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Doctors said her career was over. She switched sports and won Olympic gold

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TOKYO — Nevin Harrison was 14 years old when the doctor told her she was finished. All she’d ever wanted to be was an athlete. But athletics, she was told, weren’t feasible.

She was, at the time, a multi-sport star with Olympic dreams. “I always dreamed of it being in track,” she said. She ran the 100- and 200-meter sprints, and “loved it so much.”

But then came the hip pain, and the doctor’s appointments. Harrison was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, a condition commonly found in dogs. Her hip socket and thighbone weren’t properly connected. Running hurt, and then really hurt. The pain forced her to give it up.

So she turned to a new sport that didn’t require running.

Three years later, she became a world champ.

And two years after that, here at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo, an Olympic champ.

Harrison paddled a canoe 200 meters in 45.932 seconds on Thursday to win her event’s inaugural Olympic gold. Games organizers only added women’s canoeing to the Olympic program this year, nearly three decades after its initial inclusion as a men’s sport. Harrison, now 19, took advantage. 

Sporting sunglasses and sweat in 93-degree heat, racing from Lane 4 as the only teen in a “stacked” field, nerves shook her at the start. “It was scary to say the least,” she said. “There were nerves. There was fear.” But she jolted her boat out to an early lead and never looked back.

When she crossed the finish line, almost a second ahead of the silver medalist, she bent over, and cupped her hand to her mouth, and held back disbelieving tears.

“It's such a crazy, big dream. And it doesn't ever seem like it's actually achievable,” she said 10 minutes later. “So crossing that finish line, and looking around, and seeing I was first, was really surreal.

“Everything I ever kind of dreamed of as a kid, and even in the last few years, was finally true! It happened!” She laughed and cried and explained all at once. “So I'm really happy.”

Nevin Harrison of the United States competes in the women's canoe single 200m heat at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Nevin Harrison won the women's canoe single 200m at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Growing up in Seattle, one of very few American canoeing hotbeds, if there is such a thing, Harrison first took up the sport when she saw a few people paddling on a nearby lake. She was 12 at the time. Her first goal was to simply stay in the canoe, and out of the water. When her hip forced her away from other sports — including soccer and softball, which she’d also played as a kid — she turned her focus to this one.

It was, at the time, one of the United States’ worst Olympic sports. At the most recent world championships, in 30 total events, only one American advanced to a final. That one was Harrison, and she won it, as a 17-year-old, in her first year of international competition.

The success took her aback. “It all happened so fast,” she said. The pandemic, in a way, offered her “a little extra time to digest what was happening to me.” As the Olympics approached, she moved from Seattle to Georgia to train. “It was definitely a hard transition for someone that was supposed to be a senior in high school, and going to prom, and having a regular life,” she said. She was, instead, alone, training and competing, training and competing.

In fact, much of her rapid rise in the sport has been a self-made one. She didn’t have American canoeists to look up to or learn from. She had coaches and support, of course, but, “it's been a hard journey,” she said, “because I didn't have anyone to really follow.”

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed

Her idols, instead, were track stars and gymnasts. Allyson Felix, Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt. Athletes in sports that she, just a half-decade earlier, wanted to pursue.

But now, as she said a few months ago: “I kind of have a track on the water.”

And, as of Thursday, an Olympic gold medal. How did it compare to the one she dreamed of winning on a track?

“This is so much better,” she said.

Emotions overwhelmed her as she spoke about how much fun the past week had been. “The people are one of a kind, and the community's amazing,” she said.

“And I really love it. I love being on the water. I love being outside. So it's perfect.”

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