Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie claimed Britain’s first-ever gold medal in the two-man canoe slalom at London 2012 with a breathtaking performance – and it was a victory to savour, coming after years of frustration and setbacks.
The pair, ranked sixth in the world, pulled out a flawless run on the 25-gate 300m course to record a shock win – leaving themselves speechless and turning the tables on their long-standing Brit rivals David Florence and Richard Hounslow, who took silver.
Stott and Baillie went into the final as the slowest pair but navigated the rapids without incurring penalties, emerging with a time of 106.41. Having gone first they had to play a waiting game. As each rival team paddled through the undulating, twisting course the tension mounted, and the sense that a shock was on the cards grew.
Frenchmen Gauthier Klauss and Matthieu Peche caused a seismic roar from the 12,000-strong crowd when they clipped a pole and incurred a two-second penalty, thus ensuring Britain a place in the top three. But when three-time Olympic champions Pavol and Peter Hochschorner of Slovakia took their run, and finished almost two seconds slower than Baillie and Stott, the unthinkable happened. At the end of the final the British canoeists leapt into the water to celebrate.
It was a dream that so nearly didn’t come to pass. The two men, both 33, have been friends for more than a decade and have been competing in the C2 since the end of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Former kayak racers, they took bronze as a team at the World Championships in 2009 and 2011, and recorded the same results in the European contests in 2009 and 2010. But little had gone to plan in their career on the water. The low-point of their careers came in 2011 when Stott, from Bedford in England, and Baillie, from Aberdeen in Scotland, both suffered serious injuries.
Baillie broke his collarbone so badly in a mountain-biking accident that he required surgery and at one point feared his days in a canoe were numbered. When Stott badly dislocated his shoulder paddling on the Olympic course it seemed they were doomed to miss the Games. However, with enormous amounts of grit and hard work, they made a comeback, and won gold in the European Canoe Slalom Championships in Augsburg, Germany, one month before the 2012 Games. Then came their miracle win at Lee Valley White Water Centre.
After winning gold, Stott told reporters: “It could have been a disaster and now it’s a dream. There is nothing taken for granted in this sport and getting to the final was amazing.” Baillie added: “I don't think surreal really covers it. It's crazy. I thought our run might be good enough for a medal, but I didn't expect that. It’s a topsy-turvy sport.”