Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Helen Barnes, 26


Slalom canoeist


pounds 15,000


West Bridgeford, Nottingham

It's not often you hear about a woman who canoes for a living.

There aren't many of us around actually. Just the British team - about four. Plus some part-timers at university. Life has got much easier since a lottery grant came in 18 months ago. But I'm the only one with a big sponsor.

So how did you get interested in it?

When I was 15 I went on an activity holiday which included windsurfing, abseiling and rock-climbing. I particularly loved the canoeing: plenty of silly games and fun in the water. I talked my dad into joining a local club with me. He's retired now but used to be a top veteran.

I bet it isn't as much fun now.

No, it's hard work. To race at the highest level you have to train twice a day, six days a week.

What's your daily routine?

Mark, my boyfriend, wakes me as he's leaving for work. I eat a low-fat, high- carbohydrate diet so breakfast is cereals and one cup of tea. Training starts at nine. In winter I work on fitness, strength and endurance and I'm not in the canoe nearly as much as the summer time. I used to have long hair and there have been times when it was frozen solid. I work indoors in the gym on a treadmill, rowing machine and weights. In summer I spend sessions on technique and speed work in the boat.

What are the perks?

My sponsor, Citroen, gives me a new car every year. I get to compete all around the world. Three years ago I was able to train in Australia for two months when it was winter here. There is my TV work too. I got into the Guinness Book of Records by doing 100 Eskimo rolls on Record Breakers with Kriss Akabusi.

What's the money like?

I earn about the same as I would have done if I'd stayed in teaching, which is what I originally trained in. Friends who went on to teach say I've got an easy life - they have to deal with more stress and more evening work.

What do you spend the sponsorship money on?

It has to pay for things like canoes, which cost pounds 1,000 each. I get through two or three a year. If you hit something the end can snap off. Once this happened when I'd had the boat for only two days. I also drive something like 30,000 miles a year so I really need the car. I get other things like free physiotherapy and free gym membership.

Sounds brilliant. What's the downside?

I had one of my worst years in 1997 when I injured my shoulder and was out of action for 18 months. Your world falls apart. I was stuck indoors and panicked that I'd never paddle again. Severe injuries are the worst thing that can happen in an adventure sport like this. You then see your body changing and feel out of shape. It was totally demoralising.

You must have been really worried.

Yeah, but it wasn't as bad as getting hepatitis A about five years ago from polluted river water. I had 80 per cent liver failure and had to spend two weeks in hospital. But my worst accident was when I took the boat on a river in the French Alps. The paddle caught as I was getting out. I got pulled under and was dragged along for several kilometres in the freezing water. I thought I was going to die the, I really did. My dad was running along the river bank trying to keep up with me. I ended up in intensive care with internal bleeding for a week.

Is it worth all the aggravation?

Of course it is. All my thoughts are on getting back into the British team for the Sydney Olympics next year. I'd also like a career in television, presenting adventure sports and action woman stuff.

Would you go back to teaching?

I did teach for a year when I was injured but it's too stressful and I'm too selfish. I need to do something I get a buzz from.