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Friday, March 24, 2023

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Nevin Harrison Nevin Harrison

Olympic Dream Come True

Incoming Aztec wins a gold medal in canoe racing.
By Aaron Burgin

This story, originally published July 28, has been updated to reflect Harrison’s gold medal win on Aug. 5.
When classmates ask incoming San Diego State University student Nevin Harrison what she did over summer break, her answer will probably be met with double takes: “I won a gold medal at the Olympics.”

Harrison, who begins her freshman year at SDSU this fall as a biology major, represented Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics, paddling in the women’s 200-meter canoe race. She sprinted to the gold medal on Aug. 5; her time of 45.932 seconds beating Laurence Vincent-Lapointe of Canada (46.786) by about half a canoe length. “Crossing that finish line and seeing I was first was really surreal,” Harrison told The Seattle Times. “I’m definitely still in a dream.”

Before the Games, Harrison spoke to NewsCenter about her journey to the Olympics.

“Representing the USA in the Olympics is beyond a dream come true,” said Harrison. “I’ve put in a lot of time and sacrificed a lot for this dream, so it’s crazy to see it finally coming true.”

Harrison, who is from Seattle, is the reigning world champion in the women’s 200 meters. The 200-meter race — just under the length of two football fields — is one of the most exciting boating events in the Olympics, as the nine canoeists line up side by side in their sleek one-seat boats to power their way through the water with a single-blade paddle. World-class paddlers in the women’s class traverse the distance in about 50 seconds. 

Delayed, but not Deferred 

For Harrison, the Olympic dream comes a year later than originally planned, as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Tokyo games for one year. 

Had the Olympics been held in 2020, Harrison, who was then 18 and already widely held as one of the favorites in her race, would have had a chance to be the youngest Olympic gold medalist in kayak/canoe history. Birgit Fischer was 18 years, 5 months when she won gold in 1980. 

But Harrison’s enthusiasm did not fade during the year’s delay – nor her drive to claim gold. 

“It’s made me more focused on my ultimate goal of winning a gold medal,” Harrison said, “considering the road it took to get here.”

Harrison’s mother, Laura Worthen, gave praise for how her daughter has maintained her outlook during the pandemic. Worthen wrote Harrison a note and asked her to read it on her flight to Tokyo. 

“What I told her was that as proud as I am of her athletic achievements I am even more proud of what kind of human she is,” Worthen said. “She is a stellar person, and I am amazed at her ability to weather this difficult time and to keep training even when the outcome was uncertain – and to do it with a lot of grit, humor and love. I can’t even measure how much pride I have.”

Harrison took a circuitous path not only to the Olympics but to the water. Originally, Harrison dreamed of winning Olympic gold as a track athlete – a sprinter. That dream was dashed when, at age 13, Harrison was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, a syndrome in which the hip socket doesn’t fully cover the ball of the femur bone. 

Two years earlier, Harrison had attended a summer camp at Seattle’s Green Lake Park. Two of the camp counselors asked if she wanted to give canoeing a shot. Most other campers had tried but fell out of the narrow racing vessel. Harrison got in and paddled out 500 meters as the other campers and counselors cheered the rare event. 

One of Harrison’s counselors said: “‘You know you’re going to be a world champion some day,’” her mother recalled. “None of us thought that at the time, because she wanted to be a runner.”

But following her hip diagnosis, Harrison quickly turned her attention to the water and began to train in earnest at that same Green Lake. 

“When she got in that boat, there was so much alignment between her body and how she wanted to exert herself; it was a natural fit,” Worthen said. “She started to train and get more serious until age 14, when she set her sights on the international scene.”

Harrison rapidly rose in the ranks of the world’s best until 2019, when she won the world championship in the 200-meter race in Hungary. 

“Ending my track career was really disappointing and somewhat devastating,” Harrison acknowledged, “but I was really lucky to have another sport where I could compete, even with my condition. Despite changing athletic paths, I think it was the best thing that could have ever happened, because it led me to where I am today.”

Looking Ahead 

Harrison said she is excited to become an Aztec following the Olympics. She chose SDSU and San Diego for a number of reasons, and especially for the warm weather and proximity to top training facilities. 

“Coming from the Pacific Northwest, California was always one of my first choices for college,” Harrison said. “As I became a higher-level athlete in an outdoor sport, I began to really value warm weather for training. San Diego was the perfect location for that.

“SDSU seemed to be a good fit for me because of the environment, the people and the close proximity to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. I can’t wait to be an Aztec!” 

Harrison’s uncle, Howard Worthen, is an anesthesiologist at Rady Children’s Hospital, and her family – she has an older brother, Findlay – has visited a number of times over the years. 

“I’m really psyched for her,” Worthen said. “We really enjoy going down there, and it’s going to be an exciting four years to be spending time with family in that gorgeous city. And academically it’s the perfect fit for her.” 

Harrison, who attended Roosevelt High in Seattle but finished online prior to the pandemic to focus on training, said she is looking forward to life as a “regular student.”

“The transition from the Olympics to being a normal college student I’m sure will be somewhat of a shock,” said Harrison, who wants to pursue a career in medicine. “I’ve been living the athlete lifestyle and not going to school for a while now, so I’m really excited to experience normal college life for a little while. It will be nice to have some change in my life and get back to learning.”