Last week I visited one of our training groups in Asturias, northern Spain.

I really enjoy seeing what they’re doing at different times of the season. In the Autumn/Winter periods the volume is higher both on and off water. It’s great to see how they’re working on the technique, aerobic capacity, strength and other important areas. Then, in the Spring/Summer months it gets more specific and I love seeing them achieve race speed and race technique with such ease.

So far, Autumn has been very warm, and although the weather is finally changing and the morning started fresh, it soon warmed up and we all enjoyed another lovely day.

There are some big names in this training group. Most of them are already Olympic medalists but they still work with the same dedication, humility and discipline.

Marcus Cooper – Rio 2016 Olympic Champion & Tokyo 2020 silver medalist. Current K4 500m World Champion.
Carlos Arévalo – Tokyo 2020 silver medalist. Current K4 500m World Champion.
Rodrigo Germade – Tokyo 2020 silver medalist. Current K4 500m World Champion.

They know that there are no shortcuts to greatness.

Discipline is worked day by day. Without haste. Creating habits and behaviors that help us achieve their ambitions. Constancy is a virtue and we should not rush on the path to our goals.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said that we must overcome a long winter of training and not rush into things that we are not prepared for.

Discipline, perseverance, patience and preparation. Our athletes keep working towards their goals, with purpose, however difficult it may be.

To make those tough moments more bearable, a healthy team climate is essential. Some months ago I wrote about nurturing team climate.

The following day, I decided to join them on the water for an easy 12km session. It felt great being next to them as I used to when I still raced.

It was the right decision because the next time I visit them I won’t be able to keep up with their speed.

After a tough hike and a nourishing lunch, it was time for relaxing by the sea. I drove to a beach called Cenitz in Guéthary. A beach very dear to my wife, the kids, and I. We love coming here in every season. There is a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and a nature reserve of more than one hectare on the edge of the foreshore.

I spent some time looking at the waves and wishing I could join the surfers and ride some of those gentle waves. It was such a beautiful and warm day for November.

Then, I headed towards the port. A former whaling port occupied since Gallo-Roman times, as evidenced by the remains of a garum factory found on site. 

I wanted to have a drink and enjoy the sunset at the Ilunabar seafront bar in Parlamentia beach. Unfortunately, it´s closed this time of the year.

So, I walked back to Cenitz again and sat down on the sand. 

I didn´t want the day to end. It was getting dark and there were still so many surfers riding the waves who, probably, were thinking the same. Or perhaps, they were so focused on their activity that they didn´t realize how late it was.

In sport psychology, this mental state is called “flow” and it is achieved when athletes feel completely engaged in their performance, lose their perception of time, concentrate on the moment, and perform their best.

Whatever it was, we all seemed to have made the most of our day, and on that note, I went home.

End of Part Three (3/3)

Azkaine is a lovely village on the banks of the Nivelle river and at the foot of La Rhune mountain.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was very hungry after the hike and my concerns about the restaurants´ kitchens being closed were right. I tried to get a table at a nice restaurant with outdoors tables facing La Rhune, but they told me that they were not serving to more clients. So, without hesitation, I headed to find one that was still open.

I found one and got in. I had a look at the tables and realized that everybody was having their dessert. A busy waitress was already serving coffees. After a couple of minutes standing there and being completely ignored, I decided to leave and try one more time.

I walked into another place. The carte looked very promising, and I could see a couple of empty tables. However, when I asked the waiter, he also said that they were closed.

It is amazing to observe how different eating-times can be on both sides of the border.

Anyway, I decided to give up and started walking towards the Roman Bridge. Interestingly, it is only referred to as Roman because its arch-shape resembles that ancient style. That said, it dates the from 15th century so it’s still 600 years old. The bridge was built to enable pilgrims cross the Nivelle river on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Whilst I walked down the village, I saw a small restaurant. The chef walked out to serve a table where two friends were enjoying their food and a bottle of red wine. I decided to try my lack one last time (for the 4th time!)

One of the principal characteristics of high performing athletes, and I suspect that this applies to most other realms, is a pathologic optimism.

I talked to the chef and asked if I could have some food. He said that he only had one dish left and he started describing it. I was so happy to have finally found somewhere to eat that I said yes to whatever they had.

