An interview with Anne Dickins, 2016 Paracanoe Gold Medalist

The first session of Innovation Week’s second day went off with a bang with Anne Dickens’s inspirational interview. Unbelievable levels of determination and tenacity were evident from the way she spoke about her meteoric rise from volunteer at London 2012, to gold medal winner in Rio. The mantra ‘never look how far you’ve got left, look how far you’ve come’ defines her thinking, and it seems that she approaches every challenge with such a high level of tunnelled vision determination that failure is not an option. And failure, in the world of high-level sport, seems to be coming second.

I think Stephen Lyle summed up everyone’s thoughts when he said: “you’ve gone through 10 points where I would have given up already”. The litany of unbelievable challenges Anne Dickens lists off are dizzying, from blood covered hands to fighter pilot training to overcome seasickness, to being so tired that dribbling is a reassuring sign that you are still alive.

The talk also revealed fascinating insight into the Paralympics, from medals that jangle more loudly if they are gold, a completely accessible Olympic village, and a spreadsheet numbering system to classify levels of disability in order to determine who can compete in which race. But what stood out from the interview was the revelation of the inner working of a sportswoman’s mind. Speaking of the calm she felt on the starting line, about breaking down each part of her technique so that it was as effective as it could possibly be, and about completely changing the shape of her body, listening to Anne was a hugely inspiring dose of positivity on a Tuesday morning. Her answers were strewn with inspirational soundbites, amongst my favourites: “I can’t do it yet, but I’ll be able to do it then”.

In the end, Anne won her medal by 300ths of a second. She humbly visualises this for us as 1.5 inches or a millimetre per stroke. It is, of course, infinitesimal, but in the world of elite sport it is an extra few hours spent honing the perfect technique, and the extra bit of effort in the face of immense pain. Anne speaks of her age and inexperience as both a hindrance and an advantage, and this seems to be the crux of what makes her so remarkable. Racing against people the same age as her children, deciding to take up a sport which is the complete opposite of the endurance cycling she previously competed in, and her disability itself gives Anne a perspective of wisdom. As she describes it, it gives her a neuroplasticity to perfect her technique, her ignorance bestowing the perfect foundation for greatness. One thing is certain, it is the opposite view that most of us take. But then, we are not all Paralympians.

So, surely such an impressive rise to merits an early retirement and a few sofa days? Not for Anne, who has taken up another sport, mysteriously called outrigger, in which she aims to compete at the World Championships in July. She calls it difficult, I think we’ll safely take her word for it. But if anyone can do it, it is undoubtedly Anne.


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