Liz Sharman
Liz Sharman. MBE.

Slalom Canoe World Champion: 1983 and 1987.

Interview carried out in 2000

My married name is Elizabeth Radford, but I used to paddle kayak and my maiden name was Sharman. I was born in 1957 in Bolton Manchester, which is a far cry from Suffolk!

At what age did you become interested in sport?

I had always been very athletic and joined in most games and competitions. When my parents moved to East Anglia in the early 70's I was about 15 or 16 then, I noticed that there was a local canoeing club in Bury St Edmunds and went along. I got interested quite seriously in kayaking and it went from there. I met my future husband (George) He was quite substantial in stimulating my career in that sport.

Were you living at Bury St Edmunds at the time?

No, we were living near Stowmarket, in a village called Tostock. My mother was District Midwife for the area.

Did you start training when you were 15?

Oh yes! The rise was meteoric actually. We discovered that I had a flair for kayaking. and we set out a cunning plan. We decided that we would go at it through the divisional system that was five or six divisions from grade six up to premier. We achieved this in one season. It meant a great deal of driving. I think we did about twenty thousand miles that year, if I remember rightly. (much more I am being told from the other corner of the room!) Going to different slaloms every weekend to get promoted and eventually we got to the top division and got selected to the British team.

From there I went to Canada in 1978 and got silver in the Pre World Championships. I returned the following year, I was 18 at the time, to get the Silver Medal in the World Championships missing the Gold by .46 of a second! If I had stuck my tongue over the line I might have got the gold, but I was very inexperienced in those days at top- level competition. It took about ten years before I was really top flight and consistent enough to win gold medals at World Championship standard.

When I first went along to Bury St. Edmund's Canoeing Club all those years ago, we used to do regular training on the Little Ouse at Santon Downham, and that was one of the deciding factors in us moving to the village in 1988. We actually saw property for sale, came along and investigated and decided that was for us. It would mean a lot less travelling because I was coming to Santon Downham two, three, four times a week to train on the river which had a very minimal flow compared to what I really needed, but it was better than driving to North Wales or Scotland.

We moved here and from then on it was a lot easier to do the training and I was a little closer to North Wales as well, being a little further down the A14 corridor. Basil Branch at Kennel Bungalows was a big help. He used to see me parking on the road outside his house and putting strings across the river at the side of his house. The river runs down by the side of his property and Basil being inquisitive said: " what are you doing there then?" He ended up holding the stopwatch for me, and helping me a tremendous amount with my training.

I won the Championship twice before I moved to Santon Downham. I won the World championships in Italy in 1983 and in France in 1987. I decided in1987 that the only thing that had eluded me was an Olympic medal or the chance of being at the Olympic games. I wanted to, I suppose jump on the bandwagon. With regard to the Games I hadn't had the opportunity to go in my own sport, I though: Well I could step sideways in various disciplines of canoeing and go into sprint canoeing. I decided that I wanted to go to the Olympic games basically, so about twelve months before the games in 1988 I thought: Right I've done every thing there is to do in canoe slalom I'll hop sideways into canoe sprint which is a flat water discipline and see if I get a chance of going to the Games. We started training with a bloke in the area. Actually he was paralysed with polio and couldn't walk and was on crutches. He was called Jonathan Gloyne-Walters and lived at East Burgholt. Under his tuition I learned to sprint paddle rather quickly. I went to the trials for the Olympic games at Holme Pierrepont and got selected to paddle in the k 2. in Seoul. I got my trip to the Olympic games. There was absolutely no chance of winning a medal with only an 18 month preparation; remember I had been going for 20 years at canoe slalom and had I'd had the opportunity at canoe slalom, I might have had a pretty strong chance!


When did Slalom become an Olympic sport?

Slalom was first included as an Olympic sport in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, and then at the whim of the host nation really, it was chopped out for the next 20 years. It didn't reappear until 1992 at Barcelona, but by that time I had to give up because I had a severe back injury. Unfortunately I never got the chance to compete in the sport that I was really good at. (In the Olympics)

I believe you were selected as the Sports Personality of the Month.

