By Jonathan Smith
For Stuart Wood his Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020 is the culmination of almost decade of work.
Wood began paddling at Bath University in 2012 and “immediately fell in love with the sport,” he explains.
After two years of trying a variety of disciplines, Wood’s coach at the time recognised his talents and recommended he focus on paracanoe.
Despite his ability, Wood struggled to make the final step up to the elite level and as a result his funding was often inconsistent and at one point was cut entirely.
During that time, Wood put his degree in maths and physics and his master’s in computer science to good use by working as a freelance software developer.
“Pairing a sporting career with a non-sporting one can be a difficult balance to strike,” explains Wood. “In the earlier years, when my funding was a bit less consistent, I did quite a lot of web development, mostly freelance work because I could fit it quite nicely around training.”
However, since his switch to va’a in 2019, Wood has finally been able to break into the team and focus on being a full-time athlete.
“I found the va’a came quite naturally to me. I think all the other kinds of paddling I've done outside of paracanoe really helped me to have a better understanding of how the boats move, because it can be a little bit more technical in the va'a in terms of controlling the steering,” he explains.
Since his switch, Wood has been able to shine and in 2019 was rewarded with a bronze medal in the World Championships in Szeged and a gold medal at the European Championships in Poznan.
“I think in the 2019 season, for me, it would be the European gold and the bronze at Worlds that I am proudest of,” Wood says. “It was actually my first international after spending quite a lot of years not quite managing to make the team because we've got so much national competition. And then 2019 felt like my breakthrough year.”
Though Wood admits he felt frustrated to see Tokyo 2020 postponed immediately following his greatest year as a full time athlete, he has ultimately come to draw some positives after the initial disappointment.
He explains: “I don’t think my momentum has been interrupted. I think we’ve managed to keep progressing really well during 2020 and then into this year. I think I've probably made a similar amount of progress, potentially even more so, so I think I'm in at least as good a place as I would have been had the season happened.”
“I think a lot of my weaknesses were more on the physical side anyway, so we could actually hit them pretty hard during lockdown. Historically, endurance has always been my issue. I've always had quite a fast front half of the race, but just trying to try to hold on had been a bit of an issue, but I think it's got a lot better.”
He does concede, however, that although the time training on an ergo in his home gym had been useful, he would be travelling to Japan with a limited understanding of the level of his opponents.
“Only one of the six who had already qualified for games in my class went to Szeged this year, which means that's most of the top five who I haven't really seen what they've done for two years. So it's so hard to predict what anyone else is going to be doing.
“But I am just focused on my own race and what I'm doing,” he said.