A thirst for life on the edge

Once upon a time, DCU’s Canoe and Kayaking Club ruled the waters. The college attracted the top “paddlers” (the industry term for those who take to the water in the small plastic vessels) from around the country. The club dominated the annual Intervarsities -the showpiece event of the college kayaking calendar, which pits 15 of the country’s biggest universities against each other in four disciplines over three days of intense competition.

But that was then. Today, DCU has been replaced by University of Limerick as the powerhouse of Irish college paddling. In a show of its superiority, earlier this month the Munster college retained its Intervarsities title for the fourth successive year.

UL’s success has come about through hard work and careful investment. It possesses the best facilities for canoeing and kayaking in the country. Clubs of every code in universities throughout Ireland should take note.

But based on the performance this year, a return to those glory days could be just around the corner for DCU. The club finished fourth overall this year – an improvement on their 2012 performance by two places.

Perhaps more pertinently, the people running the club are clearly the right people for the job. They have a passion for what they are doing. They are die hard, thrill-seeking nuts who love nothing more than taking on the terrifying white water rapids of a river in full flood.

It’s a thirst for the high-octane that is near-impossible to comprehend for those who prefer to watch sport from the comfort of a warm armchair.

“I first got involved in kayaking with my local club at the tender age of 12,” DCU team member and Ireland representative, Marc Denmead, explained.

“My first experience was during a summer camp hosted by Kilcock Canoe Polo Club and ever since then I’ve been hooked. It’s always great enjoying the outdoors and it’s a fantastic excuse to get out when the weather is good.”

Denmead is one of those at the heart of DCU’s kayaking revival. He is delighted with how the university performed at this year’s event, and with good reason too. On the opening day of the competition, DCU took third place in the canoe polo – a hair-raising, harem scarum event played out in a swimming pool. Here, teams of five battle to score goals in nets positioned on the side of the pool. It’s fast and furious and nasty injuries are commonplace, despite the heavy protective gear worn.

This was followed by a 6am start the following morning for the white water event. This discipline most closely resembles the slalom kayaking event seen in recent Summer Olympics, where competitors must work their way down-stream, zigzagging between markers, and all in a desperate race against the clock.

The DCU team of Fionn Daly, Laura Kernan, Alan Barrett and Robbie O’Shea performed heroically; taking first place in what is traditionally one of the most hotly contested events of the weekend.

Varsity rules state that there must be at least one female on each team per event. However, Kernan’s inclusion was much more than a box ticking exercise. Her mastery of the treacherous conditions was impressive and the positive attitude she exemplified throughout the weekend saw her awarded the Niamh Tomkins Memorial Trophy on the final day. This is an honour named after the paddler who died tragically in New Zealand in 1999 and is awarded to the kayaker who gives their all in the four disciplines over the weekend.

The history and symbolism of this award is certainly not lost on a delighted Kernan.

“I feel honoured to receive this award as I only began kayaking two years ago and to come all this way, compete, and do well for DCU is such an achievement,” she beamed.

“Encouraging females to join the canoe club, kayak and actually keep it up is hard enough, so to see so many female competitors at varsities was great.”

The high standard set by the team continued into the final events of the weekend. First, the gut wrenching eight kilometre ‘long distance’ event which saw 22 members of the DCU team take to the waters. Another strong performance here was followed up by a 2nd place finish in the freestyle discipline – the final contest of the weekend.

As is the case with most minority sports, the success of kayaking hinges on a small group of passionate people defying the odds. The club’s fourth place finish is a tremendous achievement and the challenge now for Denmead, Kernan and co is to raise the bar once more. Look out. Those glory days could be returning soon.

Sam Griffin

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