When the dish came, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I love it when food is not just for fuel or taming hunger, but a whole visual and sensory experience.

I was very happy with my main course and red wine, and I could claim victory with an espresso. However, when the chef came out again and asked if I wanted any dessert, I couldn’t say no.

It was still early, and I had the whole afternoon ahead of me. So, I ordered a coffee and headed to visit the Roman Bridge before driving to one of my family’s favourite spots on the coast: Guéthary.

End of Part Two (⅔)

One thing that has always fascinated me about the Basque Country is that you can climb a stunning high mountain and surf some beautiful waves within the same day.

On Sunday morning, after a long week of meetings and traveling for work, I could enjoy Sunday off. I knew that the weather would change soon. So, I decided to make the most of it and climb La Rhune (905m), a mountain between the villages of Saint Jean De Luz and Sare in the French Basque Country, have some lunch in Azkaine, and enjoy one of the last hot days of the year on the beach in Gethary.

One of the strategies that I developed when I retired from competitive sport to stay fit and enjoy great food without putting on weight is a very simple rule of thumb:

You have to earn the meal.

And that’s what I attempted. Go up and down the mountain as fast as I could, whilst enjoying the journey, and celebrate it with a nice meal.

The first part of the hike is pretty steep. You walk through a forest of pines, birch, oaks and holly bushes.

Then, the landscape opens up and the walk becomes smoother.

Half-way through the hike, you can see the whole Basque coast and beyond.

Autumn in this part of the world is so spectacular.

The last part of the climb can be tough on your legs and ankles if you’re not conditioned for such an environment.

But, if you manage to reach the summit, the views from there are astonishing. You can see vast parts of Navarre, Gipuzkoa and Lapurdi, the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees. From April to October you can also go up to the top in the cutest Alpine trains.

(I took these photos in the Spring of 2016 when my parents-in-law were visiting)

If you have time, there´ s a bar and a restaurant at the top where many hikers rest and celebrate their achievement with some food and cold beers. However, I still wanted to have lunch in Azkaine and knowing that in France they close the kitchens quite early, I still had to make it all the way back to the village. So, I enjoyed my time at the summit for ten minutes and headed back down to find somewhere to eat.

There’s one thing in common between hiking and high performance sport:

Even if you make it to the top, your time there will be limited. Enjoy that moment and prepare for the next ascent.

Apparently, the estimated minimum time for the climb is 2h30min and the descend 2 hours. I tried to do both as fast as I could. So, it took me 1h25min to the top and 1h7m down again. Don’t be fooled, though. From time to time, I saw some mountain runners overtaking me at lightning speed.

By the time I reached Azkaine, I was very hungry!

End of Part One (⅓)

I finally got to know the Munich 1972 Olympic regatta course. Back in 2016, just before the Rio Olympics, our most successful Games ever, I saw some photos and videos of our beloved rivals, the Germans, doing their final training camp on a beautiful course with clear turquoise-looking water. Since that moment, I always wanted to visit that course and even paddle on its transparent waters.

So, I was very excited when I heard that that course would host the Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe events at the Munich 2022 Multisport European Championships.

Most of our team members arrived in Munich on Tuesday. Some early in the morning, others later in the evening. Those arriving earlier had the chance to train that very day and the rest had to wait until Wednesday morning.

The first feedback from the athletes was that the water was pretty “hard”, which means that you struggle more to move the paddle blades fast in the water which affects the boat’s accelerations. The advantage of having been a professional paddler is that I know that feeling well, so I made the most of it to kill three birds with one stone: paddle on such a stunning course, test the “hardness” of those waters myself and try the newly redesigned NELO 7.

Perhaps you noticed that our team for this competition was different from the one from the World Championships. It would take me a while to explain our selection criteria but all you need to know is that we base part of our success on strong internal competition and giving the chance to compete internationally to a wider number of athletes. So, even though some of our main stars were missing from this event, we were convinced that we still had a very strong team to be ambitious with our goals. The aim was to double last year’s medals (four), however we didn’t imagine that we would end up winning 15 medals overall. Ten of them in just a single day.

We still have things to improve in many areas but it feels good to be able to say that this year we had our best results ever not only at a World Cup or at the World Championships, but also at the European Championships! 

That’s a hat trick! 

