Cool Runnings on kayaks: sisters dream big

As she paddles past Lisa Carrington in a boat borrowed from the Olympic champion's club, Cook Islands teenager Jade Tierney dares to dream.

Will she one day be as good as Carrington, who, yet again, swept all before her at the kayak nationals at Lake Karapiro?

Carrington won her tenth K1 200 gold medal at the nationals on the weekend, then followed it up with gold in the K1 500 and K2 500, teaming up with Australian Ella Beere. It was another dominant performance by the world's undisputed queen of kayaking, who's also become a pied piper.

In the largest field ever assembled at the nationals, a record 140 of 322 competitors were female. It’s clear there is a Carrington effect as many were girls, with the juniors often needing three or four heats - something that was unheard of just a few years ago.

Carrington’s presence wasn’t lost on Tierney, who hopes to write herself into the record books in just a few years.

The 14-year-old was one of 12 paddlers at the regatta from the fledgling Cook Islands Canoe and Kayak Club in Rarotonga - a club so under-resourced they had to borrow gear from Carrington’s Eastern Bay of Plenty club.

At home, they have 19 hulls, and from that have made nine usable K1 boats and two K2 boats.

“But even the worst boat here is better than our best boat,” club founder and coach Ron Rolleston says, as he gazes across the bank of Lake Karapiro covered in boats.

“It works for us though, because when the kids come here and see they are in good boats, they really give it a good crack.”

That was evident in their results, with Tierney helping the Cook Islands to third in the U16 K4 500, with her younger sister, 13-year-old Liliana, paddling in the crew.

It was a tough regatta for Jade, but she had some creditable results, including fifth in the U16 section of the gruelling 5km race, with her K2 teammate Genesis Ngatikao a minute behind her in sixth.

Jade also won her U16 K1 200 heat and was a respectable seventh in the final - respectable because this is a young girl who hadn’t even sat in a K1 boat a year ago.

Coach Rolleston, who has a background in surf lifesaving at Tauranga’s Omanu club and was a fitness instructor during his 13 years in the New Zealand Navy, is confident history beckons for the Tierney sisters, and the Cooks.

“Within two years we will have team boats at the Youth Olympics, and within the following two years we will be heading for the big show,” he says, referring to the Paris Olympics in 2024.

It's a kayaking version of Cool Runnings, the amazing tale of the Jamaican bobsleigh team that competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada, and were immortalised in a movie loosely based on their feats.

Though New Zealand-based siblings Ella and Bryden Nicholas have represented the Cook Islands in slalom canoeing at the Olympics, the tiny country has never had a flat water kayaker at the Games.

And especially not an athlete based in the Cooks.

That, says Rolleston, is the goal.  And he’s confident it will happen. If not with the Tierney sisters, then one of their teammates. Or the small tidal wave of would-be paddlers keen to sit in a K1 back home.

“There’s huge interest at home, but because of the lack of resources, there’s only a limited number we can coach,” Rolleston says.

“We are like Cool Runnings in the respect that we come from a minnows background. There’s a lot of natural ability but it’s focusing that ability on one sport and keeping it there that’s the issue.”

The Tierney sisters, Jade (left) and Liliana, with the trophy they received in Italy, for coming from the Cooks to compete. Photo: supplied.

Tim Tierney, whose family own a restaurant and cafe in Rarotonga, says the dedication and determination of his daughters makes the investment in their paddling worthwhile.

But he knows the Olympics are not a fairy tale. Only results can get you there.

“You still have to qualify even if you’re from a small country,” he says.

In her soft, shy, teenage voice, Jade Tierney says she loves competing and is driven by improvements in her times.

When asked about the dream of paddling at the Olympics, she says: “It would make all the training worthwhile - it would be a great feeling.”

She admits getting a buzz when she paddles past Carrington, not just at Lake Karapiro, but also on Auckland’s Lake Pupuke where the Tierney sisters have trained since late November with the North Shore club.

Both are water babies, having grown up in and on the lagoons that circle Rarotonga and paddling oe vaka, the Cook’s version of waka ama.

Tim took the family (including their two younger boys) on a seven-month odyssey that has seen them train, compete and holiday in Australia, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

At a regatta in Savona, in north west Italy, the Tierney sisters were presented with a trophy as the organisers’ way of saying thank you for travelling all the way from the Cook Islands to compete in their event.

“It’s been a lot of trains and planes,” says Liliana, “but it’s been fun and exciting - and tiring”.

She’s loved being at the nationals and training with the Kiwi girls at the North Shore club. She’s seen her times improve, and giggles that she is closing in on her big sister.

Yes, the Olympics is the goal, but when you’re 13 that’s too far away. For now, Jade is the target.

“And I’m not far off her,” Liliana says with a smile.

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