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‘Cool Aunt Lisa’ pushing kayakers to greatness

With Lisa Carrington guiding the way, New Zealand women are leading a revolution in the kayaking world. Juliette Drysdale reports.

Aimee Fisher calls Lisa Carrington the “cool aunty” in New Zealand’s successful female kayaking team.

“She sets the bar at training and she’s a real leader in our squad,” says Fisher who, at 22, is one of the younger talents coming through in paddling. “I think she’s kind of like the ‘cool aunty’ - she’s really good at giving out advice and just being a real role model within the team.

“I feel like I’ve learnt so much from her, from how to tackle race plans, to seeing the way she works at training and even outside of the sport. It’s been really cool learning from her and being around her.”

Having Carrington as the daily benchmark for the eight other women in the national training squad, now working together on Lake Pupuke, is just one of the factors helping the New Zealand women to really arrive at the top tier of world kayaking.

Since Carrington established her dominance in kayak sprints, there has been a steady trickle of team podium places for New Zealand, followed by a flurry of World Cup medals this year. Not to mention the world record set last month by Caitlin Ryan in the K1 500m – in only her second international race in the K1 kayak.

The Kiwi women have proven they are a powerful force on the world stage, and it feels like they’ve got so much right.

Fisher – who teamed up with Carrington to win double gold at the World Cup in Duisburg, Germany, last month - is still finding New Zealand’s rise “pretty incredible”.

“As a junior coming through, it was always the Hungarians who were this force to be reckoned with. It was so intimidating, they just dominated everything and it’s kind of bizarre to think that at the moment, we are that team,” she says.

Having Carrington and the wider group of elite women kayakers training together regularly and pushing each other appears to be having a significant impact on the results and success of the team.

There are now nine women pushing the standard and creating more pressure within the group. Carrington was keen to work with the other women and strongly believes in the power of squad-style training to push to the next level.

“I realised it was important that as a sport we began to work together. And, for that to work, it was important to become a team - so being available to race in the team boats,” the double Olympic gold medallist says. “We’re a really small sport, so it’s really important to work together. I think we can go further by doing that.

“As a team, we respect each other as people, so while we train side-by-side, there’s a notion that we want each other to do our best. It’s important for us to support each other, and in the success that others have individually, we know we can say we helped that person a little on the way.”

Fisher also believes training together as a squad is working. “Last year it was pretty divided. But now every day we’re out there together just working as hard as we can,” she says.

Ryan, the reigning world champion in the K2 500 with Carrington, says she’s “super passionate” about training in a team environment.

“For me it is where my paddling has begun,” she says. “I think with this team of girls we have become a real force to reckon with, and I would love to be a contributor to this success.”

It was in 2014 that Canoe Racing New Zealand had the vision to start investing in team boats and developing the younger athletes. Since then the results have steadily built, along with a significant support team around the athletes.

Fisher says people may underestimate the role of the support the team.

“People see us out there on race day but we have this entire team behind us taking care of every aspect of being an athlete - everything from weightlifting, nutrition, psych, the whole works,” she says.

Another factor in the success can be put down to the phenomenal coaching of Gordon Walker. Previously Carrington’s coach, Walker has recently taken on guiding the wider group of women.

“Gordy has an extremely high standard of what he wants his training programme to look like and how it needs to be executed. So he has had to adapt that approach from just one to many,” Carrington explains.

The team appears to be thriving under Walker’s guidance, and Fisher is excited to see where it will take her.

“I’m really enjoying it and I’m really excited to see, when everything starts coming together, how fast I can go. He’s a pretty incredible coach,” she says.

“We’re clocking up a lot of miles, doing a lot of threshold work. It’s a different training style - that would be probably the biggest change for me. It’s really working and I’m really enjoying the challenge.”

Walker, Ryan says, supported her to stay in the sport. “I am truly grateful to him. He opened his arms to me at I time where I was considering retirement,” she says. “He’s been really supportive of me through my struggles and he is honestly an incredible coach. New Zealand kayaking is so lucky to have such a skilled coach, but also such a compassionate coach.”

The women also clearly look up to Carrington and rightly so, given her wealth of experience and ability to perform under pressure. They are able to not only use her as a benchmark, but also learn from her experiences.

Carrington will lead the New Zealand team into the world championships in Portugal in August, with Ryan, Fisher, Olympian Kayla Imrie and young paddler Rebecca Cole making up a strong squad.

Fisher has found training alongside Carrington hugely beneficial in many different ways.  

“It really keeps you honest and it’s been really neat the last six months that I’ve been in the squad seeing the intensity that Lisa brings to training. It kind of raises the bar - it’s a world class environment,” she says.

Ryan also acknowledges the impact and role Carrington plays within the squad.

“Lisa has been the best in the world for a long time, her work ethic is impeccable and her heart is huge, so she sets a huge benchmark both physically and mentally. She is a huge role model to all the girls in kayaking and she is really in to the team side of our sport having now taken up team events. To me, she is the standard, day-to-day, which in turn holds me accountable.”

It’s clear that all the women in the squad are on the same page - finding the balance between supporting each other as team-mates and maintaining a healthy competitive environment, which will ultimately drive them to success.

Looking to the 2020 Olympics, Fisher is very much focused on what the squad can achieve. By being the best athlete she can be, she says, she will also be making a contribution to New Zealand performance in Tokyo.

Ryan sums it up nicely: “Sometimes our nation doesn’t quite understand how kick-ass this group of Kiwi girls are. All these girls in our squad have so much to give and it’s so cool to be part of this and all of its development.

“We are here to try and create a legacy - not just in New Zealand, but in the world of international kayaking. And I truly believe we can keep progressing.”

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