Abu Dhabi kayaker Mike Ballard ready to put it all on the line in Hungary to reach Tokyo Paralympics

Ballard is in Szeged preparing for the ICF Paracanoe World Cup, where he aims to book his place at the Summer Games

When Mike Ballard takes to the start line for his shot at qualification for the Paralympic Games, on a dam in Hungary on Thursday, he will have simple targets in mind.

Time the moment to get away from the starting “bucket” on the b of the beep. Then, basically, paddle like crazy.

The race will be over in around a minute, anyway. So it’s not as though there will be time to ponder peripheral thoughts.

Like, 'how did I end up here, on a stretch of water in Szeged, a town 175km from Budapest, with a place at the Games within touching distance?'

Or even, far more pressingly, 'am I going to capsize?'

The Abu Dhabi-based kayaker arrived in Hungary on April 28, around two weeks in advance of his heat. It was at that point that he saw his new boat – the K1 Nelo Cinco Paracanoe – for the first time.

The vessel had been bussed to the wakeboard park where Ballard is staying. It is more streamlined than the one he has trained in at home in Al Zeina.

Ideal for fast times. Less so for safety, for an athlete who has no feeling from the waist down, as a result of an injury suffered during an accident while playing rugby in 2014.

“Going into a new boat, the concern is not, ‘Do I have the ability as a kayaker to handle a newer, faster boat’?” Ballard said.

“The concern is, ‘Do I have the nerve functioning from above my belly-button downwards to keep myself in that boat?’

“If I get a boat I can’t handle, it doesn’t matter how fit I am, how good a kayaker I am. I am going to be slow in it, because I am going to be trying hard not to fall out.

“I know I have to race in that boat to be even in the conversation of going to the Paralympics. I could go in the boat I was comfortable with, take 15th place, take a picture, and say it was a great run.

“Or I could go in the fast boat and, in all likelihood, fall out my boat right out of the starting gates and not even be mentioned as being there. That is how much of an unknown it was.

“It is an easy decision to make if you are just renting a boat, but a hard decision to make if you are paying cash for a boat.

“When it came down it, I decided I had two weeks [to get used to it]. So I bought the boat.”

I know I have to race in that boat to be even in the conversation of going to the Paralympics

Mike Ballard on his new K1 Nelo Cinco Paracanoe

Ballard’s roadmap to the ICF Paracanoe World Cup always included 14 days of prep time ahead of the event, solely to get used to the kayak. It just so happens that that lead in time also coincides with a suitable Covid quarantining period.

There is limited travel to Hungary at present because of the pandemic, while movement within the country is also restricted.

Ballard, though, was given special dispensation to travel as an athlete pursuing elite competition, in a country that is a powerhouse of canoeing.

The course itself is purpose built, with such precision that wind is scarcely a factor, while Ballard himself has unlimited training time at the wakeboard park where he is staying.

“It is different to Christmas morning, but it is still a good morning,” he said.

The heats for Ballard’s classification in the World Cup begin at 1.10pm UAE time on Thursday.

The top two finishers in the two heats will advance to Saturday’s final, from where qualification is decided for the Tokyo Paralympics. Places three to six from the heats face a second, repechage race around an hour later, which will decide the remaining finalists.

Over 130 athletes from 37 countries will be pursuing the same goal at the regatta in Szeged, in a range of disciplines.

Paracanoe debuted at the Games in Rio five years ago. For the Tokyo event, it has increased from six races to nine.

Some racers already secured their place at the Games before the pandemic struck. Even though the Hungary event forms part of the seeding process for the Games, a number of leading contenders have opted against travelling.

Ballard, who is hoping to represent the United States in Tokyo, says there remain a number of unknowns, not least how fast he can move in his new boat.

Mike Ballard is preparing to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics. All images Courtesy Jeno Baranovszky
Mike Ballard is preparing to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics. All images Courtesy Jeno Baranovszky

“I was able to kit it out and modify it very quickly, and easily,” Ballard said. “I made a lot of the pieces I needed.

“As I was paddling on the first day, it got to the point where I felt like I had this under control. I got the urge to open it up, but I told myself, ‘You have 14 more days of this. Chill out’.

“A couple of days ago was a what-do-I-have-to-do-to-fall-out-of-the-boat day. I am so comfortable with it, it was about seeing what position and how far I would have to lean for me to capsize.

“People talk about boats as having personalities. This boat is quirkier. Because it is so unstable, it wants to go fast, and it wants to go in a straight line. Some of the things I do to stay safe in my other boat don’t go well in this boat.

“It is meant to go in one direction, and that’s it.”

He is confident, though, that he can be at his fastest yet when the competition gets under way.

“Because I haven’t had a GPS on, I have been having to gauge it on how it feels,” he said. “There have been multiple times when I have felt I was going faster than I have ever gone before. And not even trying.

“That is what it feels like. I know what the physics says should be happening, but we will see what it’s like when we get out there.”

Updated: May 10, 2021 12:38 PM

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