Rachel Cawthorn: 'Ball of fire' will light up London

The kayaker is a prominent Olympic medal hope among Team GB's strong female contingent

Here's a prediction for the London Olympics: British women are likely to be seen on top of the podium more often than men. Prominent among the hopefuls is 23-year-old Rachel Cawthorn, whose reserved demeanour as she feeds the swans on the banks of the Thames contrasts with the fiery competitive spirit which surfaces when she pushes the boat out. Or in her case, the kayak.

Then, according to her team-mates, she becomes "a ball of fire" in the water, after which she likes nothing more than to wind down with a spot of crocheting.

According to the sport's leading British paddler, Dr Tim Brabants, veteran of three Olympics and reigning K1 1000m champion, Cawthorn is the one to beat in the women's sprint events. "Off the water she's quiet and unassuming but once she starts racing she grits her teeth and her determination is amazing," he says. "She's a real toughie."

Team GB will know how many places they have for 2012 after a final series of European qualifying events and a home regatta in Nottingham this month, with 14 June as the selection date. Cawthorn, who races in the K1 (single kayak) over 500m and the K4 500 (a four-person craft), awaits formal selection for these sprint races with team-mates Louisa Sawers, Abi Edmonds and Jess Walker. A kayak, by the way, is distinguished from a canoe by the sitting position of the paddler and the number of blades on the paddle.

It has been an eight-year journey since Cawthorn first "started messing about in the river" as a 15-year old schoolgirl in Guildford, Surrey, after learning about a British Canoe Union talent identification scheme during a school assembly.

"I hadn't even been in a canoe properly, just some silly paddling on holiday," she says. "But I went down to the River Wey near my home and found it was really fun, though I kept quiet about it. I didn't even tell my mum – and she worked at the school – until I started going for it competitively.

"Canoeing was never in my family but once I started it seemed to catch on. My dad now does some coaching down at the club and my younger brother is giving it a go.

"My first two years as a senior, I raced in the K4. Really that was just for the experience. My breakthrough year was 2009 when I won a few medals at World Cups, a bronze at the Europeans, and was fourth at the Worlds. Then I won a bronze in the Worlds at Poznan in Poland in 2010.

"I think our Olympic prospects are good. There are really positive vibes in the team and we all support each other even though we know some of us will be racing against each other. We're in with a great chance as individuals and as a team."

She leaves the house she shares with Sawers in Maidenhead at dawn and heads for the water at Eton Dorney, where the Olympic events will be held, or Bisham Abbey.

"I normally go home for a second breakfast before going back for another session. Then it's lunch and a quick power-nap before meetings with the physios and team psychologists. I sometimes go for a run and I have a gym session around tea-time."

"I really like being outside, even when it is freezing cold early in the morning. It is so exciting. I'm much better at racing than I am at ball games because I don't really have that sort of co-ordination for hitting things."

Cawthorn was at the Beijing Olympics but as an onlooker taking part in the British Olympic Association programme Olympic Ambitions, which gives prospective participants a taste of the Games experience.

Her boyfriend John Schofield is also a British Olympic canoeist with 2012 aspirations. "The sport more or less dominates my life," says Cawthorn. "I've never really done anything else apart from teaching a bit of swimming.

"I started university at Royal Holloway [studying biology] when I left school but decided I couldn't do that and canoeing as well. I'll probably go back to university at some stage but I'm planning on keeping going until at least the next Olympics in Rio."

She will keep on paddling – and crocheting, mainly animals. "I taught myself how to crochet between training sessions. I spent ages watching YouTube trying to work it out and ended up making a really funny-looking chicken with a huge head and tiny body. Our dining room at home has turned into a bit of a craft exhibition."

She is also into découpage, which consists of "ripping up bits of coloured paper and gluing them to objects for decoration", and she loves building sandcastles.

These are simple pleasures which tickle her team-mates, but there's no doubting the respect they have for her alter ego. "She may be a quiet one," says Jess Walker, "but she's got fight in her. She's a little ball of fire in the water, and it just keeps burning."

Girl power is the buzz phrase of 2012 but once Cawthorn squeezes into her slim, cigar-shaped kayak it is her paddle power which may set London's Games alight.

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