TOKYO — The words gushed out of Nevin Harrison in high-pitched wonder and choked-back tears. She wiped her eyes with fingers topped with immaculate, white nails. She threw her head back and half-laughed, half-cried anytime someone asked her what was going through her head, because what happened Thursday at the Sea Forest Waterway — an Olympic gold medal in a sport, sprint canoe, she barely knew existed five years ago — was as get-out-of-here unbelievable to her as it was to anyone else.
“It’s such a big, crazy dream, and it doesn’t ever seem like it’s actually achievable,” she said. “So crossing that finish line and seeing I was first was really surreal.”
Can someone go from having never touched a canoe paddle to winning an Olympic gold medal in seven years? Can she go from taking up the discipline of sprint canoe to standing on top of the Tokyo 2020 medal stand in five? For that matter, can she make such an out-of-nowhere emergence in the sport that when she wins a world championship at age 17, as Harrison did in Szeged, Hungary, in 2019, no one could even find an American flag to fly above the medal stand?
Yes, yes and yes. At high noon on a sweltering Tokyo summer day, Harrison, the newly crowned Olympic champion in the inaugural competition in women’s 200-meter sprint canoe, stood there as living, breathing proof that not only was it all possible, but as Harrison blurted out in what sounded like an attempt to convince herself: “It happened!”
“Everything I’ve ever dreamed of as a kid and even the last couple years,” she said, “was finally true.”
The race, as it turned out, was barely a race at all, with Harrison, paddling with furious power to the right side, crossing the finish line in 45.932 seconds, about half a canoe length and nearly a full second ahead of runner-up Laurence Vincent-Lapointe of Canada (46.786) — a huge margin in a race so short. The men’s version of the 200-meter sprint, by comparison, was decided by less than five-hundredths of a second.
As soon as it was over, Harrison, still holding her paddle in her right hand, threw her left arm into the air, but she immediately pulled it back down to cover her face with her hand. Here came the tears.
“I definitely was shaking a little at the start. It was scary to say the least,” she said. “ … There were nerves. There was fear. But I believed in myself. I knew I had it in me.”
After reaching land, she climbed out of her rig and threw her arms around her coaches in something that looked closer to a wrestling grip than a hug. She asked if anyone had a small American flag for her to wave, because she knew from TV that that’s what American Olympic medalists do. But in a moment with eerie echoes of Szeged in 2019, no one seemed to have one.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “That’s the most important part.” Someone offered her a water bottle, which she accepted. “But what I really want,” she said, “is a flag.”
So many unlikely circumstances, so many serendipitous twists had to come together perfectly for Thursday’s triumph to be possible, it deserves its own line-by-line accounting. All of the following had to happen to put Harrison in that boat and on that medal stand:
- She had to have been introduced to canoeing by a summer camp counselor at age 12, her primary mission in those early days being to stay out of the water.
- She had to have been diagnosed with hip dysplasia at age 14, derailing her Olympic dreams in track and field or basketball and leading her back to canoe — this time as a sport instead of a hobby.
- She had to have latched on to the right coach, Zsolt Szadovszki, a two-time silver medalist in sprint canoe at the 1998 world championships, and move clear across the country, from her home in Seattle to Gainesville, Ga., to train on Lake Lanier, site of the sprint canoe competition at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
- Women’s sprint canoe, a discipline contested by men as an Olympic medal event since 1936, had to be added to the Tokyo 2020 program by the International Olympic Committee as part of a gender-equity initiative, with races contested at 200, 500 and 1,000 meters.
- And Harrison had to get past the United States’ abysmal record in her chosen discipline — with sprint canoe (previously called flatwater sprint) arguably the single worst sport under the Team USA umbrella — as evidenced by the fact an American hadn’t won an Olympic medal in it is since Greg Barton in 1992. In Tokyo, Harrison wasn’t merely the only American medalist but the only American who even qualified to enter: a one-person team.
“My teammates weren’t quite at the Olympic level, but they were wonderful,” Harrison said. “It’s been a hard journey, because I didn’t have anyone to really follow in [their] steps. But I’m hoping I can be that person for the next generation in the U.S. … I hope it helps grow the sport. I hope this will put it on the map. The U.S. is stacked with amazing athletes, and getting them into canoe or kayak would be a great step.”
On the medal stand Thursday afternoon, resplendent in the Team USA whites, Harrison tossed her arms in the air when her name was called and practically danced her way to the gold medal position, blowing kisses through the white mask that covered her lips.
By that point, they had located an American flag. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, she put her right hand over her heart and stared at it as it flapped in the breeze.