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Quiet-man Cal eyes record fifth Spanish medal

As the early morning mist rises over Pontevedra on Spain's northwest coast, one of their hottest Olympic medal prospects powers his canoe under the Roman bridge after which the town is named, barely noticed by local passers-by.

David Cal is months away from a shot at winning a fifth Olympic medal, which would make him Spain's most decorated Olympian, but it is hard to tell as he ploughs a lonely furrow in this forgotten corner of the Iberian peninsula.

The broad-shouldered 29-year-old is conscious of making it into the history books but disarmingly modest about the task.

"The simplest thing to do is to think I'm going for my first medal," the softly-spoken Cal tells Reuters at the small marina on the River Lerez where he trains.

"Every sportsman wants a medal at the Olympics. I am always hungry for success. After I got two medals in Athens, a gold and a silver, I thought now what I wanted was two golds.

"I got two silvers in Beijing, which was good. There is no Spaniard who has won five Olympic medals. It's a challenge. You have four, now what? Well, let's go and get the fifth."

Cal shares the Spanish record of four Olympic medals with retired cyclist Joan Llaneras and women's tennis player Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

FLAG CARRIER

The man who had the honor of carrying the Spanish flag at the opening ceremony in the Beijing Olympics competes in the C1 class canoe, where the competitor kneels in his craft and uses a single paddle down one side.

After changes to the competition for London, he will only race in the 1000 meters event. The 500m, in which he won two of his medals, has been dropped in favor of a 200m sprint, which he says is a completely different type of race to what he is used to.

Cal has scouted the course in London, but has some reservations about the facility at Eton Dorney.

"I don't like the course in London very much," he said. "It is very open, it doesn't have many trees round it to protect from the wind. The wind is bad for all canoeists.

"The boats we use don't have a rudder, we use the paddle for steering. There are canoeists who paddle one side, some the other, and depending on which way the wind blows it favors some more than others. So we are particularly concerned about it."

Cal was raised in one of the small coastal villages near Pontevedra and started canoeing aged eight.

"I lived near the beach. I simply saw the people out there, it caught my attention," he said. "One day with a friend we had a go. I tried it, enjoyed it and there we are."

He quickly established himself as a formidable opponent, holding his own against older children because those his own age could not compete. His single-minded dedication to his work also seems to have left him alone in his struggle for improvement.

GRUFF MENTOR

"I have competed in other team canoeing disciplines but it is difficult to find a sportsman who links well with you," he said.

"When you work with someone else, when everything goes well, perfect. But when it goes badly, you have problems. If I train every day and the other doesn't like to as much, the performance will not be to the same standard."

The one person who has managed to keep pace with him and drive him on is long-term coach Suso Morlan, who he has worked with since he was 14.

"We've got better and better together," Cal says of his gruff mentor. "No one knows me as well as he does. It's important he has confidence in me, and me in him.

"We have a very good relationship, but at the same time we try to stay apart as much as we can. I spend the whole day with him.

"(In the build up to the Games) I will have breakfast with him, train with him, have lunch with him, train again, have dinner with him.

"We'll spend a lot of time together so it is important we maintain some distance. You can't let your daily problems affect your relationship when it comes to training."

Being based out on Spain's Atlantic coast, just 15 minutes from where he was raised, keeps him out of the public eye and makes it harder when it comes to raising sponsorship for his cause.

"We are little incommunicado out here," he says with a laugh, as he talks about the tortuous eight-hour train journey required to get to the Spanish capital, Madrid.

Cal gives the impression he likes it that way.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)