Anna Hemmings is the most successful British female canoeist of all time enjoying major success on the world and European stage.
Since retiring she has been involved with the Special Olympics and I caught up with her to discuss the work that they so as well as the Olympic Games that lie ahead.
- You are an ambassador for the Special Olympics GB so can you tell me a little bit about that?
I have been an ambassador for the Special Olympics for about three years now and it they provide training and competition programmes for children and adults with intellectual disabilities or learning disabilities, it is somebody with an IQ of 75 or lower.
The programmes are life changing and it is about changing their live through the power sport and giving them the opportunity to take part in regular sports activities and give them the chance to get fit as well as a sense of empowerment and acceptance.
These people can be quite excluded and can’t participate alongside the regular kids; well it’s not just kids. The Special Olympics is about kids and adults or anyone with any kind of learning disability can get support from the Special Olympics.
It’s a volunteer charity and there are about 135 local registered clubs and groups around the country and they reach out to at least 8,000 people in the UK.
The UK there are an estimated 1.2 million people with intellectual disabilities and so it is a pretty significant proportion of the population and, with the right funding, the Special Olympics can reach out to them.
- And how can people get involved and benefit from the Special Olympics?
There are 135 cubs or groups throughout the country and so if you go the Special Olympics website there is a link there to all the opportunities and the different clubs - there are 135 clubs so there will be something local to somebody where they can get in touch.
- And it won't be long until the Nike London Run so how much are you looking forward to the run on the streets of London?
Yeah I am really excited about as it is going to be awesome, especially with the Olympics being less than a month away when the race takes place next week.
I think the atmosphere is going to be amazing and to get the chance to run past our greatest landmarks such as Big Ben, the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey it’s going to be awesome.
So I think it is going to be big day and it’s exciting to be involved and to be supporting such a great charity. National Grid are one of the premiere sponsors of the Special Olympics and a lot of their employees will be doing the run and I run a training consultancy business and one of our clients is the National Grid so I am running with a national Grid employee on the day - so it is quite a good little link.
So I am not doing it for myself or a fast time I am doing it to coach this chap round the course and it is going to be a big achievement for him to run the distance and so I am going to run with him to give him some moral support and motivation.
- Have you been doing a bit of training - and how is it going?
Yeah I always keep fit and love doing some running - I have had some injury troubles over the last few years and I also had a baby nine months ago so I am not as fit as I once was but enough to be able to do the 10k.
But as I said I am not going to be going for a fast time I will just be running round with our client to encourage him really.
- You are Britain’s most successful ever female canoeist so how would you sum up your career when you look back on it now?
Yeah I am pretty proud of my achievements and I think that I had a good innings. I achieved most of my goals, certainly in marathon kayak; I did two different distances the marathon distance and the sprint distance, which is in the Olympics.
So I run all of my World and European titles in marathon kayaking and when I first started out I never dream of being a world champion and an Olympian but to win six world titles you don’t think about that. So to look back on that that is pretty special.
And then to compete at the Olympic Games you realise that now with the Olympic Games coming to London just how much people are impressed by the fact that you are an Olympian and they are excited by that. I have been doing a lot of school work at the moment with the Olympics and I wear my tracksuit and the kids get really excited and that is great and that makes me proud.
And kids ask me if they can buy my tracksuit and I am like ‘money can’t buy this tracksuit you have got to earn it’ - it’s special club that you can only get into if you become an Olympian and so I am proud of that. And then to have my career topped off with an MBE from the Queen is the icing on the cake really.
- You have touched on my next question really you competed at the 2000 and the 2008 Olympics so baring in mind that the London Games are now incredibly close what Olympic memories do you have?
One of the highlights of my Olympic experience in Beijing was parading in the opening ceremony as that experience was like nothing else.
I remember standing outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium and I managed to position myself in the second row behind Mark Foster who was carrying the flag.
