Canoeist Joe Clarke Won Gold At Rio 2016 And Has Followed This Up As The First Man To Paddle The Wrong Way Up A Whitewater Course

In his new film, Against The Tide, extreme athlete Joe Clarke takes on the force of nine elephants as he attempts to take his kayak the wrong way up a churning whitewater course, in a bid to move himself and his sport to the next level.

Paddling your way down a thrashing torrent of whitewater, through whirlpools and over standing waves, is a real challenge – but imagine what it’s like to try to paddle against the flow, the wrong way up a course. That’s exactly what British canoeist Joe Clarke – who won Gold in the Rio 2016 Olympics – did in Prague this August. So, what was the biggest challenge, and how did he prepare to find the next level?

RISING Where did you get the inspiration to paddle the wrong way up the punishing torrent of a whitewater course – isn’t going the right way hard enough? JOE CLARKE ‘It was in a recirculation session, where you'll stay in one area, but keep going round and round, paddling up against the current. You normally come off one of those feeling absolutely knackered so I thought well, if you feel knackered after this on one section, then what's it going to feel like if you do the whole course?’

RISING You’ve told us that you were looking to be forced out of your comfort zone in this challenge – why does that appeal? JC ‘Every year the standard gets better. Obviously I won the Rio Olympics and want to go on to try and win Tokyo – I’m trying to look for ways to innovate and change the way I train to try and take it to the next level, to keep my improvement above everybody else’s, basically. Just take things out of my comfort zone. For example, we talk about around-the-pole times. In London around the upstream poles – the red ones that you go back up through – is 2.1 seconds average for the winner, in Rio it was 1.8s. So if you go off that you could ask: “1.5s in Tokyo?”’

Your body's capable of a lot more, it's your mind that puts a limitation on it – I try to remove that limitation

RISING What happens when you push yourself past what you thought was possible? JC ‘You find another gear; you think “I'm done” and then all of a sudden you fire up again and you say it's a second wind, but when it comes to fifth time round, it's not a second wind anymore – it's your fifth wind! It's your mind that holds you back. Your body's capable of a lot more, it's your mind that puts a limitation on it, so I try and remove that limitation as much as possible.’

RISING How confident were you going into it that you could achieve it? JC ‘I thought it was really hard but possible – I was really confident going in and then after a few attempts my confidence dropped a little bit. Obviously the more effort you do, the less energy your battery's got left in it. The accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles, it's insane. I thought it was going to be hard but actually in hindsight looking back at it, it was probably five, ten times harder than I actually imagined it being. It’s about being able to switch the power on quickly and then almost notch it down and just get into threshold pace and be able to keep on changing from one on to the other. Two energy sources – it’s so hard and the muscle's depleted of anything at that point. So it's just burning muscles and a mind game of just: “Keep going Joe, you can keep going!”

RISING What did you do to prepare those energy systems in training ahead of the filming? JC ‘A lot of gym work, but work on the speed element because you've only got a few seconds to really get up the drop and get that power in place. If you watch the video yourself, you'll see that it's a ‘quick burst of energy and then it's done’ kind of thing, rather than it being like a gentle slog and then quick burst of energy. So it's being able to switch from slow twitch [muscle fibres] to fast twitch ones quite quickly. So I did quite a lot of low rep stuff in the gym.’

RISING There’s a lot of power in whitewater – what was the toughest challenge to overcome? JC ‘This course is 16,000 litres of water, so you're battling against 16,000 litres of water per second. Toughest challenge was definitely the bottom draft, it’s the steepest feature on the course. Having tried it and tried it and tried it and tried it, it's almost like hitting a treadmill. Imagine that the treadmill is going at 25km an hour and you're trying to jump onto the treadmill and get a run across to the other side of it. That's almost what we're trying to achieve, but it's in a kayak. So this water's coming, piling at you and you're sprinting as hard as you can at it, hit it and you just go backwards.’

