By Jonathan Smith
Before trying out for the paracanoe squad, Rob Oliver had never been in a boat and, by his own admission, “could barely swim.” However, in spite of his lack of aquatic experience, he sufficiently impressed the British Canoeing coaches at a Talent ID day back in 2011.
Rob Oliver admits his route into the sport was not necessarily an obvious one. Besides weightlifting, the majority of Oliver’s sporting experience prior to joining British Canoeing had been lower-body focused and he has gained 13kg [29lbs] since joining the team.
“I remember thinking at the start of it ‘this is so difficult,’” Oliver says. “I just thought of it as a challenge, to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. When the first winter hit I thought ‘oh God, what have I done?’ because I was out in two degrees Celsius, but fortunately I enjoyed it and made good progress.”
Good progress is an understatement. Within one year of joining the sport, Oliver had become British number one at the National Regatta and finished 11th in the World Championships.
However, it was not until his second-place finish at the World Championships in 2015 that Oliver realised how far he had come. He explains: “That was the first time I ever felt that I was in that top bunch of guys, which I realise is mad, because I'd won the Euros beforehand. But back then I was a bit more critical of myself and had a bit of doubt. But then to come second in the World Championships in a strong field, that was the first time I ever thought I was in that top five or six group.”
Despite his success in 2015, Oliver is critical of himself in Rio and says he learnt a lot from the 2016 Paralympics, where he finished fifth.
“In Rio, I wasn’t mentally tough enough for it when it came round. I just got too psyched up for it. I was so utterly psyched up for my final that I completely peaked about 40 minutes before I was actually on the water needing to compete, I just lost so much energy through adrenaline,” he explains.
Now five years older and wiser, Oliver feels far more at ease with himself ahead of races.
“Now I focus on just keeping control until the very last minute and having a process so that, whether it’s in training or competing at an event, I just follow the exact same procedure, the exact same process to my warmups, stretching and activating. So I never really get up or down for it, I just stay very neutral until I'm on the water warming up,” he says.
Just as Oliver is now calmer in his approach to races, so too is he more measured in his attitude towards medals.
“I think that going into Rio I was a bit more fixated on a position or a place or a time, but over the course of this cycle, I’ve learnt that it's such fine margins at the top that all I can do is put myself in the absolute best position I can on the day and try and achieve the best that I can. Then, if somebody else has an absolute blinder, the race of their life, it doesn't take anything away from what I've done for the last five years. Obviously there's no part of me that wants to go to Tokyo and not come away with a medal. It's the whole point of why I'm going. But if on the day it's gold, silver, bronze, fourth, because everybody else has an absolute blinder, you've got to take it on the chin. It's the whole point of being in competitive racing.”