This week the marathon racing community said farewell to James Smythe. On Saturday we held the first British National Short-Course Championships. This event was James’s brainchild, and he put all the initial planning into place last year, continuing to work on it for as long as he was able, before handing over the responsibility to Evan Shephard and the rest of the Marathon Racing Committee. Thanks to James, and all those who took part, this was a spectacular event, with the best of British marathon racing on show – along with the best in the world, as James had also arranged for the current World Champion, Jose Ramalho, to come over from Portugal. With un-forecasted wall-to-wall sunshine, James’s presence was felt throughout the day, and particularly so when his wife Katie and son Ollie came for the afternoon and presented the new trophies – in James’s name – to the first National Champions.
On Tuesday, many of us were together again at James’s funeral. As people walked in to the chapel, someone was overheard to say “I never knew he was such a figurehead in his sport”, and that’s exactly what he was.
As well as being a high-class paddler, James was also instrumental in helping shape and develop the sport, particularly through the MRC. Having first joined it in 2006, James took on many roles during his MRC years. An innovative and progressive thinker, he constantly pushed for the organisation to keep moving forward, but always with the athletes and the sport at the forefront.
He supported paddlers of all levels and all ages and was a vociferous advocate for athlete development – both juniors and seniors. He worked hard to ensure the sport kept developing to be more inclusive, whilst never detracting from the competitive level. This included the para class at the Short Course Championships, and initiatives to improve the sport for women and girls. He recognised the part played by masters paddlers and helped and supported the development of their GB team.
As chair of the selectors James navigated the, often difficult, selection process with a calm charm, and that ever-present smile. He was instrumental in moving the selection policy forward and improving trust between selectors and athletes, whilst always keeping the balance between athlete development and fair selections in mind. He changed the format of the selection events and developed the shape of the committee to bring in both athlete and independent representatives. As team manager, no one was more supportive or fun to be with, in often tense and heart-breaking situations. He could always put disappointment back into perspective and ensure, above all, racing for your country at any level was both an honour and fun.
Behind the scenes (and as one of the younger and more technically experienced MRC members) he helped modernise the MRC’s procedures and operating systems, pushing forward technological and digital developments, including involvement in the HRM system and the MRC website. As Secretary he ensured the MRC is one of the most efficiently and correctly run of British Canoeing’s disciplines. For those of us left behind, both on the MRC and in the sport, we have a very hard act to live up to, but we will endeavour to continue his work and maintain his high standards. But our loss is nothing compared to that of Katie, Ollie and the rest of his family.