Interview: Robin Bell

CM: Rob, how did you get involved in paddling in the beginning?

Robin BellRB: It would have been back in the winter of 1992, my father and I went out on your typical father-son bonding trip. It didn’t turn out that well, we both swam, I was pinned on a tree for 10 minutes, so we decided to join the Swan Canoe Club and do things properly. I was lucky that there were a really good group of kids my age. We started paddling, surfing, and climbing together.

CM: Since starting you’ve become one of the most consistent slalom racers in Australia, what’s your race history like?

Robin BellRB: In 1999 I won a silver medal at the World Championships which really got the ball rolling for the last decade. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 I placed 9th, which was really disappointing. Athens Olympics in 2004 I finished 4th, I’m proud of this performance, I had a good solid race but so did three other racers. 2005 was a great year I won the World Championships and the World Cup which was awesome for me, as an individual it justified all the sacrifices I had made for canoeing and it was also great for Australian and New Zealand slalom racing, it showed that even as a minority sport that if you’re dedicated you can reach the top. I have roughly 10 or so world cup medals over the years.

Last year I got a bronze medal at the World Championships in Brazil, and of course this year the target is the Olympics.

CM: You mentioned slalom being a minority sport, what kind of difficulties do you think you’ve faced because of this?

RB: There are a number of factors. Firstly, we don’t have many races down here in Oceania, secondly there is a heap of travel involved in racing in Europe and at home and thirdly the culture in the southern hemisphere teams needs to change.

The travel really wears you down financially and mentally, but I’m proof that anyone can do it. The key is to just work out your own strategies in relation to all of the factors.

When I started slalom racing in Western Australia there were about fifteen people who were really keen. The experienced paddlers trained the other paddlers which meant everyone could bounce ideas off each other. This helped me to develop a new upstream gate technique that no-one else was doing. I still try to train in a similar way, it’s about finding out who is the best person on the river that day. They don’t need to be a world champion, that’s why I love going to train in New Zealand, everybody is keen to learn, adapt and push each other.

CM: How do you deal with the all the travel involved in your racing and training? Where do you prefer to go?

RB: I try to keep a core group of mates who I travel and train with. They need to be people who are willing to push you both physically and mentally. They are the people you generally like to hang around with and get into some good friendly banter.

Location wise I love the French Alps, Borg St Mourice is one of the steepest natural courses in the world. There is camping beside the river and just amazing scenery. I’ve been there when the river was flooding, everyone goes home but we stay and train. I also just returned from the new Charlotte White Water Course in the USA, there is so much happening there. The course has 2 different channels, a climbing wall, mountain bike tracks and live bands. All of this and only thirty minutes from the city.

CM: What’s your training schedule like,and how does it vary over the year?

RB: I try to keep my training fairly consistent, obviously if I’m travelling or close to a race day I will spend more time on the water but normally its the same. A normal week for me would consistent of about thirteen hour long sessions, I would probably only be on the water for five. The rest of my sessions are mixed up between running, mountain-biking and boxing. I try to box at least three times a week, but I just brought a new bike home from the USA so will probably be out on that.

When I’m doing a whitewater session I’ll normally be the first person there. I’ll do a quick flat water warm up and then go and set up the gates for the session. I like to keep the water training mixed up, so I’ll train with other C1s or the K1s; who ever is there and keen to train. I try to keep each session to the hour as it keeps the intensity high. If I’m tired I’ll do a shorter intervals in the session but try and keep the intensity the same.

Robin BellCM: What gives you the drive to keep training and racing?

RB: Challenge; most people like to push both body and mind. I find that Slalom Canoeing is a great blend of the two. I also like to develop effiecient strategies for things whether that be racing, business, or coaching. Efficient strategies helps an athlete compete to or as close to their potential as possible, the closer you get to your potential the more medals you will win.

CM: The Beijing games is the big goal for the year, what are your thoughts and expectations for the games?

RB: I want to come home with my head held high. That means that I need to race hard, fast and clean. The Beijing course is tough, its very physically draining as you need to maintain speed throughout the course, there are random breaking waves throughout so there is no room for loss of concentration or control.

My biggest rivals are Tony Estanguet and Michal Martiken, who both have 14 or 15 years of competition experience behind them. When it comes down to the race I have to perform my best, and that’s all I can ask of myself.

CM: Where do you see the future of slalom?

RB: This is a hard one, In regards to rules I like the idea of moving to single poles. It makes a lot of sense to me, as courses would be quicker to set up and the paddlers lines won’t really change.

The future of slalom in Australia is in good hands. We’re very fortunate to have our program in the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport). We are lucky that over the past few years we’ve had top performers like Adam Marion, Justin Boocock, Hew Roberts, Ben Patrick and Anton King. This added exposure and success means that we can secure the some funding needed to step up internationally.

I hope that as the sport grows we’ll get more Asian countries involved which will provide a better source of international competition for both Australia and New Zealand, hopefully New Zealand can step up too, paddlers like Mike Dawson, Aaron Osbourne have great potential if they stick with it. There is also the chance that James Dawson and Luuka will still make the Beijing Olympics which would be great for New Zealand.

Race wise I’m keen to see more international races on big natural rivers. Events also need to try a few events together (extreme races, freestyles, slalom). All discliplines of kayaking are complimentary in someway, except for flatwater that bores me to tears.

CM: Where do you see the local scene going? ( The up & comers)

RB: Over in New Zealand I definetely see Mike and Aaron as the top racers, they still have a lot of time in their careers to race internationally and succeed. Aaron especially as he has the ginger fire in his racing! In Australia; Natasha Jones and Jessica Fox are both performing well, and a little bit older but Ros Lawrance, Sam Lyons and Will Forsyth are going from strength to strength.

All of the these guys have got the potential to do well, but it remains to be seen where they’ll go. Potential is just a starting point. I have heard too many times that this kid has potential, but nothing ever eventuates.

Jared Meehan is an example of why it’s hard for us to succeed as slalom paddlers in NZ and AUS. Jared was/is an amazing slalom paddler full of potential, but with so many other distractions and no support structure it becomes hard to maintain focus. Slalom is a brutal sport. It is a sport of mistakes, the person with the least mistakes wins. This can be frustrating, and make it hard to maintain focus when doing sprints by yourself.

CM: Thanks Rob

This interview was originally published in Cumec Magazine Issue #5, July 2008

Images courtesy of Australian Canoeing, Mike Dawson and Australian Institute of Sport