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Sawbridgeworth-based canoe slalom coach Craig Morris helping Team GB athletes Mallory Franklin, Kimberley Woods and Adam Burgess go for Olympic medals in Tokyo

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The coronavirus pandemic may have decimated this summer's calendar, but, if all goes to plan, it means 2021 is going to be a bumper sporting year.

The biggest event will be the postponed Olympic Games in Japan, where more than 11,000 athletes are expected to compete for the most coveted medals in their chosen fields.

And Sawbridgeworth's Craig Morris will be going to the multi-sport carnival as part of the Team GB canoeing coaching team.

British Canoeing coach and Sawbridgeworth resident Craig Morris (43183597)
British Canoeing coach and Sawbridgeworth resident Craig Morris (43183597)

The 38-year-old, who moved to the town six years ago to be closer to the Lee Valley White Water Centre, is the podium technical coach – slalom at British Canoeing, working exclusively with athletes Adam Burgess, Mallory Franklin and Kimberley Woods across five disciplines.

Having helped them qualify for Tokyo, they are all looking forward to their delayed debut appearances at an Olympics, with Franklin's women's canoe single class (C1) featuring at a Games for the first time. It will be a real trip of firsts as the other canoe slalom qualifier, Bradley Forbes-Cryans, is also making his Games bow, while his coach and double Olympic medallist Richard Hounslow is attending the extravaganza as a coach for the first time.

"We probably see going to these Games as even more special now. It's going to be one of the first major events and a reconnecting of humanity," said Morris, who is married and has two daughters, aged six and one.

Adam Burgess (43218068)
Adam Burgess (43218068)

"I'm looking forward to it with much optimism and we're just trying to focus on the here and now.

"The postponement is an individual experience for everyone. There's been constant dialogue through this period and we've learned a lot about each other."

Morris, who hails from Wordsley in the West Midlands, did a business studies with marketing degree at Nottingham Trent University before being inspired by coach and former world champion Allan Edge to get into volunteer coaching. Having always enjoyed paddling, he went on to become a self-employed coach, based in Nottingham, with some of his work being for the Government-funded Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme.

He started working for what is now British Canoeing in 2006, working his way through the ranks to his current position working with elite-level canoe slalom athletes, who race down white-water courses through hung gates against the clock. Last season he helped athletes achieve nine medals at three major competitions and has, in recent years, supported athletes to 12 senior world and European podium finishes as well as over 30 World Cup medals.

Craig Morris with canoe slalom athlete Mallory Franklin (43183576)
Craig Morris with canoe slalom athlete Mallory Franklin (43183576)

An intense qualification process for Morris's three charges came to a successful end last year before they all went out to Tokyo for a test event and training camp 12 months ago.

That was the last time they took part in real competitive action – then came the coronavirus crisis and the subsequent cancelling of all events.

Having elite sport status means Morris and the athletes have been able to continue training at Lee Valley under strict guidelines, but they are raring to go for competition when circumstances allow.

"There are some caged tigers in our team! The last time they raced in anger was pretty much the test event in Tokyo last November," said Morris.

"We've been able to keep people training and enjoying the sport while keeping everyone safe.

"From a coaching angle, yes we've been able to train for large periods during this time but we've also had to rework some of our practices and find new ways of doing things."

Kimberley Jones (43218072)
Kimberley Jones (43218072)

As things stand, the group are due to fly out to Tokyo in April and will then do so monthly for further training and testing before the Olympics' scheduled start date of July 23.

Assuming restrictions ease, it is going to be a hectic period for all concerned, with the European championships due to be held in Italy in early May. And the world championships are not normally held in an Olympic year but they are set to take place in Slovakia in September.

Franklin, Woods (kayak single) and Burgess (canoe single) will be looking to be part of the Team GB medal tally in Tokyo, with Morris revelling in his role of getting them there in peak condition.

"These guys had to fight really, really hard to get to the Games. Strength in depth is really high and so to even get their places was an incredible achievement," he said.

"We focus on what we can control and each individual has their own motivation for going to a Games. If they perform to their best then they're in the bracket of being able to step on that podium.

"We're respectful of the sport's nuances and focus on improving performance."

Craig Morris with Mallory Franklin, left, and Kimberley Woods (43183584)
Craig Morris with Mallory Franklin, left, and Kimberley Woods (43183584)

Getting the very best out of people is what inspires Morris and his achievements have been duly noted by some top awards judges recently.

He is in the running for the High Performance Coach of the Year prize in the UK Coaching Awards, with the ceremony being held virtually on Thursday (December 3). He is up against Peter Rome and Ryan Jones from the worlds of wheelchair fencing and para-athletics respectively.

And he was a winner last week after claiming the Special Impact on High Performance in a Sport at the UK Sport PLx Conference, which was also an online affair and was hosted by broadcaster Hazel Irvine and former rower Dame Katherine Grainger, Britain's most decorated female Olympian.

"Winning awards is humbling and I feel I'm representing a broad team including the individual athletes and those that are working with them and helping them develop," said Morris.

"It's also nice to put canoe slalom on the map a bit more because we can struggle against more high-profile sports."

Away from the water, Morris' hobbies include walking, trekking and running in the mountains as well as playing the drums.

And he will be doing all he can to make sure the athletes under his wing have the best chance possible of paddling to a victorious beat in Tokyo.

"I'm just fascinated by people and by learning," said Morris. "Being able to combine the two as a job and travel the world is fantastic."

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