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Young paddler shuts out pain to return to world stage

Nothing, it seems, can deter promising young paddler Olivia Brett from making her name on the canoe sprinting world stage. Taylor Curtis reports. 

Olivia Brett first discovered her sporting identity through gymnastics. It’s where she learned dedication, competitiveness, perseverance and discipline.

She was the epitome of a promising gymnast - at the age of seven, she found an environment where she could thrive and let her natural ability shine. She even competed for New Zealand in Hawaii. 

Gymnastics was the sport where Brett wanted to make her name. But, by the age of 12, she suffered a hip injury that prematurely ended her career. 

Brett’s sporting story could have ended there. But instead she found her balance in a new code.

The Year 13 student at St Andrew's College in Christchurch has now exploded into the world of competitive canoe sprinting - dominating her age groups and representing her country again. And she's about to compete in her third world junior championships, after overcoming a serious knee injury.

Brett never thought she would find something that ignited her passion quite the same again - until she climbed into a canoe, and discovered she had the composure to glide along the water. And fast.

“I think that gymnastics is the basis of all sports,” Brett, now 17, says. “I came into kayaking with good stability, which helped a lot when I moved into a K1 [a one-person kayak]. 

“It also prepared me mentally after being put under a lot of stress and pressure at such a young age in gymnastics.”

Brett’s long-time coach, Paul Fidow, says canoeing isn’t the easiest sport to pick up, as it requires an incredible amount of balance, patience and a lot of core work. Even just sitting in a boat is difficult.

“Sprint kayaking is challenging both physically and mentally. It requires an athlete to understand how their physique and skill can get them from point A to point B in the shortest possible time,” says Fidow, who trains Brett out of the Arawa Canoe Club on the Avon River.

“In my experience, when an athlete deals with the process of finding their balance, it’s usually quite stressful, but it shows their true character and it’s often a good indicator of their future potential.”

It was obvious early on that Brett had plenty of potential. With just six weeks of training behind her, the 12-year-old went to the 2013 national canoe sprint championships and won three golds and a bronze in the under-13 grade.

She continued to dominate throughout the age groups, and was chosen to represent New Zealand in 2017, making her international paddling debut at the junior world championships in Romania. At a training camp she injured her shoulder, yet still raced at the worlds – through the pain – in the K4 500m.

Brett returned to the world juniors last year in Bulgaria, where she made the K1 200m A final (finishing ninth), and won the K2 500m B final with Gisborne’s Alicia Hoskin. 

At this year’s nationals, Brett entered the three-day regatta with a knee injury – suffered when she slipped down a bank during a training camp at Lake Brunner. Although she was advised she couldn’t do any further damage to the torn ligament in her left knee if she competed, the real challenge was to control the pain.

Olivia Brett, seen here with Arawa club sprint coach Sam Blackmore, will race at her third world youth champs in Hungary in August. Photo: Jamie Troughton Dscribe Media. 

Preparation is key and Brett says preparing for a big race with an existing injury can be stressful, not only physically but mentally too.

Physically, she lost a lot of fitness when she couldn’t keep up her cross training and on-the-water sessions.

“In terms of mental battles, at first it was really hard because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to paddle at nationals. But after my physio told me that I couldn’t make it any worse, and that it would only be painful, it made me feel a lot better,” Brett says.

There was a lot riding on the competition, which also served an important selection event for the junior world championships that Brett was striving to make for a third time.

Despite her injury, Brett won five under-18 national and Oceania titles – in the K1, K2 and K4 boats – and she even tried her hand in the highly competitive women’s open competition, finishing fourth in the K1 200m B final.

Her outstanding effort ensured she was again selected for the New Zealand team for the junior worlds, which will this time be raced in Szeged, Hungary, in August. She will prepare at this weekend’s Asia Pacific championship on Lake Karapiro, for young aspiring paddlers, and an international tri-series with Japan and Australia.

After coaching her for so long, Fidow had all the faith in Brett’s ability to make that team.

“I’ve worked with Olivia since she first started in sprint kayaking, and over that time we’ve forged a close relationship that I’d like to think is founded on honesty and trust," he says. “We’re closely aligned on issues of performance, and on the odd occasion where we don’t see eye to eye, we’re now in a position where we can openly have the hard conversations.

“Liv is not your average athlete, and she learns differently to the majority of other athletes I’ve worked with. Over time we’ve  developed an individualised approach to her training and learning based on what works for her, not necessarily what works for everyone else.

“It’s a pleasure to share in her journey. She has definitely helped me to grow as a coach, and she will always have a place in our Arawa family.”

Brett’s long-term goal is to make the New Zealand senior team to race internationally and to one day compete at the Olympics.

She’s grateful for the village of support surrounding her, including her parents. “I don’t think I could have had a better team surrounding me. My whole support team wanted nothing but to help and I probably wouldn’t have made it to nationals without their help and support," she says.

As if preparing to perform centre-stage wasn’t enough, Brett is keeping up her studies so she can go to university next year, with the hopes of eventually becoming a primary school teacher.

Although she might have had her swan-song with her gymnastics, her sporting career is far from over, as this swan has found a new passion, gliding across the water.

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