When we designed our sport project this year, we stated that we wanted to achieve Spanish Canoeing’s best decade ever. Well, it seems that we are on the right track.

Gracias a todos, deportistas, entrenadores y todas las partes implicadas, por haberlo hecho posible. ¡Sois increíbles!

Last week, the Spanish canoeing sprint team wrote a new page on the history books, winning the medal table for the first time thanks to the 4 gold and 2 silver medals won by our outstanding paddlers.

This year we’ve actually won two medal tables. First at the World Cup in Racice (Chzec Republic) and then at the World Championships in Halifax (Canada).

Some team leaders and athletes from other countries commented how relaxed our athletes and coaches seemed during these competitions. I must admit that it is true that we’ve had an amazing team climate during this season’s international competitions but it can only work out that way when there is an insane amount of hard work, organization, trouble-shooting and emotional control prior to each event. Then you can enjoy the pressure and shine on D Day.

One of the gold medals that helped us win that medal table was won by the young C2 crew Cayetano García and Pablo Martinez. If you watched their interview after the race in Canada, you probably listened to them thanking those who supported them during some difficult times. I won’t go into much detail here but if you were wondering what they meant by “difficult times”, it was because their coach decided to leave them 8 weeks before the World Championships and just a week after they won the C2 500m at the World Cup in Racice.

They were one of our most hopeful crews for a gold medal at the World Championships so we had to act quickly and find a solution as soon as possible.

That very day I talked to Kiko Martin, one of our most experienced and successful coaches,  and thankfully he accepted the challenge of coaching these two young paddlers and Olympic finalist Antia Jácome. Two days later they were catching a ferry to Mallorca to continue with their preparation under a new guidance but within the same system that has been supporting them over the past few years.

Two weeks after they landed in Mallorca, I went to see them train and I was sure that those three paddlers were going to achieve great things this year (you’ll see Antia Jacome in action this week in the Women’s C1 200m at the European Championships in Munich).

To have a good team climate on D Day is not natural. There is too much at stake. Too much pressure. Anything can blow up at any moment. That is why, in order to achieve and maintain a good team climate, it is so important that the team leader and the coaches do all the groundwork looking after the smallest details and finding solutions to any unexpected issues.

Dear Eduardo,

I still remember as if it were yesterday my first year living with the Spanish Canoe Junior team at the Joaquín Blume High Performance Center in Madrid. I was 16 years old and it was the first time in my life that I lived away from my family, my friends and the sea. I remember the hours we spent sitting next to each other in the van on the way to the Picadas reservoir, chatting while my teammates slept during the long drives to training and back. Hours and hours talking about history, European royalty, wars, communist countries and especially training. I have never asked as many questions to anybody or learned more about training methodology than with you. I asked you so many questions that you came to nickname me “the unrepentant curious”.

I also remember the hours we spent analyzing technical videos in your room in the old Blume building that was demolished a few years ago. You were ahead of your time. You had all kinds of cameras, printers, and other kinds of technological gadgets. I still have prints of a sequence of frames from my paddling technique. In them I wore a Bracsa I paddle, a copy of a NELO Mosquito made by Bidasoa (a local manufacturer) and an Indian-style headband influenced by the Czech canoeist Martin Doctor.

I remember how in those technical analysis sessions, sometimes you liked to take a nap, and I, a 16 year-old with the characteristic shyness of a young Basque who had just left his Basque environment, did not dare to wake you up and let you sleep peacefully. If it had happened today, I would have recurred to my mobile phone and spent time watching videos on Instagram or Tik Tok, or some series on Netflix. However, it was 1999 and there was none of that, so I killed the time flipping through your books and scientific journals on training methodology, physiology or sports psychology. So, indirectly, you continued to help me with my sports education.

I hope dear Eduardo, that wherever you are, you meet more “unrepentant curious” people and you have as much patience with them as you had with me.

Oh, and I hope that wherever you are they have good jamón. I still remember the words you told me every morning at breakfast: “if you eat jamón, you will become a champion.”

Rest in peace, maestro.

