In the whirlwind of it all, Laurence Vincent-Lapointe needed to sit down.
The newly minted Canadian Olympic silver medalist had just exited her canoe after the race of her life. She was reliving it now with a breathless string of happy words. She paused to grab a chair and get off her feet while talking animatedly to a throng of reporters huddled in the oppressive Tokyo heat. She wore an ice vest, a canoe pendant around her neck and a Canadian flag around her shoulders.
Just months ago, it seemed this 29-year-old world champ would not be allowed to compete in Tokyo when female canoeists made their debut at the Games in Tokyo. But now, here she was, among the very first female paddlers ever to earn an Olympic medal in a canoe.
She finished second on Wednesday at the Tokyo Olympics, pushing the nose of her canoe over the finish line in the C-1 200-metre final after American Nevin Harrison, who took gold. Ukraine’s Liudmyla Luzan raced to bronze. The Canadian could earn another medal this weekend with teammate Katie Vincent in the C-2 500-metres.
“It’s so relieving and exciting, and it’s just crazy. After all I went through, it’s just the peak,” said Vincent-Lapointe, from Trois-Rivières. “I know I have like 13 world championship titles, but this silver title at the Games is so different.”
Dominating sprint canoe for a decade, Vincent-Lapointe was a medal favourite when the International Olympic Committee decided in 2017 to add women’s canoe for Tokyo. Women had competed in kayaks at the Games, but never canoes.
A consistent winner internationally – alone in the C-1, and as part of a duo in C-2 – she eagerly awaited her Olympic debut. But then she got embroiled in a doping nightmare.
A 2019 doping test found traces of the banned steroid ligandrol in her system. It kept her out of the 2019 world championships, making way for the American teenager Harrison to win her first world title.
Vincent-Lapointe and her lawyers worked long and hard on her appeal. They provided evidence that eventually convinced the International Canoe Federation to rule that she had been contaminated with the substance via her ex-boyfriend’s body fluid.
She was reinstated in early 2020. She still needed to qualify for Tokyo though, which was complicated with pandemic-interrupted travel and competitions. Her teammate Vincent had also outraced her in the C-1 at the Canadian Olympic trials. Canoe Kayak Canada eventually awarded Vincent-Lapointe an Olympic team quota spot, putting one of the sport’s most decorated sprint canoeists back in the water for the sport’s historic Olympic debut.
They raced at Sea Forest Waterway, located between two reclaimed pieces of land in Tokyo Bay. Temperatures soared higher than 33 C but felt like 38 C with the 57-per-cent humidity. Their only relief was the breeze on the water.
Women also made their Olympic debut in canoe slalom earlier in the Games, contending on the rapids of an artificial whitewater course in Tokyo. There are equal number of canoe and kayak races for the genders in Tokyo. It’s part of widespread efforts across sports to balance the ratio of male and female athletes at the Olympics. Nearly 49 per cent of the 11,000 athletes in Tokyo are women – up from 45.6 per cent five years ago in Rio.
Both Vincent and Vincent-Lapointe advanced to Thursday’s final. The eight women took to the start line in long, lean canoes, racing up on one knee while steadying the tippy boats, plunging their single-bladed paddles into the water.
At the same venue used for rowing, they surged with powerful strokes through the water to propel their boats. Vincent placed eighth in the race. She was disappointed not to make the podium with her teammate, but relishes another shot.
“I mean, it’s been turbulent for both of us. I think we’ve stuck with each other the whole way,” said Vincent, a 25-year old from Mississauga. “I’m just proud of her and hoping we can carry that momentum into the C-2.”
Seven or eight years ago internationally, the fields for women’s canoe sprint races were quite small, and the races weren’t very competitive. But the talent has improved exponentially since then, especially once it earned Olympic inclusion.
Despite not racing internationally for over two years, Vincent-Lapointe looked back in form on Olympic waters. She had been through dark days when it looked as if she wouldn’t get this opportunity.
“In my head I was trying to like convince myself, ‘You’re gonna be at the Games.’ … Even in the darkest moments I just clung to that feeling,” Vincent-Lapointe said. “I had the right to believe in myself that I would make it to the Games. Then once I came here, I was like, ‘Alright, you made it to the Games, now do your best.’ ”
The two Canadian rivals will get in the boat together in Friday’s heats for the C-2 500m, and hope to advance through to the quarter-finals, and then into Saturday’s semis and finals.
“We’re gonna make sure that we don’t sit in the sun too much today, and recover really well,” Vincent-Lapointe said. “We’ll jump into the mindset of doing the C-2, and do our best. That’s what we came here to do.”
Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.