Nevin Harrison Is Just Getting Started: Gold Medalist, 19, Talks Making 'Herstory' and What's Next

Years after being told she was "never going to compete in sports again," Nevin Harrison made history as the first American woman to win gold in an Olympic canoe sprint race

Nevin Harrison has received a homecoming fit for a history-making Olympian since she returned from the Tokyo Olympics.

The Seattle native, 19, was welcomed back on August 9th with plenty of love and support at the airport and at T-Mobile Park during a recent Mariners game, where she received roaring applause from fans. And that's not the last, or certainly the least, recognition Harrison will get after becoming the first U.S. woman to claim gold in an Olympic canoe sprint race — and the first to win any kind of medal for Team USA since 1964 when the event was called flatwater sprint.

"People know who I am, which is crazy. They're like, 'Oh, you're that girl that won gold.' And I'm like, 'Oh, you know?' That's crazy," Harrison told PEOPLE right before she departed Japan. Going forward, Harrison will forever be known as the first female athlete from the U.S. to win in the women's 200m canoe single, which debuted as a new event in Tokyo.

Since 1936, the discipline was contested as an Olympic medal event by only men. Finally, for Tokyo, the 200, 500 and 1,000m races were added for women by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as part of a gender-equity initiative.

Nevin Harrison

"It's such a dream come true. It's hard to put into words," Harrison told PEOPLE about her historic victory. "Day by day it feels a little more real as things start to happen and I see the world in a whole different perspective. It's been wonderful. The races were competitive but fun and crazy."

In canoe events, the paddler uses an upright position by kneeling on one knee with the other leg forward and the foot flat on the floor inside the boat. In this position, the athlete can power their boat forward with the paddle in the water in front of the boat and pulling the paddle down their side.

Recalling her epic medal-winning race, the 5'9" teen said she had "worked really hard this year" on her craft. And it definitely showed when she clinched gold in the 200m event with a time of 45.932 seconds.

Nevin Harrison

"About halfway through, I knew I was neck and neck with a couple of my opponents and I also knew that I could finish stronger than them. At that moment I was [like], 'I got it, let's do it.' And then as I was approaching the finish line, I knew I was in first," Harrison shared.

"I remember looking around as I passed the line, realizing, and it was like I could breathe again for the first time in forever because I've been putting so much pressure on myself. I've been so stressed. I've been putting everything on that one moment. And, finally, I did it. It was like 1,000 pounds lifted off my shoulders. It was the best feeling. I just started crying right there on the spot because it was just, 'Oh, my gosh, I did it,' " she proudly said.

Nevin Harrison

Harrison, who first tried canoe racing at age 12, has already persevered through a lot.

She had dreams of being a track and field athlete but those aspirations were dashed when she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at age 14, a "hard time" she now attributes to what "changed my life" and a "little bump [in the road that] took me somewhere even better."

"It was probably the most devastating feeling I ever had, because the doctor told me that I was never going to compete in sports again if I didn't get a really intense surgery," Harrison recalled. "That was just not something that I was going to be able to do at that age. I felt my whole world ripped away from me at that point because I was always an athletic kid. That's always what I did. Can I start over?

"I found something that worked for me and I know never to take advantage of anything again, because I took advantage of being able to run," said Harrison, who moved from Seattle to Gainesville, Georgia, to train on Lake Lanier, where sprint canoe competitions took place at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"Now, every single day, I look around and I'm like, 'Wow, this is beautiful. What I do is so amazing and I'm so lucky.' It's been a crazy journey here and I'm really proud of myself. I'm proud of the people who've supported me," she said.

While gymnastics, swimming, and track and field are arguably the biggest headlining Olympic events for American audiences, canoe often goes largely overlooked. Harrison is hoping to change that by being a trailblazer in her sport.

"It's been really hard being an American in a sport like this. I think I feel really out of place a lot of times when I'm at an event like this because I see the gymnasts, track athletes and swimmers. Everyone knows what they do and everyone knows who they are. For me, I tell them I do canoe kayak and they're, 'What is that?' I have to explain it every single time, but I don't mind. I'm bringing visibility to it," she said with confidence.

"Hopefully, winning this gold and having the U.S. see it is going to be huge for us. Maybe it's going to get kids into it and want to learn," she shared.

Harrison, who found out about her sport's Olympic eligibility when she was around 15-16 years old, added, "Since I started, we weren't even really considered in the Olympics. Then as I progressed in the sport, it became more real that we might actually be able to compete. I wasn't quite sure that I was going to make it here, but I started that path of chasing that crazy dream, and gradually it all came together. I always try to advocate, so much, for women's equality in sport because as we've proven, we are so capable and so awesome."

Harrison also poignantly noted: "It's herstory as people are saying. It's so cool. I just feel really, really honored to be the first Olympic champion to have that be what people remember me by."

And she's not done yet.

Harrison already has her eyes set on winning another medal at the 2024 Paris Games. "Because I'm so young, I've got to have one more Olympics in me, at least," she said.

"I'm definitely going to take some time off and just be who I am outside of an athlete for a couple of months. Just go to school, have fun, meet new people and be that version of Nevin and not be the Olympian version of Nevin for a little bit," she shared.

"But because I love this so much, I love this life and I love training, I'm sure I'll circle back really soon and definitely come back for Paris. I hope to at least have one more Olympics in me," Harrison pointed out.

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