IT couldn’t be any other way for Liam Jegou. After a childhood spent by the sea, both in France and Ballyvaughan, the 25-year-old was destined for a career on the water.
Jegou is currently in Japan preparing to represent Ireland in the canoe C1 slalom. The last time Ireland was represented in this event was in the year he was born, 1996.
So how did the Ballyvaughan man drift in to the sport?
“It’s very much a family affair for me. My dad owned a sea kayaking business in Ballyvaughan in the 2000s called ‘River Ocean’. That’s when I started paddling; back when I lived in Ireland.
“When we moved to France my dad got a job as a slalom coach in the local club. That’s where I fell in love with the sport. My dad coached me up until I was 20 years old so I had that opportunity to have a good coach at home. It gave me the opportunity to become a high performance athlete and get to where I am now.”
The canoeist was born in France before his family relocated to Ireland during his early childhood. His family moved back to France when he was aged seven but Jegou holds fond memories of the time he has spent in Ballyvaughan.
“My main memories would be Ballyvaughan NS and playing GAA, I have great memories of that actually. I remember playing gaelic football at the club. I was very young but it really stuck with me. I remember going out paddling with my dad and seeing loads of seals. Ailwee Caves as well sticks out as my dad worked there.
“Those are great memories I have. I’m looking forward to going back, probably this summer after the Games.”
Despite spending parts of his life in both France and Ireland, Jegou is adamant that he only ever wanted to represent Ireland on the world stage.
“For me it wasn’t really a choice. It’s not one of those things you decide. When I moved back to France when I was seven, I didn’t speak any French and that kind of stuck with me. In school I was singled out as the Irish guy. It really stuck with me. I really loved that.
“When it came to supporting rugby or football it was always Ireland. When I had to decide at age 14 whether I wanted to represent France or Ireland, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me. I chose Ireland straight away and I haven’t looked back since.
“It’s something I always wanted to do and there was no question for me.”
The Olympic village really is something else ! 🤯
Official training since yesterday, four more sessions to go before quals begin.🤘 pic.twitter.com/xXQYTHpGkr
— Liam Jegou (@LiamJegou) July 21, 2021
In canoe C1, competitors navigate a course while trying to avoid touching a series of overhanging gates. The slightest touch adds two seconds to a canoeists’ time. Missing a gate completely is a 50-second penalty which is disastrous for a person’s hopes of finishing among the medals.
Fine margins dictate this discipline with Jegou admitting at times he holds a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the sport.
“With slalom I love it but I hate it at the same time (laughs). The frustrating thing with slalom is that you can do everything right but it’s just not your day. A touch (off a gate) can throw you down the leaderboard. You could be feeling great the day before the race and on the day it just doesn’t work out for you so that’s what I mean by the love hate relationship.”
The Ballyvaughan man enters the Olympic Games in good form, having finished sixth in the final World Cup meet in Germany last month.
“The weekend before I was in Prague and I ended up not qualifying for the semis and then a week later I finished sixth and was a touch away from winning a medal. That sums up canoe slalom really.
“I’m in a good place now. I have some good speed so I just needed competition and that race came at the right time. It definitely boosted my confidence.”
The canoeist bases himself in Pau, which is in the southwest of France. Despite not being able to travel to Ireland since early 2020, he continued to train with his hard work paying off when he won a gold medal at the World Cup last November.
The event was held in Pau, which capped a brilliant weekend for Jegou.
“It was a good end to a very strange season. We didn’t know whether we would have any competitions. I just kept on training as if I’d get one or two at the end of the season and that’s what happened. I felt pretty good.
“In the Europeans I had a bit of a disappointing semi final run but I had the speed. Then the World Cup in Pau was a great way to finish off the year before going into winter training. To have that World Cup win was brilliant and in Pau as well topped it off. I was proud of the way I battled so it gave me a boost going in to winter training.”
Despite the recent success, the Ballyvaughan canoeist knows all about the pain this sport can inflict. After narrowly missing out on qualifying for the Olympic Games in 2016, he suffered a nasty hip injury with his form suffering as a result.
“It is a very tough sport to qualify in. There is only one boat per nation which makes it very hard to qualify. Rio was close enough so I’m delighted that I could get on the plane to Tokyo.
“The hip injury occurred right after the Olympics. It was really after that season where all the problems started happening around my hip, so it was that winter that was quite difficult. It was 2017 when I was getting back to things, but it was more like 2018 when I was back to my proper self. Injuries are a part of high performance sport unfortunately.”
Jegou cannot live the life of an average 25-year-old. He knows that for him to succeed, he needs to maintain discipline. However, he takes it all in his stride and enjoys being dedicated to his craft.
“I really love what I do. When I travel, I meet loads of people and there is a huge paddling community that I hang out with. I might party less than the average 20 something year old. I don’t feel like I am missing out. On the contrary I feel like I am living something really great and unique so it never feels like a sacrifice to me.”
– By Ivan Smyth