Mike Ballard has united loyalties at canoe World Cup in Hungary

American paddler has been training with new UAE national team in build up to event in Szeged

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 12, 2020.  
STORY BRIEF: Abu Dhabi man is one step closer to representing US team in Paralympics. 
SUBJECT NAME: Mike Ballard 
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter: Patrick Ryan
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Mike Ballard says he feels like an “honorary member of the UAE team” despite competing in USA colours at the ICF International Canoe Federation Canoe Sprint World Cup in Hungary.

The American paddler, who is now based in Dubai having moved from Abu Dhabi earlier this year, has been training with the recently-formed national team in Jumeirah in the lead-up to the event.

While Ballard, whose long-established goal is to appear at the Paralympic Games in Paris next year, has experience of a number of international events, the UAE only recently started competing at the top level.

Balazs Bartfai, a student at Kent College in Dubai, became the first UAE competitor to appear at an ICF event when he appeared at the Under-23 World Cup last September.

The embryonic national team have sent another team to Szeged for this week’s event. It means Ballard will be able to meet up with some familiar faces, including coach Dani Madar, at the event.

Ballard has been thrilled to find a thriving community of paddlers in Dubai. He gave up full time employment at a school in Abu Dhabi last year, and has devoted himself to kayaking full time since last September.

Having opted to move to Dubai, he joined up with Paddlers Hub UAE in Jumeirah, which is where the national team is based.

“On Mondays, there are 15 people paddling at 6am for the performance team workout,” Ballard, the former Abu Dhabi Harlequins rugby player, said.

“Because the UAE team has a chance to go to international competition, there has been a lot of momentum. They have been able to bring across a full-time coach from Hungary.

“He is there all the time, and it has been so good working with those guys. There is somebody to paddle with all the time.

“That has been such a good situation to come into and be a part of. I am at the stage where volume [of training] is not the concern, it is about doing things correctly and efficiently.

“I am even happier with the coaching and camaraderie than the extended-stay hotels, but they are both good.”

Since moving up the coast from the capital, Ballard has been staying in Premier Inn hotels, which he says is both more cost effective and time-efficient than the alternative.

“I crunched the numbers and had to call them and go and look at the room to make sure it is on point,” Ballard said.

“I think the thing that gives me the most joy about this whole experience is the extended-stay hotel. I get awfully sandy, but get clean sheets and towels every day, and no utility bills. It has been phenomenal.”

While the UAE contingent in Szeged have had to either ask for time off work or school to compete, travelling to events such as the World Cup is now Ballard’s day job.

His heat is on Thursday morning. His next competition will be the World Championships in Duisburg in Germany, which will provide competitors with their first shot at qualifying for Paris.

He acknowledged his link up with the new UAE has given him a new-found zest for training.

“I am the only person who is excited to be there for 6am training,” Ballard said. “I get there 15 minutes early, knowing that after a 6am workout I can go home, take a shower and then sleep until lunch.

“Everybody else has to bring their work clothes and head there straight after. I couldn’t even draft up a better situation than where I am at.”

Updated: May 11, 2023, 2:47 AM