Britain's female sprint canoeists 'stepped up a league' in 2011

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter

Britain's female sprint canoeists have "stepped up a league" in 2011 according to one of the squad's leading stars.

GB has focused resources on the four-woman K4 500m race, identified as having a relatively shallow field at world level, with London 2012 in mind.

The British K4 boat duly placed fourth at last month's World Championships in a marked improvement on previous years.

"We're in the race for medals instead of spinning our arms and splashing over the line," said GB's Rachel Cawthorn.

"We were really in the race. It feels like we stepped up a league.

"It's something we've really been working on over the past few years and, each year, it's felt better."

The women's K4 500m is a class dominated by Hungary and Olympic champions Germany, and traditionally one bereft of British representation.

GB's quartet - featuring Cawthorn on each occasion - finished fifth at the World Championships in both 2009 and 2010, which makes their one-place improvement to fourth this year sound minimal.

But in that time frame they have closed the gap on the first-placed boat from 2.8 seconds in 2009 to 2.4 seconds in 2010 and now 1.6 seconds in 2011.

At this year's Worlds, where Hungary's women took the K4 500m title in a time of one minute 36.3 seconds, Britain's boat finished only 0.072 seconds off a medal.

"There aren't many countries that can put together four really strong girls," Cawthorn told BBC Sport.

"There's still enough to make a final and, although the field may not be huge, those that are there are good.

"But we have such a good squad and push each other on. The other girls are so strong, and it's fun."

Their result in Hungary means the women have now qualified their boat for London 2012, although Cawthorn maintains ambitions in the single-person K1 500m event alongside her role in the four-woman boat.

The 22-year-old won a world bronze medal in the K1 last year but could only make the B final this time around, following a winter beset by illness.

"I missed four months with illness and coming into the summer I was alright again but, because I'd missed that fitness, it was hard," she said.

"I know I can do better. It'd be a lot of fun to win a medal in the K4 at the Olympics and get to share it, but I'd still want a good result in my K1."

Cawthorn believes the Dorney Lake venue for next year's Olympic races, in Berkshire, could help her to deliver strong results in both the K1 and K4 disciplines.

The Olympic sprint canoeing test event at Dorney Lake, also the Olympic rowing venue, concluded last week and Cawthorn surprised herself with her attachment to the lake.

"This can be a tough course, sometimes. It's so changeable with our weather. The wind comes from all different directions," she said.

"At first I couldn't see how this venue would be much of an advantage but, now that I've raced on it, I feel really at home here.

"I feel like I know exactly what's going on, where everything is. It does make a difference."

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