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Descent on come hell or high water

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SPECIAL DAY: Jonathan Simmons (right) with Jenny Egan from Salmon Leap Canoe Club competing in the Double Kayak Mixed K2 event during the 60th Liffey Descent last September. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

SPECIAL DAY: Jonathan Simmons (right) with Jenny Egan from Salmon Leap Canoe Club competing in the Double Kayak Mixed K2 event during the 60th Liffey Descent last September. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

SPECIAL DAY: Jonathan Simmons (right) with Jenny Egan from Salmon Leap Canoe Club competing in the Double Kayak Mixed K2 event during the 60th Liffey Descent last September. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Covid-19 may have wreaked devastation across all Irish sport, but Moira Aston is determined that it will not scuttle the annual Liffey Descent.

Come hell or high water, as the saying goes.

"That is our flagship - it's more than just an event," the CEO of Canoeing Ireland declares.

"It is our 61st year. You can't miss a year and break the chain; you have a responsibility to do something!"

The organisers of this iconic marathon-on-water, stretching over 32km of the River Liffey from the K Club in Straffan to Islandbridge, are potentially lucky in one sense: timing.

For all the uncertainties unleashed by coronavirus, Aston is confident that the race can proceed, as planned, on Saturday, September 12.

Obstacle

Earlier in the year, she had feared the biggest obstacle could centre around the sale of the K Club. "The K Club have come back and said it's no problem, you can start from the K Club as normal," she reveals.

"And then Covid hit."

But she reiterates: "Unless the landscape changes, we will have a race. We will absolutely have a race! The issue for us is going to be at the start and the finish line, just making sure that we can keep people in some way distant in those areas."

The public health crisis poses other challenges. In a normal year, they would already be advertising the event and chasing entries. But they can't appear to be "jumping the gun" or being "gung-ho".

From humble beginnings in 1960, the Liffey Descent has grown into an international event. At one stage it attracted 900 entrants before numbers "dropped way down," according to Aston. "Last year we started building it back up again and we were up to just about 600 people. We were hoping for 800 this year."

Aston moved from Athletics Ireland into the Canoeing Ireland hotseat in late 2018. It's a very different organisation embracing a disparate array of paddle sports and disciplines on water.

At the top end you have high-performance Olympic events in canoe sprint and canoe slalom, the latter over a whitewater course, and embracing a variety of classes in canoes (with single-bladed paddles) and kayaks (double blades).

Before Covid closed everything, Clareman Liam Jegou, a C1 canoe slalom racer based in France, was the only Irish canoeist to have sealed a place at the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics. Several others, including well-known sprint kayaker Jenny Egan, were among those still chasing qualification.

Canoeing was one of the first sports given the green light to resume on May 18. But many complications remain.

Since they aren't competent in self-rescue, beginners are not allowed back on water yet. Otherwise you can, so long as social distancing and hygiene regulations are followed. Some clubs, though, have delayed reopening until later in the year.

Travel restriction rules are a big issue for some high-performance athletes. "They can't actually get to where they need to train - even though they would be observing all of the social distancing guidelines. So, they've been asked to be considered outdoor workers," Aston explains.

"Jenny (Egan) is very lucky that she lives very close to Salmon Leap, her local club. She's back training. The sprint group of performance athletes are actually doing fairly okay.

"The slalom group is another matter entirely because we don't have a slalom course in Ireland," she adds - apart from a "very small" course called Sluice at Lucan.

"This is the time of year when they would be travelling all over the world, trying to get onto courses. A big one would be Lee Valley in Britain."

Commercial

Whereas commercial providers of water-based activities have been "hammered" between insurance and now a pandemic, Canoeing Ireland is relatively lucky on the financial front.

It receives a core grant of €250,000 and a high-performance grant of €50,000 from Sport Ireland, while a further €80,000 over 2019/2020 was granted under the Women in Sport allocation.

"We were in a growth phase where we were still dependent enough on Government funding," says Aston.

"As long as Sport Ireland don't switch off the final part of the grant that's due - and they've promised that they won't - we should be okay for the rest of the year.

"But what we're really going to miss is trying to rebuild that momentum. We were at full steam ahead, we had plans in place … and it's going to be really hard to build the energy again."

Canoeing Ireland is "fully behind" the Federation of Irish Sport in its lobbying of government for a resilience fund to support national bodies in these precarious times.

"It is really badly needed," Aston reiterates. "If the government don't think that sport is as important as we think it is, it will always fall by the wayside when it comes to a decision between funding for health or housing or anything else, and sport. It will always be the poorest cousin."