By Jonathan Smith
Henshaw first realised her Paralympic dream as a 21-year-old at Beijing 2008 and then again at London 2012 and Rio 2016, winning a silver medal in London and a bronze in Rio. However, by Rio, she felt that her sporting career might be drawing to a close.
“In the year leading up to Rio, I thought it really might be my last games as a swimmer. I couldn't do the training that it needed, the miles and miles to my shoulders. I was starting to find that really hard and I fell out of love a little bit with the sport and I was keeping myself going because I was so close to Rio and I wanted to go to the Paralympics.”
However, rather than call time on her sporting career, Henshaw instead decided to seek out a new challenge.
Although she also trialled other sports, for Henshaw the decision to pick paracanoe was fairly obvious.
“I'd heard that canoeing were building something really special,” she explains. “It was the first one that I tried as I love being in the water and on the water. It was a very different environment than I'd been used to and the staff were so lovely and welcoming and it just felt like a place that I would like to spend my time.”
Further, the presence of one of Henshaw’s sporting heroes, Jeanette Chippington, on the canoe team was a huge attraction. “What's brilliant about the paracanoe squad is we've all got experience in lots of sports. And I think you can't look past Jeanette, who is a legend of Paralympic sport. I personally view her as the oracle of our team and despite the fact that she's so experienced and she's won so much, she's so humble”.
Much like her hero Jeanette, after transferring to canoe Henshaw has been an integral part of British Canoeing’s success and in explaining this, she is grateful to her coaches.
“Credit has to go to the staff at British Canoeing. They can work with an athlete very quickly and they adapt to a person's strengths immediately. I think the fact that the staff guided me through that transition so well is probably the reason that we are seeing the rewards.”
While she hopes those rewards will continue to come in Tokyo and beyond, Henshaw is keen not to burden herself. “I know that I'm capable of achieving top of the podium, so the pressure comes from myself as well, but I try not to let that be the overarching thing that I think about. My ideal would simply be to go to Tokyo, follow my process and perform my best possible race that I can.”
Missing equipment, false starts and last-minute changes are just some of the unusual ‘pressure cooker’ training techniques that Charlotte Henshaw credits with her successful canoeing career.
The 34-year-old explains that, although she has never had much of an issue with physical training, learning how to train her brain has been a much longer process.
“I used to really struggle with expectation and nerves and, not that I don't get nervous now, but I almost got to the point where the most important part of my training was managing my mind,” she explains.
“I think finding that state of contentment and happiness of where you are in your training and quiet confidence in the work you've done puts you in a really nice position to execute your training well. That’s what we try and work on in canoeing and is why we do things like pressure cooker training, where the coaches try and do things to throw us off our rhythm.”
In such sessions, Henshaw’s coaches attempt to force her to react to sudden, unforeseen changes, the likes of which are all too common in the high-stress environment of Paralympic Games.
“When you’ve practiced executing your plans in a high-pressure environment, you can get very good at it. Then whatever gets thrown at you on the competition day, or whatever you're feeling, it's just automatic and you can do it.”