Teresa Portela

The Embodiment of Spanish Olympic Sports

02/03/2020 · By Iñigo Esteban
teresa portela openning
After Tokyo 2020, canoeist Teresa Portela will be the first Spanish female athlete to have competed in six Olympic Games © Rafael Fabrés

This summer, her name will be recorded in Spanish sports history. As soon as her paddle hits the Japanese water, Teresa Portela will be the first Spanish female athlete to compete in six Olympic Games. A few months before fulfilling that dream, she’s telling ‘Talento a bordo’ about the many other challenges she’s facing in the near future.

She’s been canoeing for almost three decades, and it’s been two since her first Olympics. This year, Teresa Portela (Pontevedra, 1982) will represent our country again—it will be her sixth Games, which makes her the Spanish female athlete with the most Olympic appearances ever. “If someone had told me this twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

As from Tokyo 2020, her name will be mentioned alongside two other illustrious Spanish sports names, water polo player Manel Estiarte and jockey Luis Álvarez Cervera, both of whom also have six Games to their name. With seven, only race walker Chuso García Bragado has more. “Bragado’s achievement is incredible, hard to surpass,” says the canoeist, realising at the same time that “anything can happen in four years,” and the day she overtakes her fellow athlete may just come. But for the moment, if Teresa is clear on one thing, it’s that there’s only one way to develop a career as long and successful as hers: going step by step. “Thinking that this afternoon’s training session will help me for the Olympic Games in four years is not much of a motivation to me. That’s why I prefer to work from season to season; time will tell what’s what. I just hope to stay healthy and injury-free.”

Olympic regular

The experience of having appeared at five Olympic Games (every Games celebrated this century so far) makes Teresa Portela an expert when it comes to giving advice to first timers: “Every edition has been as intense to me as the first. The best advice I can give someone who’s going in for the first time is to enjoy it. It’s an experience you must immerse yourself in as much as you can, because there’s only a few of us privileged enough to be able to. You’ll remember it forever.”

She made her Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000, but she can’t, or won’t, name a favourite edition. “Each country has tried to give it all when it comes to the organisation of the event, and I’ve been impressed by all of them. I can’t really pick one,” she says. While the Galician athlete boasts an impressive record, with 15 World Cup medals (two gold, six silver, and seven bronze) and 17 European ones (seven gold, four silver, and six bronze), she has yet to finish among the first three at the Olympic Games. “I’d love to achieve that in Tokyo, and I think the possibilities are there,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I’m very happy to have been able to compete all these years and feel good about it.”

Champion of female sports in Spain

Teresa has two things she lives for: canoeing, and her daughter. In fact, after training until she was eight months pregnant, she stopped competing in 2013 to give birth to the person who is now one of her biggest followers: her daughter Naira. “I wasn’t sure at first; I had no idea how I was going to combine motherhood and competing at the highest level, but taking a break turned out to be the right decision: the following year, 17 months after giving birth, I won the bronze at the World Cup,” she says, smiling. 

“Taking a break to be a mother was the right decision: 17 months after giving birth I won the bronze at the World Cup”

The truth is that Teresa Portela has established herself as a symbol of Spanish female sports, not only because of her experience, but because, as a top athlete, she’s been able to combine motherhood and family life with a career at the highest level. “Women are achieving ever more and better results, which is progress. I hope things keep improving and that we’ll stay on the way up,” says the canoeist, whose status as key figure in Spanish sports was forged by hard training and a frantic life. “Every day I feel like I’m running! I’m always in a rush to get everywhere, but in the end, I always get there.”

Galicia and canoeing

“I’m very proud of my homeland. We’re lucky, because we have a lot of coast, and there are loads of clubs where we can practice canoeing from a young age, which in turn means a lot of talents have the chance to come out.” Because many of the successful Spanish canoeists emerged, like her, from the Galician waters, such as David Cal (the Spanish athlete with the most Olympic medals), and Pablo Graña (2018 world champion). Like Portela says: “Galicia has quality!