TOKYO — Laurence Vincent-Lapointe recalls kneeling in her canoe preparing to race and hearing the mutterings of a starting official who forgot to turn off his microphone.
"I can hear the gentlemen complaining about women's canoe as we are setting ourselves on the line," she said. "I can remember it as if it was yesterday.
"A long time ago women were not well-regarded if they tried canoeing. For a long time, they were laughed at."
Few Canadian athletes have travelled a road to Tokyo's Olympics with as many detours as Vincent-Lapointe, a 29-year-old paddler from Trois-Rivières, Que.,
The dominant woman in sprint canoe for more than a decade, the Canadian waited years for the international federation and the International Olympic Committee to make room in the Olympic Games for women to race it.
When the green light came in the spring of 2017, "LVL" was the clear favourite to win the first gold in Tokyo. She'd won a combined six world titles in C-1 and C-2 by then and went on to win five more by the end of 2018.
Tracking to take Tokyo by storm, Vincent-Lapointe was then enveloped by the nightmare of an "adverse analytical finding" in an out-of-competition drug test July 29, 2019.
Suspended and out of the 2019 world championship while she battled for reinstatement, Vincent-Lapointe drifted.
“I found myself in a kind of nothingness," she said. "It's nice if I worked out once a week, without a goal. I was completely discouraged, lost."
She was cleared to compete in January 2020 when the International Canoe Federation accepted she was the victim of third-party contamination of a banned substance called ligandrol.
The ICU accepted her argument that trace amount of the substance was transferred to her via the body fluids of her ex-boyfriend.
The global COVID-19 pandemic pushing Tokyo 2020 to 2021 gave Vincent-Lapointe time to regain her form.
Missing the 2019 world championship meant she still had to qualify for the Olympic Games, however. The pandemic didn't allow her to travel to continental qualifying competitions.
Vincent-Lapointe lost to Katie Vincent in the women's C-1 200 metres at national trials in Burnaby, B.C., in March. She wasn't able to race the C-2 there because of a fever.
Canoe Kayak Canada declined to send paddlers to international World Cups this spring because of the pandemic situation. CKC ultimately awarded Vincent-Lapointe an Olympic team quota spot based on a performance review.
She and Vincent of Mississauga, Ont., race C-1 on Wednesday and Thursday and then team up for women's C-2 on Friday and Saturday.
"I'm going there to do the performance that I know I'm capable of," Vincent-Lapointe said. "And I know my best run can be better than everyone else's best run. That's what I'm focusing on and that's it."
A 13-year-old Vincent-Lapointe was a more promising synchronized swimmer than a canoeist when she tried the boats at the Trois-Rivières Canoe Kayak Club.
"I was so stubborn. I decided the boat could not defeat me. I was going to master this infuriating boat," she recalled. "It was a really good way for me to get out of the house, but seriously I would finish every single practice stomping off.
"When I decide on something, I go for it as much as I can."
Persistence paid off in the boat and out of it. The early argument against the inclusion of women's canoe in the Olympic sprint program was not enough women were doing it.
Vincent-Lapointe beat 21 competitors for gold the first time women's C-1 was included in a world championship in 2010. Within a couple years, she was racing against 54 women and faced tougher competition.
"I'm one of the oldest paddlers on the international scene, I guess, not oldest in age, but in experience," she said. "Everyone is improving steadily. It amazes me because we started from so little, and we have a lot."
— Marc Delbes contributed to this story.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press