For Amazonian children who grew up on the water with oars in their hands, a new hero and a new opportunity have spurred Olympic dreams.
Brazilian Isaquias Queiroz dos Santos won a gold medal at the Japan Olympics in the C-1 1000 meters event.
His success – he also won two silvers and a bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016 – has inspired dozens of children to take up competitive canoeing in Tres Unidos, an indigenous community on the Amazonian river Cuieiras.
“He is such a great rower, he motivates me to row every day,” said 17-year-old Tailo Pontes de Araujo. “My dream is to take part in the Olympics and win medals.”
Tailo is one of around 60 youngsters as young as seven who have enrolled in a project called Canoagem Indigena, or Indigenous Canoeing, a partnership between the NGO Fundacao Amazonia Sustentavel and the Brazilian Canoeing Confederation.
Many of the youngsters are indigenous and most of them are at home on the water, where they regularly fish and travel in family canoes.
They are used to rowing slowly so as not to scare the fish, but coach Nivaldo Oliveira Cordeiro has taken them on and is training them in competitive techniques.
They now have proper equipment and many are training up to four hours a day on the Cuieiras’ waters.
“They practically were born in indigenous canoes and that helps them with their balance and stamina,” said coach Cordeiro. “Their times are excellent. They are quick and have stamina and are getting better every day.”
Cordeiro believes Tailo in particular has a shot at emulating his hero, but there is no shortage of talent.
The project has been going since 2019 and Queiroz’s recent triumph in Japan has prompted a new influx of young hopefuls.
“Tailo is a student who I think will be one of the strongest and he has the technique as well,” Cordeiro said.
“After Queiroz won first place in the Tokyo Olympics, more and more kids are looking for me on Whatsapp and wanting to sign up. Our doors are open. Even in a region where everyone grew up with canoes people didn’t know what canoeing was. Today it’s growing every day.”