By Jonathan Smith
With gold medals from eight World Championships and one Paralympic Games, Emma Wiggs MBE is one of paracanoeing’s undisputed greats.
Having won gold in the KL2 event at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games where the sport made its debut, Emma will aim to make history once again as she competes in both the KL2 and new VL2 event this time round.
Rather than take credit for her success, however, Emma is eager to attribute this to her support network of family, friends and coaches, from whom she has often borrowed confidence when her own has wavered.
“My family had been trying for years to get me involved in Paralympic sport and I just kept saying ‘No, I’ll be hopeless, I’ll be rubbish,’” Wiggs, who only entered the world of competitive sport 12 years after becoming disabled, explains.
“But they kept on and kept on. My brother gave me a leaflet for a Paralympic talent day and I put it to one side and he gave it to me again, then I put to one side, over and over again. It was just that kind of relentless belief. I think maybe when you don't have the belief in yourself but someone else does, it drives you to do things.”
After impressing at the talent day and representing Great Britain in sitting volleyball at London 2012, Wiggs was hooked and determined to continue competing, with an eye on medals.
“I lit a fire in me and I wanted to see what I could do and whether I could compete with the best in the world,” she explains.
After considering paratriathalon and pararowing, Wiggs eventually opted to join the paracanoe squad. “I got in a boat and just connected with it straight away. I just loved the feel of it and knew it was for me. Something about canoeing just grabbed me, there's something amazing about the explosive sprint in front of you from A to B,” she says.
However, just as before she joined sitting volleyball, Wiggs struggled with self-doubt and claims it was the iron-clad confidence of the paracanoe coaches that convinced her she could fulfil her dreams after she impressed them at a trial day.
“They said they believed that if I became part of the squad that we could go to Rio and win a medal. And I just thought they were ridiculous. But again, it comes back to that belief, doesn't it? It's like my family. Did I ever believe I could do any of these things? No, but did they believe? Probably yes. Sometimes you've got to take a punt on someone else's belief if you lack it a bit yourself and I could just see in the eyes of the staff at British Canoeing that they were going to make the world's best paracanoe team. They absolutely were. And I wanted a part of that.”
True to Wiggs’ and her coaches’ prediction, she and her teammates have enjoyed remarkable success. Since paracanoe’s inception, Great Britain has been the most successful team in the world and won five medals out of six events at Rio 2016.
Wiggs believes much of the credit for this success belongs to the coaching and support team and she is eager to thank them.
During the Covid pandemic Wiggs admits she was initially nervous at the prospect of training at home, where she was limited to a borrowed ergo machine and a weights bench rescued from her mother-in-law's garage. But says there have been benefits including the improved communication with her coaches.
“Looking back now, I didn’t need to stress and worry for that first week because I’ve learned such an incredible amount from the experience of the last year and I've developed with more confidence that I can do it myself.”
Wiggs adds that this extra confidence in her own ability was not something that came naturally. “I don't know whether it's a disability thing or maybe it's just an Emma Wiggs thing but I'm probably my worst critic and I think I compare myself to other people a lot, and that is energy sapping. So because I didn't have anybody to compare to, I got my head down and cracked on.”
After getting her head down and cracking on, Wiggs now feels physically ready and is confident in herself for Tokyo. She concludes: “I feel confident that I've got a really great chance to make history and deliver in two different boats at the Paralympic games.”