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Anne Dickins - Canoeist extraordinaire

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A mother of two who until eight months ago had never sat in a canoe is emerging as one of Britain’s sporting discoveries of the year.

Anne Dickins, the new British No 1, spearheads the British team at the Sprint Kayak European Championships in Portugal next month, the first international event of the new Olympic cycle. Qualifying for Rio, where paracanoeing will debut in 2016, is on her radar.

She was a total novice in a boat until a chance meeting at London 2012 with the GB Paralympic Canoe development coach changed her life. Working as a physiotherapist with the British cycling team, Anne was queuing for a coffee at the Westfield Shopping Centre when she struck up a conversation with Colin Radmore. “We were both wearing our Gamesmaker uniforms and started chatting,” she recalled.

She joked with the former British Slalom canoeist that he could have her on his squad if he liked, after explaining he was on a nationwide search for suitable athletes to train for Rio.

Anne broke her back while in her twenties and last year underwent back surgery after a second injury to relieve a spinal cord compression. After a successful endurance bike racing history culminating in the World 24 Hour Solo Mountain Bike Championships where she took fourth place in her age group, a weak leg means she is now unable to ride her bike anymore without discomfort.

Anne, 45, has been the star find on the GB Canoeing Paralympic Podium Programme, unbeaten in four race starts and admits she has to pinch herself at the way her life has changed. “Everyone will be upping their game now that para-canoe is an Olympic sport and Olympic medals are the ultimate goal,” she added.

Anne will contest the Sprint Ladies 200m category at Montemor-O-Velho from June 13-16, and hopes the hard training at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham and with the Wey Kayak Club at Guildford will put her ahead of the game. More race wins will take her one step closer to selection for the world championships in Germany in August.

“I have been training hard for seven months and despite this being my first international race in a kayak, I am excited more than nervous. Excited to see how I compare with the other new talent out there and if my training changing me from an endurance cyclist to a sprint kayaker has worked. I am probably most excited to be racing against the established names in para-canoe.”

She admits the training has been “brutal” discovering hand muscles in places she had only seen in her treatment room at home in Surrey, and developing “mighty” sores on her feet where the skin has been stripped off the top from the pull bar and the bottom from the grip tape on the foot plate. “Who needs a pedicure or pumice stone to remove layers of hardened skin?” she laughed.

Sprint kayaking has also changed her body shape. “You get a really flat stomach and strong core. I have lost inches from my waist and hips and totally changed shape. It’s as though someone has squeezed my bottom half like a toothpaste tube and it’s all ended up at the top,” joked Anne. “It eliminates bingo wings, but on the flip side I can no longer get my arms into my favourite shirt.

“Sprint kayaking is the most technically difficult sport I have ever been involved with and possibly the most opposite sport from endurance cycling, in terms of movement patterns and fitness, you could find. Every inch of my brain has had to concentrate and learn new ways for my body to move. As a cyclist I have never had to rotate my torso and now rotation is key. My timing needed to be changed as my legs feel things differently to each other so, when I feel equal I’m not. I had to learn to use them unequally which actually makes them work the same!

“As a physio I know how the brain and body works and it takes at least six weeks for a new movement pattern to become established. I was trying to learn several inter-related patterns at once in a very short period ahead of the sprint race at the European selection regatta.”

Anne used every trick in her physio toolbox to help speed the process on and has found working with husband and wife Phil and Claire Gunney [former world No 2 marathon paddler], she has rediscovered herself.

“If I make it to Rio I am going to 50, which is just ridiculous,” she joked. “But it just goes to show that anything is possible if you are open to change, want it enough and have the correct support around you.”