RISING You took a few attempts to make it the wrong way up the course; how did you deal with the temporary defeat and the pressure to deliver? JC ‘I went for it once and then went for it again because I was like: “It's going to happen really quickly.” Then I had to take a step back and almost reassess and think, “This is possible but it's going to take me to rest up a little bit rather than going at it like a headless chicken.” I had to assess the situation and pick the right moment to go because the flow surges up and down. I almost took a look from the third-person perspective and asked if I was coaching myself, how I'd go about it? I zoomed out of the project itself, and thought about it from somebody else's point of view – break it down into small chunks and say, “OK, I need to put this stroke here, at this point you need to take this angle,” and then go and do it in its entirety.’

You're doing something out of the ordinary, but you've got a routine to deal with that so it makes it feel more ordinary

RISING You came through under immense pressure to win the Gold Medal in Rio – how do you mentally prepare to perform as well as you ever have? JC ‘When you come to top-level performance, you have a routine. That routine gets you into the zone – the three quarters of a can of Red Bull is the same process I follow for the Olympics and all races. And I always splash my face with water before races three times. If I splash my face twice, I have to do it again to make it three. Because you've done it hundreds of times before, that's the click, the keyword that this is time to perform. You're doing something that is out of the ordinary, but you've got a routine to deal with that so it makes it feel more ordinary.’

RISING Was winning the competition your greatest moment of triumph? JC ‘Yes, by far my greatest moment of triumph. It's a year on today and even thinking about it now gives me goose bumps. It's one of those things that you've trained so hard for but for it to come down to that one moment on that day, and only 88.53 seconds to make a difference. It was a culmination of many years of hard work and training and all those, the pieces of the puzzle coming together at the right time.’

RISING Not many people realise just how strong you need to be to paddle whitewater – how much do you bench? JC ‘I bench 140kg (308lbs) – that’s my one rep best and currently I weigh in at 75kg (165lbs). We do bench pull, almost the opposite of bench press, that's 130kg (286lbs) and with pull-ups, I can do 35kg (77lbs) on top of body weight, so 110kg (242lbs). I think a lot of people just think “oh, it's a lot of arms,” but actually it's probably as much core as it is arms. I took some time off after the Olympics and then got back in the boat and did some training for a week, and I could hardly sit up when I was in bed!’

RISING Your training sessions must be gruelling – how many calories do you need to eat to fuel them? JC ‘In winter when I'm in full training, I probably take in about 5,000 calories a day. And 2.5g-3g of protein per kilogram of body weight. We try to get ten fruit and veg in per day to keep the body healthy, and then carbs to fuel the training. Big meals but big sessions to counteract the calories. With recovery, stretching is really important, but the biggest one for me is sleep, I just sleep quite a lot – it’s the biggest amount of recovery you can give to the muscles. So I might have a nap for half an hour, an hour in the day and I try and get nine hours at night as well.’

RISING More people are looking for adventure and outdoor activity in their lives – how easy is it to get into canoeing and kayaking? JC ‘There's more and more opportunities every single day to get into canoeing. I think a lot of people put limitations and think it's very expensive to get into. If you want all your own equipment it's quite expensive, but there's a lot of canoe clubs out there that have got all the equipment you can start with – the canoe club that I started with was £50 a year for membership!’

RISING After reaching the pinnacle of your sport, how do you motivate yourself to achieve more? JC ‘Motivation for me is quite simple really. I sat down with my coach after Rio and he said “Do you think you'll want to go on to Tokyo?” I was like, “Yes.” He said, “Well, you've completed your goal now”, and I said, “Yes, but the motivation comes from the fact that nobody in my category, in my sport, has ever won it twice.” So I thought: “You know what, I'm going to go out there and try and be the first person to win two Olympic Golds.”’

WHAT NEXT? Watch Joe Clarke battling the Prague whitewater course to achieve his next-level feat…