Mike Ballard says his resolve to become a Paralympian remains as strong as ever, even if his chances of doing so are now on pause for the next three years.
The Abu Dhabi-based kayaker’s bid to make it to the Tokyo Games later this year was extinguished after he finished eighth in the B-final of the ICF Paracanoe World Cup on Saturday.
The competition in Hungary carried with it four qualifying places for the Paralympics. It proved an eye-opening trip for Ballard, who ranked 17th overall in the KL2 Men’s 200m category, in a brand new boat and against an experienced field.
“I hit a lot of checkpoints,” Ballard said.
“I accomplished a ton of the things I wanted to accomplish. Getting the boat, getting the right equipment, paddling the boat well – I was happy with all those things.
“Under race conditions and difficult weather conditions, I need more time to get acclimatised with it.
“It is one of those things. Tokyo 2020 was never the goal. The goal is Paris 2024, and Tokyo was a checkpoint.
“It was a missed checkpoint, and it is not like I am devastated. I had a very good idea of what I was getting myself into when I came out here.”
The United States paddler finished his B-final 10.24 seconds behind the winner, Andras Rozbora, a Hungarian Paralympian who is an amputee.
The nature of his injury is different to Ballard’s. The United States paddler is paralysed from the waist down as a result of an accident playing rugby in 2014.
It means controlling the force and steering of his kayak via his legs is not possible.
Although the World Cup revealed just how challenging competing with athletes of different disabilities can be, Ballard is focused on solutions rather than fatalistic.
“It would be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh, that team has that support behind them,’ or, ‘Oh, that competitor has that function that I don’t have’,” Ballard said.
“I chart out for myself challenging but attainable goals for the Olympics, then you get into it and it is even more challenging than you expected.
“In terms of classification, I am on the more disabled end of my competition. If you have leg functions, like [Rozbora] who is a below-knee amputee, my path to success is a lot narrower because of my injury.
“By virtue of the classification rules, I will have less function than the other guys in the competition.
“It gets into the fatalistic mindset of thinking, ‘Well, that guy can walk and I can’t.’ Now I have to find out a way to short-circuit that.
“If I can get the strapping in my boat right, and strengthen my core, that is what I need to be doing. It is good to see those other guys, and the improvements they made, how they did it, and what I have to do to catch up.”
One way to “short-circuit” the differences is operating a faster boat, and Ballard is happy with the advances he made on that count in Hungary.
When he arrived in Szeged, he came into contact with his new K1 Nelo Cinco Paracanoe for the first time. It is more streamlined than the boat he has trained in until now in Abu Dhabi.
While it moves faster, it also made for difficulties controlling it with the strong cross wind in the two heats in Szeged, as well as in the rough wake of the other competitors in the final.
After the competition was completed on Saturday, Ballard sent his boat on two Abu Dhabi. It means he will now be able to train in the same specification boat in the UAE, or at his parents home in Michigan, as he will compete in the next time he takes to the water at the World Championship in Copenhagen in September.
“I will be able to train hard all year round now, so that is the ideal scenario,” Ballard said.
“They are all the same spec, so I won’t have to tinker in Al Zeina. When I’m tinkering, and I make one part that fits there, that will work on all three of them, which is great.
“It would be so good to fix one, get it fitted right on my boat in Abu Dhabi, and be able to 3D print it and have ones for each of the other ones, too.”