Nevin Harrison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
If everything had gone smoothly, Nevin Harrison would be a college freshman this fall and have an Olympic gold medal to hang in her dorm room.
Harrison applied to colleges last year like many other high school seniors, and she got accepted into the University of California, Berkeley.
However, once the Tokyo Olympics got moved to next summer because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 18-year-old canoe sprint world champion decided to put off college a little bit.
“So if things go as planned, I should be starting at Berkeley in the fall, but we’ll see,” Harrison said. “The world sometimes has other plans for me, but right now that’s the plan.”
Harrison has spent the past few months adjusting to a new coach and working to build off her breakout season from a year ago. The Seattle native has also tried to stay ready for when women’s canoe makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Harrison, at 17, became the first American to win a world title in a canoe sprint event when she took gold in the women’s C1 200-meter at the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Szeged, Hungary.
In September of this year, Harrison returned to Szeged and narrowly edged Ukraine’s Liudmyla Luzan to win gold in the C1 200-meter at an ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup. Harrison and Luzan appeared to cross the finish line at the same time, but Harrison took the win with a time of 45.77 seconds to Luzan’s 45.79 seconds.
“I was definitely going to be pretty upset with myself if I didn’t replicate (my) results from last year just because I feel like my training has been pretty good,” Harrison said. “So I don’t know. I was definitely frustrated with how it went in Europe just because I didn’t feel like I performed my best, and even though it was enough, I was a little frustrated because I knew I could have done better.”
Harrison was in position last year to potentially become the youngest woman to ever earn gold in Olympic canoe or kayak before the pandemic shut everything down in the spring.
She earned the silver medal in the C1 200-meter at the sport’s Olympic and Paralympic test event last September, less than three weeks after winning her first world championship.
Despite her breakout performances, Harrison decided to switch coaches in January, which she acknowledged was late to make such a big change during an Olympic year.
Harrison is now working with new coach Zsolt Szadovszki, who was a two-time world championship silver medalist in the flatwater kayak. Szadovszki was new to coaching canoe sprint, in which competitors race head-to-head over a straight course on flat water, but the two have quickly formed a connection.
“It’s been really helpful because what he lacks in specific knowledge toward my sport he has kind of made up for it because he is learning so so much as we go on,” Harrison said. “So I’m really excited to see what we do next year because he is going to have all that knowledge that he didn’t have earlier this year and really put it to work.”
Harrison and Szadovszki were talking just as the pandemic started spreading through the U.S. in the spring. She said she told Szadovszki that she believed the Olympics would end up getting postponed.
Harrison said Szadovszki thought she was “crazy” to think the Olympics wouldn’t go on as scheduled. They jokingly made a bet over it.
“I think I definitely saw it coming, and I wasn’t in too much of denial because it kind of seemed like the right choice to make for just the health of the world,” Harrison said. “… At the end of the day, I’m young so I was trying to think of it as an advantage over the other athletes, and I’m getting a year older and I’m just going to get stronger hopefully next year.”
Harrison doesn’t come from a family of paddlers. Her parents were actually hesitant when she first expressed interest in canoe sprint.
When Harrison was around 12 years old, she went to a summer camp at Green Lake in Washington. One of her camp counselors told her and the other campers about canoe sprint.
Harrison thought the sport sounded fun, so she tried it for the first time on the last day of camp. She got into the boat, and it just clicked.
“Usually when you’re just starting this sport, you are falling out all the time, but I got in the boat and I made it really really far without falling in,” Harrison said. “And the coach was like, ‘You’re going to be a world champion!’ And she was totally kidding, but now we look back and we’re like ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Still, there were times early on when Harrison couldn’t stay in the canoe for more than 20 seconds without flipping. She was determined to figure it out, but she never envisioned only a few years later she’d be an Olympic gold medal favorite.
“Myself being as competitive as I am, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I would have made the national team and done pretty well. But, oh my gosh, world champion seems like so out of reach and so crazy,” Harrison said.
“I think if you would have told 12-year-old Nevin that this was gonna be the reality in six years, she would have totally freaked out.”