That right! It was through the Observer newspaper. I was selected as the Sports Personality of the Month. They came along and gave me a large Jeroboam of Champaign and a medal. My pictures were all over the paper. Later that year, I was very surprised to receive a letter through the post inviting me to the Palace to pick up an MBE. We went along to that. It was a super day; we have all sorts of memories and a Member of the British Empire to boot!

Was that in the Queen's Birthday Honours?

No. It was the New Year's Honours list. We went down early by car to London but we had nowhere to park because you can't park anywhere down Horse Guard's Parade. We went down just under Nelson's Column, round the corner where we could stop for half an hour and have a coffee. When it was time to enter the palace gates, we drove in and all these security men came out and put mirrors under the car to see that we were not carrying bombs. Remember the IRA was quite rife in those days. We went into the inner quadrangle and we were very impressed by the surroundings, all very grand. I remember walking into the main foyer in Buckingham Palace over these wooden cobbles and wondered why wooden cobbles? Having thought about it -it was to subdue the sound of horses' hooves as they came around with the carriages. That was one of the things we noticed. We came into the main foyer, up the stairs. The Horse Guards were there in their long thigh boots. It amused my mother greatly that they actually had to come down the steps backwards so that they wouldn't trip up in their long boots! Then we went into one of the side waiting rooms. It had rather high ceilings with works of art and tapestries hung on the walls. Paintings by Stubbs Turner and all the other great artists: an immense collector of art is the Queen. It's all very impressive. I do remember that this was the second invitation to the palace. The first one I received, I had to turn down because I had flu. I remember having to call her equerry and arrange a new meeting, so I actually turned up when they were doing all the military awards. Of course the sports people had all gone to the previous ceremony. Having a canoeist in the middle of all these military honours, threw the Queen rather, and when I went up to accept my award she turned round to one of the Ghurkhas who was obviously prompting her, and said: " What is canoeing?"

He whispered in her ear and she said: "Oh yes of course!" She turned to me and continued with presenting the medal. The memories of those days will linger for a long time.

After you gave up sport what have you been doing? I know that you are involved with the Parish Council and Neighbourhood Watch.

To be quite honest, I would still be very active in the sporting capacity now if it hadn't been for the back injury that shortened my career.

I've raised a family in Santon Downham where we still live. We enjoy the area so much that I can't see us moving. It's a wonderful recreation area for walking, riding, walking dogs, and tremendous for bringing up children. We look after elderly parents, who live in the house with us. I am also involved in village life-- The Neighbourhood Watch, which you mentioned, and the Parish Council-so we live rather full lives. There are not enough hours in the day really. I certainly don't know how I dedicated myself to a life of sport. Looking back on it now, it took a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication.

About how many hours would you say you had to train each day?

Well it's a full time job. There would be a plan, which included weight training, running, and all kinds of fitness work. You would work out for about five or six hours a day! In between you are either eating or sleeping, because it was so tiring. There was also a lot of mental preparation; because you not only exercise the body you exercise the mind. The self- imagery ( that you have to target what you want to achieve) helps tremendously. It is equally as important as the physical preparation.

When you were training for an event were you with other participant canoeists or were you training alone?

Because I was isolated, out on a limb in Suffolk! Right away from the centres of white water canoeing, like Wales and Scotland. I spent a great deal of time travelling to the States and Europe just to be able to train with people for the competitive element of it. You can do so much preparation individually, but ultimately you need to test yourself competitively, not only in a competitive situation in an actual competition, but also in a training environment. I spent many months in Washington DC, training with the American team. That was where I learnt many of the mental preparation techniques as well. That did help a great deal.

During these training sessions did George come along with you?

Not in the ones abroad, no; but in the home based ones he was there one hundred percent solidly behind me. If it hadn't been for George, and people like Basil Branch, I wouldn't have succeeded in doing what I manage to do!