Interview and photos by Nina Jelenc.
The best Slovenian canoe sprint athlete Špela Ponomarenko Janić had an excellent season, which started at the World Cup race in Germany, continued with great results in Račice and Montemor-o-Velho, where she won two medals, and it was crowned with her Olympic performances in Rio de Janeiro. She finished the 200 metres final A in excellent fourth place and added tenth place in the 500 metres event.
After the Olympic Games fans and supporters prepared a special reception for you in Koper. Probably it is nice to feel such support in your hometown?
It really was a good reception. I am pleased that there have been so many young athletes present. I know that the number of them is growing. And I hope that we will have even more young athletes after my success. Now we will get new facilities in our club, the fitness will be bigger, so more children will be able to train at the same time. Until now they had to be divided into groups.
Many people asked you for an autograph at the reception. Have you counted how many times you had to sign your autograph cards?
No, but I wished my surname was much shorter than it is [laughs].
You have achieved one of the greatest results of your career in Rio de Janeiro with fourth place. Would you say this result goes alongside your medals from World and European Championships?
Third or fourth place is very similar. The competitors are always the same, but the Olympic Games are a special event, which is organised every four years and there is extra pressure. For this race you train four years, it is a different feeling when you are at the start line in comparison with the World Cup which is held annually. My fourth place is even greater success if we look at the conditions we have. My annual budget is probably similar to Lisa’s [Carrington] monthly. When foreign friends visit us here in Koper and I show them where I train they all think I am kidding, but then they see there really isn’t anything else.
How would you assess your Olympic performance?
The medal was not so close at the 200 metres distance, but also was not very far. Maybe I am more disappointed with my performance in the 500 metres event. In fact I felt better and I was better prepared for this distance than 200 metres. I might have had some bad luck with the wind in the semi-final, but this is the way it is, sometimes one has more luck, sometimes the other. This time the luck was not on my side. But I will not give up and I hope I will be able to fight for one of the medals in Tokyo.
The season has just ended, but you are already thinking about Tokyo…
If I returned home with a medal, it would probably be easier to relax and say this is it. We already have some plans; also Lisa’s coach already asked us if we already have a plan and what we think. Lisa’s coach also discussed the joint training camp together with Stjepan [Špela’s husband and coach]. Of course I already think ahead, but first I took a little rest, tried to ignore everything and thus accumulate the energy for the following year.
You and Stjepan subordinated everything to your Olympic performance.
I think we both counted on a medal silently. It was close. I believe the medal would be close also in the 500 metres event if everything went as planned in the semi-final. If the 200 metres event would be organised after the 500 metres I would be more satisfied than now when I finished tenth after being fourth, but fourth place is a superb result.
The times set in the semi-final showed that all competitors are very close and levelled.
The wind at the course was turning a lot so it was hard to compare the times. I had the eight time, but I knew I was better and I would not be eight at the end. Before the 200 metres final I said to myself I would be satisfied if I ranked among the top five competitors. I had higher goals for the 500 metres event, but unfortunately I did not succeed.
How did you spend the evening before the 200 metres final A?
It was nothing special. I tried to rest as much as possible, to minimize the work, I did stretching exercises, had dinner and went to sleep. Although I slept really badly, like never before, all 12 days I was in Rio. Obviously something did not fit. When I got home, I again slept normally. I woke every night in Rio even after the race, not just before, so it was not the nerves.
Before the Olympics there was much talk about the polluted water, grass which impeded paddlers and rowers. Was it really that bad?
They also talked about the orange water, but the water was not so dirty. In the 500 metres event we had grass, but it was not enough to truly hinder anything. During the Olympic test event they had, from what I know, heaps of grass, but this time it was not such a problem. In the men’s 1000 metres final they were upset because of the grass, but perhaps also because they thought they will be among the top three, but were not, and were very critical about it.
This year you had good results already in the World Cups, but it seems that you are competitor for the biggest events, because you always show the best performances at the Championships and the Olympic Games. What is the secret?
The most important race is at the end of the season. Our World Cups do not bring money prizes; I do not get special categorization for this, so I take part at the World Cups for training. I plan my form for the end of the season, so I think this is normal. In winter I do not even paddle until February, so I work on basics when the World Cups start and I try to show the best performance I can on the only race in the season that actually matters.
At the World Cup in Duisburg you tested your ‘lucky socks’ if they still have the magic powers. You had them in Rio?
Yes, but apparently they did not work at the 500 metres [laughs]. But it is true if I paddled in other group it probably would be enough. The socks are now already really torn and I am no longer convinced they still have the powers, so I will try to paddle without them next year and we will see how it goes.
Your season concluded with the Olympic Games. How are you satisfied with the year 2016?
In the World Cup overall standings I was third, fourth at the Olympic Games, I did not compete at the European Championships. I think I cannot be disappointed. I hope the financial conditions will be a little better after these results, so there would be no need to watch how every Euro is spent and that I might be able to afford a little better training camps.