HOMETOWN: Seattle EVENT: Sprint Canoe
How does Nevin Harrison feel about packing her bags for Tokyo? “I’m really scared,” she readily admits. “The Olympics are such a big deal.” The 19-year-old has cause for some pre-games jitters: The U.S. has never won gold in sprint canoe, a compellingly watchable event in which solo racers kneel in sleek, improbably skinny canoes and paddle as if being chased by rabid alligators. (Then, again, women have never before even been allowed to compete in the event, despite handling kayaks since 1948.) Plus, she managed to compete exactly one time during the international crapstorm that was 2020. “I’m worried about how much I’ve improved in my training—i know all the other athletes have improved,” she says.
Harrison twice now has postponed plans to study premed at the University of California, Berkeley, in order to maintain training. Impressively, she’s been on the water for only seven years. As a kid, she was a hopeful young runner until being diagnosed with serious hip dysplasia. Then a sailing-camp counselor who also happened to be a former Team USA paddler suggested she give canoeing a try. Even though Harrison thought she was lousy, the counselor told her after that first paddle that she was going to be a world champion. “I laughed about it,” she says, “but then it drove me really hard. When I’m no good at something, I take that as a challenge.” Five years later, Harrison won at the Pan Am Games and then the 2019 world championships in Hungary, becoming Team USA’S first ever female sprint canoe world champion and punching her ticket to Tokyo.
If you’re looking for a good omen before her race, watch for tears. For real—part of Harrison’s prerace ritual is to isolate, listen to calming music, and have what she calls her “signature cry.” “It’s an abrupt transition from my normal super- friendly self,” she says. “Right before the race, I definitely will cry. It just releases all the nerves. But once I’m on the water, my coach says I turn green like the Hulk and zone in.”