'All I can do is race': Mike Ballard staying relaxed ahead of vital qualifier for Tokyo Paralympics

Abu Dhabi-based kayaker competes at the ICF Paracanoe World Cup in Hungary on Thursday

As the times ticks down until his shot at Paralympic qualification, you might expect Mike Ballard to be showing some strain.

Races in his discipline at the ICF Paracanoe World Cup will last less than a minute. The top two finishers in Thursday’s two heats will advance to the final.

Those placing third to sixth will get a second shot at reaching the final, from where those heading to the Tokyo Games will be decided. The rest go home with nothing.

If he is feeling the stress, Ballard has a funny way of showing it. The American kayaker could scarcely seem any more laid back.

“Everything is so far out of my control, there is nothing I can do,” Ballard said from his temporary base at a wakeboard park in Szeged, Hungary.

“All I can do is race. That sounds like a coaching cliché, but that is how it is. It is not like you can play defence in this sport.

“Everyone is doing their own stuff. It is relaxed. That is why I joined this sport.

“I can’t control what the other guys do, or even who turns up to this tournament. And, of the guys who have turned up, how have they been training?

“I’m happy with what I have put in so far. I’d be less chilled if my boat wasn’t running so well, but I have settled into the new boat, so I’m happy.”

Although the organisers have announced more than 130 competitors, in various classifications, will be in Hungary this week for the World Cup, it remains unclear precisely who they will be.

Some already booked their places for Tokyo before the pandemic, so are not obliged to attend the World Cup.

They still might, though, both for competition – which has been scarce given the health crisis – and also as part of the process that determines seeding for the Games.

“We are very excited to see so many countries and so many athletes all vying for a place at this year’s Tokyo Paralympic Games,” John Edwards, the ICF paracanoe committee chairman, was quoted as saying.

“It is a wonderful boost for our sport, especially after such a difficult period globally where so many athletes have struggled to train and have really missed the opportunity to compete.

Mike Ballard, training at Al Raha Beach area, now has his sights on Paris 2024. Victor Besa / The National
Mike Ballard, training at Al Raha Beach area, now has his sights on Paris 2024. Victor Besa / The National

“What will be particularly exciting is to see just how much our sport has grown since Rio. Times are much faster, athletes are stronger, and, most importantly, we are going to see new countries represented.”

Ballard, for his part, has been grateful for an extended lead in to the competition. He arrived two weeks ahead of Thursday’s heats.

That gave him time to acclimatise from the heat of Abu Dhabi, as well as to get used to his new racing boat, and to simulate some of the training which is not possible on the water of the Arabian Gulf.

Tuesday afternoon, for example, included two hours spent synchronising setting off from the electronic start gates which will be in use at the World Cup.

“More and more people have been coming onto the course in recent days," he said of his training.

"I was paddling slowly down my lane, and an able-bodied guy came up on my left and passed me, doing a quick sprint.

“When it got to the point I did my start, and paddled quick, I passed the able-bodied guy. That was a new thing, and something tangible [to show he was making progress in his new boat].”

Until the back injury he sustained in 2014, Ballard’s sports of choice had been team games like baseball and rugby.

Even though his focus is now individual, he says he still appreciates the camaraderie of the kayak community.

“It is a good vibe. There is not really a scenario where a kayaker talks trash to another kayaker,” Ballard said.

“If you are ever getting in or out of your boat and there are another team there, they will always help you if you needed help. There is no sort of animosity. It is a very chilled out thing."

Updated: May 12, 2021 10:19 AM

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