Nevin Harrison: Full steam ahead for the new canoe sensation

Nevin Harrison won gold at the 2020 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships at the C1 200 event.
Nevin Harrison won gold at the 2020 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships at the C1 200 event.

Team USA is betting on the two-time World champion to make waves when women's canoe premieres in Tokyo. Here's what she had to say in an interview last February with Tokyo 2020. 

With women’s canoe making its debut in the Olympic Games, there is one name already being groomed for Olympic success: Nevin Harrison.

The teenager superstar burst into the international scene in 2019 when she was 17-years-old and won gold at the C1 200m in the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Hungary – the only American to secure a medal in that event – a feat which she repeated again in September 2020.

With Harrison already at the cusp of her Olympic debut with canoe sprint events set to start on 2 August, she may become the youngest Olympian to win gold in the women’s canoe event, which will be introduced as part of the Olympic programme in Tokyo 2020.

And whilst she was disappointed about the Games being postponed last year, Harrison is ready to go all out after Olympic dreams in the rescheduled Games.

“Keeping the Olympic in mind has kept me very focussed on my goals,” Harrison told Tokyo 2020.


Life as a world champion has given Harrison the chance to dedicate herself full-time on canoe. Some would say her rise in sport was quick given that it wasn’t too long ago that she first discovered the sport at a summer camp when she was 12 and fell in love with it instantly.

“I got started in canoe when I was 12-years-old. I saw some athletes training on a lake in my hometown, and instantly wanted to try. I was amazed by how challenging it was and how much work it took to stay balanced and master the sport. I was determined to learn the different technical aspects and fell in love with racing.”

Harrison says she didn’t really have any canoe/kayak role models but looked up to other athletes from Team USA for inspiration.

“Growing up I didn’t have any role models in the canoe/kayak world because I didn’t really know anyone! Canoe is such a small sport in the US so it was really just fun until a few years ago. My role models usually came from Team USA Olympic athletes like Allyson Felix, Gabby Douglas, and Usain Bolt. [Inspired by them] I always dreamed of being as dominant as they were.”

And her dad also played a huge role in her quest to become a full-fledged athlete.

“My dad taught me everything I know about sports when I was young so he was also a role model for me. He was never a paddler but he definitely got me interested in being an athlete.”

Sprint canoeist Nevin Harrison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot in 2019 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sprint canoeist Nevin Harrison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot in 2019 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

An Olympian in the making

After just five years of initially taking up the sport, Harrison had exceeded all expectations – with world titles to boast of at a very young age. For Harrison, it all seems surreal still.

“I am very blessed to have come into such success at a young age, but I also know that I have a long way to go. I have really big goals for the next few years, and I try my best not to compare myself to other athletes and their progress.”

With two breakout victories under her belt, Harrison is not just satisfied by medals but by performances. In fact in 2020, where she won gold and triumphed and crossed the finish line in 45.77 —just two seconds ahead of Liudmyla Luzan of Ukraine — Harrison thought this wasn’t her best.

“I was very frustrated after my race is Szeged (2020 ICF World Championships). I had a really bad start, and the rest of the race I was just trying to catch up to the rest of the field. My coach was not happy with me after that race, because we both knew I could do much better," the young American athlete said.

“In 2019, I had one of the best races of my life, and my coach at the time, was thrilled. I think the expectations on me were very different, so [winning] gold in 2019 was a shock and a huge celebration, but gold in 2020 was not done perfectly and I wasn’t happy with it.”

Despite not being satisfied with her 2020 performance, her back to back victories show Harrison is the person to beat come Games-time.

Tokyo 2020 and a new coach

Harrison has also made a strategic move in order to top herself more. In January of last year, she switched coaches and started working with Zsolt Szadovszki who was a world champion himself in kayaking.

“I started working with Zsolt about a year ago. Working with him has been great, and he is able to give me a lot of 1-on-1 training which I was lacking in previous years. We have a very specific training programme focussing on speed and strength that will last me for the whole 200m. I have changed my technique a bit over the off season in hopes of improving the way my boat moves through the water, as well as preventing injuries."

With a new coach and her training gaining ground, all eyes are on her in the lead up to Tokyo and with expectations for her to do well in the coming Olympics.

“It’s terrifying. Winning Olympic gold has always been my dream, and it is crazy that it is within reach. The pressure is scary but it also holds me to a higher standard. I know the world is watching so I have to make sure to always put my best foot forward. Training is going very well this year so I feel hopeful and excited for what 2020 has to bring.”

In fact, even if the Olympics seems daunting, the young athlete is facing the challenge head on. Tokyo 2020 will premiere the C1 200m event and C2 500m events for women – opening doors for female athletes to make waves in the sport.

“My biggest goal is obviously winning gold, but I am also hoping for a really good race. I’m excited to see if my training will pay off, and how my competitors are doing,” she told Tokyo 2020.

With the gold medal in her sights, the biggest thing of all for Harrison is to be able to compete in her first Olympic Games.

"The Olympic Games mean everything to me. I’ve dedicated my whole life for this dream, so I hope it will be all my hard work paying off. I also love the city of Tokyo so I hope to travel a little but I’m afraid that won’t be possible due to COVID-19 restrictions. I will just be happy if I can bring home a gold medal!"

Women's canoe sprint will be held between 2 August - 7 August at Sea Forest Waterway. This feature was first published on 26 February 2021.