You would think that growing up in the Basque Country in the 1980´s with all the political violence and high drug consumption would have been a risky business. And perhaps it was. But that is not how I remember my childhood. Our parents were not helicopter parents like we seem to be now, constantly worrying about the safety of our children. My friends and I were always out playing football, climbing walls in Monte Urgull near the Old Town of San Sebastian, playing Basque pelota (a court sports played with a hard ball using one’s hand that was an official Olympic sport once, in the 1900 Paris Games), or hanging out at one of the port´s piers and eating whatever we fancied and that we bought with our weekend pocket money. My friends would usually buy some palmeras de chocolate (palmiers covered in chocolate) but I was always fascinated by a little cake filled with a sort of hardened custard called Euskal pastela or Gateau Basque. We would sit by one of the piers and enjoy our meriendas (afternoon snack) whilst planning the next challenge, adventure, or mischief.

Traditionally, this dry cake was shared with the whole family after Sunday mass. The first reference to this cake was known as “Biskotxak” and dates to 1830. Apparently, it made its appearance in Cambo-les-Bains, a spa town in the Basque Country thanks to Marianne Hirigoyen, a pastry chef from Cambo who sold her products in the markets of Bayonne. She immediately enjoyed great success and was known as the “Basque of the cakes”. Marianne Hirigoyen inherited the recipe from her mother and then she passed it on to her daughters, Elisabeth and Anne Dibar, who were nicknamed as the Biscotx sisters from “etxeko-biskotxa” (the house biscuit). The sisters became the guardians of the Basque cake and perpetuated the tradition in their shop, La Pâtisserie Marie-Anne. In 1994, some passionate people created an association called Eguzkia to promote the purity of the ingredients and to fight against industrially manufactured Basque cakes.

Some years ago, we took the kids to Cambo-les-Bains. We bought some artisan Basque cakes from a village market stall and went to a park to enjoy them. When I bit into my cake, it took me directly back to my childhood and the port of San Sebastian (probably this cake was much better than the one I used to have, but in my memory they were as good as this one).

Last week I made some Basque cakes for my kids and took them with me when I picked them up from school and kindergarten. They smashed them in no time! 

The kids´ version is filled with seasonal strawberry compote

Everyone uses slightly different recipes and ingredients to give the cake a unique touch. So, here is mine: 

For the pastry base:

  • 300 g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3 egg yolks + 1 whole egg 
  • 300 g sugar 
  • 450 g all-purpose flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 Lemon zest

(Sometimes I play around with more traditional flours like whole meal or spelt and brown sugar, but these can be more frustrating.)

For the pastry cream:

  • 1/2 litre whole milk
  • 3 egg yolks + 1 egg
  • 80 g sugar 
  • 50 g all-purpose flour 
  • 4 tablespoon rum

Instructions

1. How to make the pastry base

On a clean table, make a mountain with the flour and make a hole in the middle. Then, add the egg yolks, the whole egg, the butter, sugar, lemon zest and salt, and mix it well, but not too much. Once smooth, cover it with a cloth and let it rest for an hour. 

Then check the pastry base and make sure it does not stick.

Form a ball, cover it with a cloth and let it rest in the fridge until the next day.

2. How to make the pastry cream

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks, whole egg and sugar together until you get a foamy consistency. Then pour it into a pan and add the flour. Heat it until it turns into a warm homogeneous mix. In a different pan, bring the milk to a boil, and when it is ready, add it to the mix little by little and whisking it constantly. 

Bring the mix to a boil and add four spoonfuls of rum. Reduce the temperature, but keep boiling the mix for 3-4 minutes more.

Pour the mix into a large bowl and let it cool at room temperature.

Then, let it rest in the fridge until the next day.

3. How to assemble and decorate

Split the pastry base in two, forming two balls. Then take one of the balls. 

Flour the table, the dough, and the rolling pin. 

Roll the dough until you have a flat 0.5 cm pastry base. 

Place the pastry base in a 26 cm circumference and 3 cm height cake mold. Pour in the pastry cream and spread to about 2cm from the edge. 

Roll the second dough and lay it gently on top of the cream.

Pinch the edges of both pastry bases to close the cake.

With a fork or knife, personalize the cake and brush the top part with a whisked egg yolk for a lovely shiny rustic color.

Heat up the oven to 170 degrees (Celsius) for 10 minutes and then bake the cake for half an hour, or until it shows a golden color.

Once it is ready, let it rest for half an hour and it will be ready to serve. However, as it happens with soups and many other dishes, the flavors of the cake are richer the following day.