From cocktail maker to Olympic champion, Liam Heath completed his remarkable ascendancy to the top of the canoe sprint ranks with Olympic K1 200m gold at the Lagoa Stadium in Rio.
The 32-year old quit the sport in his early 20s, working as a barman before returning to train with the senior British team in 2010, then going on to win Olympic K2 200m bronze with Jon Schofield in London two years later.
But with another four years of training under his belt, Heath has proved himself one of the world’s top paddlers in Rio, upgrading to silver with Schofield before his triumph in the individual event.
The Brit has only been competing internationally in the K1 event for a single season, but the manner of his heat and semi final victories yesterday suggested he would be the one to catch in the final.
And so it proved on the day, as Heath produced a carbon copy of his semi final performance, building momentum after a steady start then powering to the front of the field in the final 25m.
Finishing 0.165 seconds clear of France’s world silver medallist Maxime Beaumont in second place, the Brit crossed in 35.197 seconds to add Olympic gold to his European title from earlier in the year.
Heath’s third Olympic medal ties him with Tim Brabants and David Florence as the most decorated canoeist at an Olympic Games but, competing at just his second Olympics, he is the quickest of the three to complete the feat.
And the Guildford-based paddler admits returning to the sport was the best decision he’s ever made.
“To think that if I hadn’t come back in, I’d be missing out on this is quite scary to be honest,” said Heath.
“I’ve got the set now after bronze in London and silver and gold here. It’s incredible. I'm over the moon.
“The slight headwind made the race a bit longer so I had to keep that in mind and try to keep the pace at the end of the race.
“I had an inkling I had won but I was just so focused on my lane and those work blocks which is your finish point, that I’d blanked everything out.
“It’s an absolutely incredible feeling. All the efforts of so many people behind me – my team, UK Sport, National Lottery funding, my coach, my family, my friends. They’ve all been behind me and their efforts have combined in to one moment when you cross that line and it’s pretty intense.”
The women’s K4 quartet of Jess Walker, Rebekah Simon, Rachel Cawthorn and Louisa Gurski were also in action on the final day of canoe sprint at the Games.
Competing in the 500m final, the quartet clocked 1:37.043 to finish seventh.
“We’re not happy with what we’ve done on the day but we’re really proud of the journey and I think that’s more important than anything,” said Walker.
“We can definitely push forward again. If you saw what we did last year after just five weeks together, we had every reason to believe that we could medal today but it just didn’t happen.”