By Jonathan Smith
By Rio 2016 ‘Dangerous’ Dave Phillipson knew that his journey with tennis was over and for the former British number one, it was time to seek out a new opportunity and he set his sights on canoeing.
Phillipson is positive ahead of Tokyo and, though he says there’s still bit of the 21-year-old ‘Dangerous Dave’ inside him, is now a much calmer athlete and channels his nerves into a source of strength.
Before beginning his canoeing career, Phillipson had been to the Beijing, London and Rio Paralympic Games as a wheelchair tennis player.
“I peaked in tennis in 2012 and just didn’t see myself improving anymore. I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Dave Phillipson, explaining his struggles prior to transferring to paracanoeing.
“I was good at a few sports, but after I left school my coaches told me I had to make a decision. I was better at tennis and saw myself going places with it,” Phillipson explains. His foresight proved accurate, as he reached number one in the national rankings and represented Great Britain at three Paralympic Games. Besides collecting these accolades, he also acquired the nickname ‘Dangerous Dave’ from his teammates, thanks to his penchant for mischief and reluctance to say no to a dare.
By Rio he knew it was time for a change. “I’d had a great life with tennis, but it is a really mentally taxing sport and I no longer had the mentality for it, so I wanted to try a different sport to work to my best abilities,” Phillipson explains.
Although he was a strong swimmer and had represented GB juniors in basketball, Phillipson’s sights were firmly set on canoeing. He already had some experience with the sport, having being encouraged to try it as a child by his father Mike, who had served in the navy.
“He taught me at Holme Pierrepont and I love the water,” Phillipson says. He adds that connections he had made while still a tennis player encouraged him that he would be a good fit for the canoeing programme.
His determination to have a successful canoeing career has certainly been validated since joining in April 2017, with Phillipson winning a European Championship VL3 gold in 2018, as well as bronze medals in the 2018 and 2021 World Cups.
Although Phillipson has been successful in his new sport, he admits training during lockdown was extremely challenging for him and he explains that this was likely because he trains much better with his teammates than on his own. “If we’re there in the gym, I'll beast myself and go bang, but it's really hard when I'm on my own to motivate myself and get going,” he says.
He adds that it was the prospect of competing at Tokyo that gave him the strength to get through the lockdowns and once he could train with his teammates, he felt his mental strength returning.
“As soon as I was back around my teammates, it was great. One of the good things about being at a centralised sport is you're around your teammates and they push you all the time. So you want to do it and you don't want to disappoint them.”
In particular, he credits teammates Emma Wiggs and Rob Oliver for motivating him to fulfil his potential. “Emma pushes me all the time and Rob is a good lad, we bounce off each other well,” he explains.
Phillipson concludes that he is unashamedly ambitious ahead of Tokyo: “I'm definitely aiming to medal out there. Which medal? I don’t know, but I've done three Paralympics and I’ve never medalled. I can see myself doing that in this sport. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”