achieved after 2012 and the way I was able to look at racing.
“I was still using some the skills she taught me when I was racing this weekend. There were definitely some good life lessons in general.
“The programme has changed so much throughout my career. At the start, things weren’t quite as professional as they are now, paddlers all over the world were doing other activities or working alongside their training. Now everything is all about paddling, day in, day out.
“That said, I think for the younger ones coming up my advice would be that inevitably you’ll have more results that you’re disappointed with than those that you are happy with, so you have to pick yourself up after each race to see how you can improve. No bad result will define who you are as a person.
“You are more than just a Canoe Slalom paddler, keep your head up and keep moving on.
“It’s one of the reasons I continue to race the Premier Races and Scottish Champs, I really enjoy it but also it’s important for the younger kids to race alongside their role models.”
Canoe Slalom Head Coach Mark Ratcliffe paid testament to Fiona’s professionalism and passion for the sport.
“I had the privilege of coaching Fiona through the Rio cycle. It struck me straight away just how much passion and energy she brought to both her own training and the group at the time.
“What stood out more than anything was just how much of an ultimate competitor she is. Fiona sets the standard of what it takes to be an elite athlete and her record of performance over so many years speaks for itself.
“What’s most impressive is that this has happened through some major changes in the sport with techniques, courses and boats changing significantly.
Fiona has had an amazing career and I would like to thank her for everything she has brought to the team- she is a true legend and one of the best Slalom paddlers Great Britain has ever produced.– Fiona Pennie
“I’d just finish by saying a huge well done for a fantastic career- you will be a tough act to follow!’
Fiona says on her website that the sport has made her laugh, cry, sweat, bleed, smile and shiver but ultimately it's given her an unique experience of life; one that so few are lucky enough to enjoy. So what is next for the slalom legend?
“The boat repairing is something that I really enjoy and it has kept me busy away from the racing and training. I’ve been enjoying that and am keen to improve those skills. It’s been a great thing to keep my mind away from actual paddling and I’m looking forward to having more time for it.
“I plan to take it easy for a little while and I’m lucky I can take some time out now. I’ll probably do a little bit of coaching for the youngsters at the club at Lee Valley and the talent group; helping out where I can.
I just want to enjoy a more normal lifestyle a little bit more, after all the sacrifices I’ve had to make over the years. I’ll be able to enjoy a bank holiday weekend and be able to have some more time with my mum, Lynsey and Lomond the dog and some more holidays without planning them around the next training camp or race.– Fiona Pennie
“That’s the immediate plan at least.”