Boat repairer, bathroom renovator and two-time Olympian: Pennie on life on and off the water
Canoe Slalom

Boat repairer, bathroom renovator and two-time Olympian: Pennie on life on and off the water

27 June 2018 / 14:27

Take a trip to Fiona Pennie's Waltham Abbey home and you'll come across a half-finished bathroom with the tiles still ripped off from where she tried to correct a leak last year.

Pennie is a tinkerer, a see-a-problem-let’s-try-and-fix-it type of person.

But while other do-it-yourselfers may eventually grow bored and move onto another project, the Scot’s excuse for the current state of her bathroom is different.

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“People say I must have so much time between my sessions,” explains the two-time British Olympic slalom canoeist, who is known fondly as the ‘boat repair person’ among the team.

“But then I’m tired and then actually it’s not long enough to get on with something that I do want to be doing.

“I quite like a lot of DIY stuff, and stuff around the house and the garden. I’ll think about doing something but then I’ll only have two hours and it’s not long enough to get cracking on it.

“I think last summer at one point I was still putting a new back gate into the garden. I was literally still doing it half an hour before I was meant to be leaving.

“There’s a lot of started jobs around the house. The en-suite bathroom, the shower has been leaking for nearly a year now and that’s still got tiles ripped off where I assessed where the leak was.

“I really wish I could spend a bit more time to do this or that.”

For Pennie, that most precious commodity of all is largely dedicated to a life spent on the water, and more specifically, in a kayak navigating a sequence of gates down a whitewater course.

Earlier this month in Prague, she took K1 bronze at the European Championships – her 11th major senior championship medal across team and individual events – in what is her 16th season competing internationally.

To put that longevity into context, Pennie’s double individual and team bronze at the junior world championships in 2000 came a year before current British Canoeing teammate Bethan Forrow was even born.

She openly jokes her 17-year-old training partner is young enough to be her daughter but Pennie is more than comfortable with her elder statesman role in the team alongside three-time Olympic silver medallist David Florence.

There is, after all, no substitute for experience and both Pennie, and fellow Scot Florence, also 35, have it in paddlefuls.

“I was first on the team in 2002 but there was a couple of years where I didn’t make the team,” she said.

“David has certainly done all of them since 2001 but I missed a couple of years in between.

“Back then, people did carry on until their mid 30s or more. I think now people are starting to retire a little earlier in their careers.

“I think David and I might be the last people that will carry on as long as we have.

“I think the nature of the way the training is, what you do on a day to day basis is different to what we did when we started out.

“When we started, the top paddlers were in full time jobs and just going training in terms of white water sessions, then maybe once a day. And that white water might not have been very deep white water. It’s very different now.”

 

With her mother a former international canoe sprint paddler and a river just down the house growing up, it was always likely Pennie would follow a life on the water.

She was only a few months old when she was first placed in a kayak, started paddling a few years later and then did her first slalom aged nine.

There were also the hours spent as a young child, tirelessly navigating a home-made slalom course of singles poles tied onto overhanging branches on the nearby river.

Invaluable practice on the journey to become a multiple international-medal winning paddler.

As with any sportsman or woman though, it has not been all plain sailing. There’s been the injuries. And the selection heartache, most notably when the Beijing 2008 Olympian missed the chance to compete at her home Games in London after the cutthroat, winner-takes-all trials weekend saw close friend, yet rival, Lizzie Neave claim the single K1 spot.

Pennie, who had been the strongest Brit in the K1 slalom category over the prolonged period leading up to the three-race trials in 2012, roared back, becoming European champion 12 months later and won the second of her two individual world silvers in 2014.

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She also returned to the Olympic stage in 2016, earning a personal best finish of sixth in the final in Rio.

Florence has spoken of pushing on to Tokyo 2020. Has Pennie got it in her to keep holding off her rivals, and father time?

“David and I keep on comparing notes every so often. ‘So what are your thoughts at the moment? And things like that,’” she revealed.

“Before 2016 even I did not know if I would carry on but afterwards I was straight back into training and thinking ‘I’m carrying on.’

“It’s only one boat per category that gets to go. It will be tough. It always is tough every year.

“I’ve been on the other side, I’ve not been selected before. There is no fear I suppose. I know what it is like to not be selected for the team.

“I’m just going to give it my best shot and if it’s good enough then brilliant. If not, then I’ll take it on the chin and we’ll see how it goes.

“I think the reason why I carry on is that there is always something new to work on, it never gets boring.

“The sport is always involving. The K1 men are always pushing limits and finding new ways to do the gates and different techniques.

“The girls will end up following on and copying that. It’s not always the same track or anything. The courses are different every day. It’s not boring in that respect.”

Crafting and working away both on and off the water is undoubtedly what drives Pennie.

Sportsbeat 2018