Ex-Olympian trained in Wheathampstead

Former Harpenden man canoed on River Lea to hone slalom skills

A SHALLOW river at the heart of a pretty St Albans village seems an unlikely setting as the training ground of a future Olympian.

But that is exactly what the River Lea - mentioned in the Domesday Book and, more recently, the scene of duck races – once provided for Richard Fox, a former Olympian and ex-Harpenden resident.

Richard shared memories of paddling on the Lea with the Herts Ad after recently visiting, and giving the thumbs up to, the Lee Valley White Water Centre, the only brand new London 2012 venue the public can use ahead of the Olympic Games.

The centre, at Broxbourne, Herts, is home to Great Britain’s canoe slalom team and will host five days of competition in front of an estimated 60,000 spectators next year.

Richard competed for Great Britain from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, winning medals at the International Canoe Federation (ICF) world championships, and finished fourth in the K-1 event at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

In 1998 he emigrated to Australia to become national head coach for the Sydney Olympics. Richard is still involved with Olympic programmes in Australia and is currently second vice president of the ICF, the umbrella organisation of all national canoe organisations worldwide.

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Speaking from his Penrith, near Sydney, Australia, home, Richard reminisced about his formative years in Harpenden and St Albans.

He moved to Park Hill, Harpenden when just six months old, and lived in the town from 1960 until 1978. Richard attended Roundwood Park Primary and, later, St Albans Boys’ Grammar (now Verulam).

His father, Roger, wanted to get the family into water sports, so a kit kayak was promptly built, and Richard’s canoeing skills were initiated at the likes of the Grand Union Canal, Cottonmill swimming pool, Potters Bar and the Great Ouse in Bedford.

Richard said: “I progressed to the top division at the age of 15 and I was hooked.”

Unfortunately, it was difficult to find a waterway in St Albans to train at for slalom events. But then Richard discovered a place on the River Lea in Wheathampstead.

He said: “I used to knock on doors of people living near the river to ask if I could leave my kayak with them, because my parents couldn’t take me every morning. There was an old man, who lived right by the river, who said ‘yes’ and I used to mow his lawn and left my kayak in his shed.

“The river is shallow, narrow and flat but it is where I developed my skills. I used it for two-and-a-half years. No one would have known; it was in a very discreet area, and there was never a big group because I did it before or after school. I was extremely motivated.”

Richard said being selected for the 1992 Olympics was an exciting experience and something that athletes “dream of”.

He added: “It’s about the journey and the sport and if you get to go to the Olympics, it’s a bonus.”

Richard said it was great to visit the White Water Centre and catch up with friends from St Albans. He can’t wait for next year’s Olympics, and said: “The Games will be huge. The race days are mind-blowing. Anyone who gets a ticket will enjoy it.”