Three days before I talk to Tim Brabants, the New Years Honours List is published. He has been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire – an MBE. By all accounts, the icing on the cake for what has been an incredible year for the 32 year old flat water canoeist.
In 2008, Brabants won gold at the European championships in Milan (KI 1000m), gold in the world cup in Duisburg (again in KI 1000m) and topped it all off with a truly memorable gold medal at Beijing Olympic games plus a bronze in the KI 500m. Add all this to the fact that his day job is as a medical doctor, and it’s hardly surprising that I expected tying him down for an interview would be something of a struggle. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact I couldn’t quite believe how efficient such a busy man could be; all my e mails were answered within hours and, after missing my first call, he phoned back twenty minutes later, full of apologies for missing me the first time!
On the day that we spoke, England had woken up to a covering of snow. I asked whether he’d been out on the river in conditions like that, he seemed surprised; ‘of course, we train through all conditions’. That’s the type of unwavering focus that seems to characterise Tim in every aspect of his life.
He started canoeing at the age of ten at the Elmbridge canoe club; ‘I loved being outdoors and on the water. As a kid it was great fun being able to splash around… When I was young several of the top athletes were at my club and I remember them going off to the 1988 Olympics. That’s a real inspiration when you’re eleven.’ So did he know from this young age that he would become a top athlete? ‘Not really. It kind of creeps up on you. You’re just enjoying the sport and enjoying meeting new people and all of a sudden you realise that you want to be the best in the world’.
Brabants is one of those gross over achievers – the best in the world at his sport and a doctor. I wondered whether, when he was younger, it was ever hard to find his way being intelligent and good at sport. ‘I’m not intelligent,’ he laughed, ‘you don’t have to be intelligent to be a doctor’.
You do, however, need be incredibly committed to be an Olympic canoeist. He outlines his training schedule, with 3-4 sessions a day for 13-14 days with one day off at the end. Training sessions are a mix of kayaking, swimming, running, cycling and gym. So how does he balance this along with having a career? ‘Sometimes it’s hard to do the rights things at the right times, it’s just a balancing act I guess. I’ve always enjoyed challenges, and through sport I was interested in the human body and why it sometimes goes wrong… Doing both has definitely required a bit of trial and error to reach the right balance.’
Trial and error certainly seems the right way to describe it. Brabants was disappointed with his performance at the 2004 Athens Olympics, having qualified with the fastest time; he ended up coming 5th in the final. ‘After that I knew I had to change my circumstances, I had been working part time and it was really hard spending all day at work and then having to train as hard as I did’. He chose to put his career on hold and concentrate on his sport. As a result, 2008 was an entirely different story. ‘I’ve been very lucky to be able to do both, but I have had to make sacrifices in other parts of my life. I definitely didn’t have the normal university life that my peers had, while they were going out, I’d have to train most mornings and most evenings. My fun was my sport’.
I ask him whether he is most proud of his sporting or his professional achievements (perhaps a stupid question for an Olympic gold medallist). ‘Obviously winning the gold was my proudest moment, but the two areas are very different. Whereas I’ve achieved the top honour in my sporting career, my achievements in medicine have all been stepping stone goals, I still have much more to achieve.’
Yet despite all the sacrifices made and balancing acts performed, it is clear that this is a man fully passionate about his sport.
When I ask him how he felt on the starting line of his gold medal winning race, he really starts to gush, ‘of course I was nervous, you’re always nervous, but I was also looking forward to it. I felt strong and confident and I knew I was the fittest I’d ever been. There were lots of positive thoughts. You only have one opportunity like that in four years. I was ready to race.’
Since the Olympics, Brabants has certainly been busy. On top of all the high profile commitments (Olympic gold ball, labour and conservative party conferences and two invitations to Buckingham palace) he has spent lots of time visiting schools and universities and has been to four different countries including Spain and Dubai. ‘There’s been a lot of media attention. I’m lucky that I’m not an easily recognisable person so I haven’t been too bothered by it all. It must be really hard for someone like Chris Hoy who is so distinctive.’
He certainly strikes me as the sort of man who takes all the hype as something of an exciting novelty, but who is glad it doesn’t consume all their time; ‘especially working as a doctor, it’s nice to be able to just get on with it.’
So what about the future for Brabants and his sport? Does he ever wish canoeing was a bit more mainstream? ‘In some respects yes, as we train a lot harder than other sports which get far more attention. It would be better in terms of getting more funding and encouraging more young people to get involved.’ When I ask if he feels he’s done much to change this, he replies that if what he’s achieved is helping ‘younger guys’ in the sport get more support, then he’s happy.
He seems somewhat surprised when I ask him about his plans for 2012- of course he’ll keep going until then! ‘I’ll restart my intense training in late 2010 and until then I’m going to focus on advancing my medical career.’ On reflection I suppose that was a pretty dim question for a man with such focus and dedication. If, like him, you have a multitude of talents and a brutal efficiency to back them up, why on earth would you just stop there? I highly suspect this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from Mr Brabants.