David Florence reached for the stars but found heaven on earth. Having failed in a recent attempt to become an astronaut, the 26-year-old mathematical physics graduate from Aberdeen was left to concentrate on his sporting career and his dedication was rewarded when he won a silver medal in the canoe slalom event here at Shunyi Olympic Park yesterday.
On a day when his room-mate and fellow Scot, Campbell Walsh, a silver medallist four years ago, failed to reach the kayak slalom final, Florence might even have gone one better. He was in first until the last moment, only to see Slovakia's Michal Martikan snatch the gold in the final run.
"I would have loved the gold, but just winning a medal here has been my goal for the last four years," Florence said. "I'm certainly not disappointed. I'm absolutely delighted. This really is a dream come true. It's been a long, long time coming and means everything to me."
In slalom racing, with the waters raging around you, one tiny mistake can be crucial. The 250m Shunyi course, which drops by seven metres between the start and finish, is especially tough. Using a combination of strength and control, the competitors negotiate a series of gates as 5,000 gallons of water per second are pumped through the artificial rapids.
The early section was particularly treacherous and did for Walsh, who never recovered after having to turn back when he missed a gate. Florence qualified by finishing fourth in his semi-final, though he would have been fastest had he not hit an early gate and incurred a time penalty. The finalists competed in reverse order, with the eighth-fastest qualifier going first. Their final and semi-final times were added together to produce the end result.
The first three finalists all made mistakes, but the fourth, Australia's Robin Bell, set the fastest time so far by one and a half seconds. Florence was next and paddled superbly, attacking the final part of the course to beat Bell by nearly two seconds. Finalist No 6, Poland's Krzysztof Bieryt, had a nightmare run and finished more than 21 seconds adrift, ensuring Florence would win at least a bronze, and when the Czech Republic's Stanislav Jezek hit an early gate the Scot knew he had silver in the bank. The last man out, however, was Martikan, the champion in 1996, runner-up in 2000 and 2004 and the fastest man in qualifying and the semi-final. His mastery was evident as he beat Florence's time by 1.96sec.
"It was nerve-racking watching the last three guys, but I was happy," Florence said. "I'd done a good run and in the end that's all you can do. It was my first Olympic final, which is the most exciting and probably the hardest event I'll ever take part in."
Florence, who celebrated his 26th birthday on the day of the opening ceremony, clearly likes a challenge, as was shown when he answered an advert from the European Space Agency seeking four astronauts. "It wasn't a whim," he insisted. "It was an opportunity to apply to do something incredible."
The application form asked whether he could speak Russian, which prompted Florence to start learning it immediately. For the last 18 months, with the Olympics in mind, he has also been learning Mandarin.
Like 10,000 others, Florence had his application rejected. "I was disappointed for him but I have to admit I was quite worried about the idea of him going into space," his mother, Jill, said yesterday, having watched the final in the stands with her husband George, daughter Lyndsey and other son Fraser. She added: "When he decides he is going to do something he works hard at it. He likes to do something else that is mental to balance the training."
George has been David's rowing inspiration – the son sought out the father's advice between his two runs yesterday – though he did not tell him until he was a teenager that he had been Scottish champion.
Florence trained in Edinburgh until he was 17 and chose Nottingham University, as did Walsh and Florence's brother and sister, because of its proximity to the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont. He has been based there ever since and is now a full-time Lottery-funded canoeist, though he also finds time to ski and play the bagpipes.
A turning point in Florence's career came four years ago, when he started working with a sports psychologist, Hugh Mantle, after failing to qualify for the Athens Olympics.
"It used to be the case that everything had to be perfect for David and if something went wrong his head went down," Mark Delaney, Florence's coach, said. "Today he hit gate three but he didn't let his head drop, which he might have done in the past."
Walsh, who shares a room with Florence and studied the same subject at Nottingham University, was philosophical after finishing last of the 15 semi-finalists in the kayak event, which was won by Germany's Alexander Grimm.
"I'm disappointed but I feel I did myself proud with the way I went into the race," the European champion said. "I attacked it with a winning attitude, but sometimes mistakes happen. I feel frustrated because these opportunities don't come around very often, but I feel lucky enough to have got an Olympic medal already."
Britain won three canoeing medals in Athens and there are hopes of more success here. Walsh, 30, and Florence also have their eyes on glory in 2012. "I'd be very surprised if I'm not going for a place in the London Olympics," Florence said.