And when you step into the stadium and there are 100,000 people inside going crazy the atmosphere was amazing and it was one of those lump in the throat moments and it was quite overwhelming really - I didn’t get to parade in the opening ceremony in Sydney because we were in a training camp in Brisbane.
It is just incredible as there is this torch that has been running around the country and it will be burning brightly in the stadium along with the Olympic flags and all the other athletes in the stadium all excited that this is start of the Olympics and this is where their dreams come true. So it was an exciting experience for me.
- While you are not competing anymore how excited are you at the prospect of a home Games?
Oh yes really excited as I will be doing the commentary on BBC 5Live for Canoe Slalom and Canoe Sprint - I got me accreditation through the other day and I am really excited. I just can’t wait to go and soak up the atmosphere of the different venues and go to the Olympic Park.
Everyone is talking about Team GB as being our greatest team and I think that it will be - I know that the Kayak team is the strongest ever. I just think that that atmosphere will be the most amazing thing and London will put on a great Games.
- Canoeing is always one of the most exciting sports at the Games so what do you hope this summer will do for this sport in this country?
I think that the team is really strong I think it will bring it into the limelight a little bit. There are certain medal potentials, especially the men’s 200m team have got some great medal prospect and the women’s squad have some outside chances - if they can go on and win those medals that will do wonders for the sport and helping to raise the profile.
Then the likes of the Slalom team also have prospects and they have just had a magnificent facility built especially for it and that is a great legacy for the sport.
- How did you get into the sport?
Kind of by chance really as I was eight year old and use to do loads of sports as a kid as my mum was always encouraging us to do different sports and try different things.
I picked up a leaflet from a local sports centre and it was for a local canoeing centre saying come and try canoeing. So we did if during the summer holiday and I went along with my brother and we did if for a week then I joined the club and that was it.
- You have mentioned that this is the strongest British canoeing team ever but for anyone who isn’t overly familiar with the sport are there are British names that we should be looking out for?
They had the European Championships last weekend and Liam Heath and John Schofield won the doubles, which is called the K2, over 200m and they are the current European champions.
Europe is the strongest continent in canoeing and so to be European champions is a great achievement and that puts them in great stead for the Olympics. Another chap Ed McKeever was third at the European Championships and he is a former world champion and European Champion in the K1, so the singles, over 200m so he is a great medal hope.
Then you have Tim Brabants is the defending Olympic champion over 1000m, men’s single kayak, he hasn’t been so strong this year but he is the defending champion so you don’t write him off. Then there are a handful of girls.
Then in the Slalom you have David Florence and he was the silver medallist in Beijing and he has been winning medals at world cups this year and together with his C2 partner Richard Hounslow they have been winning world cup medals as well so they are ones to watch out for.
- You retired back in 2009 so how much do you miss the sport?
I miss the competition and the competitive element, that is a big thing in my life that I miss. But I don’t miss the daily grind and training every day because a lot of dedication and commitment is required.
But the camaraderie on the team is fun and you get to travel around the world and spend winters in the sunshine, now I am really pale when it comes to the end of the winter (laughs). So yes there are elements that I do miss.
- The Olympic Games is going to be hugely inspiring to kids up and down the country so for any of them who want to get involved with canoeing what advice would you give them?
Go to the GB Canoeing website and look at where the nearest club is - that is the best place to start. If it something that you want to do then find a club and learn how to do it properly, go and find a coach at one of the clubs and there will be other kids there who you will be able to go and learn with and have fun with - that is the most important thing when you are growing up and doing sport is to have fun.
- Finally what's coming up for you?
I run a business called Beyond The Barriers and we are a training and performance company/consultancy and we draw on the lesson learned from sport and take them into business and sport.
We give people the tools to get the competitive advantage to perform under challenging environments in business, sport and life.
I do a lot of motivational speaking and that has been hugely popular recently with the Olympics just around the corner - everyone wants an Olympic athlete to come and speak at their event - so it’s everything from corporate key notes through to local authority stuff as well as schools and charity stuff.
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw