After paddling her way to a third gold medal on the water in Tokyo, kayaker Lisa Carrington confessed it felt “crazy” to think she was New Zealand’s most successful Olympic athlete ever.
“There’s a lot of talk when people say, ‘You could do this, you could be that,’ but for me, it’s just making sure that I did what I could do – not focusing too much on the what-ifs, but just going out there and doing my best.”
It was a typically humble answer from the 32-year-old pocket rocket from Ohope in the Bay of Plenty, who first set her sights on becoming an Olympic athlete when she was just seven, watching Kiwi swimmer Danyon Loader win gold in Atlanta in 1996.
Lisa recalls, “My dad said, ‘You should go to the Olympics.’ All I knew was that Olympians were amazing people who I looked up to.”
Her mum Glynis tells Woman’s Day, “Lisa is just a country girl who grew up on the beach and has a real affinity for water. She was a very, very shy little one, but she had real inner strength that wasn’t apparent to most people and, as parents, we had the job of building her self-confidence.”
Incredibly, Lisa – who is of Te-Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Nga-ti Porou descent – hadn’t even been near a kayak until she was 16, while looking for a winter sport to maintain her fitness for surf lifesaving, another activity she excelled in. After joining a camp run by Olympic kayaker Ian Ferguson, she was hooked and never looked back.
But it was only when her fellow surf lifesaver Erin Taylor became the first woman to represent Aotearoa in kayaking at the 2008 Games that Lisa realised her Olympic dream could actually become a reality.
Glynis tells, “We’d see Erin on the beach all the time and she’s just a few years older than Lisa. Suddenly it was like, if she can do it, would you aspire to that as well?”
After putting in the hard yards, Lisa qualified for the 2012 Games in London, where she won a gold medal for the K1 200m – a feat she repeated four years later in Rio de Janeiro, where she also took home bronze in the K1 500m.
She was all ready to do it again in 2020 when the pandemic postponed the Tokyo Olympics for a year, putting a spanner in Lisa’s training plans. A silver lining to the delay came when her partner of 11 years, Michael Buck, proposed on Ohope Beach in March. Glynis says, “That was a real lift.”
When it was announced the Games were back on in 2021, but with Covid restricting crowds and celebrations, Lisa was forced to envision a very different Olympic experience, telling The Australian Women’s Weekly, “Can I do it without the glory? I’d like to be able to think I can. The glory, the medals, the ceremony and all that extra stuff that gets added on is really special, but it is just an add-on to what I’m trying to do.”
Indeed, Lisa powered to first place in the K1 200m final, equalling rower Hamish Bond’s record of three gold medals at consecutive Games. Within 75 minutes, she snared another gold, taking out the K2 500m final with colleague Caitlin Regal in an Olympic best time.
Just two days later, she won another gold in the K1 500m and became our greatest Olympic athlete, later grinning, “It’s amazing. I set out for such a big task this week and to be able to do it is just another thing. I’m so proud and I’m just amazed at what has actually happened this week so far.
“There’s so many people that support me. I’m just so fortunate to have an incredible support team.”
And no small part of that support were her beloved parents, teachers Pat and Glynis, who were cheering from Lisa’s old primary Waiotahe Valley School, where they still work and where pictures from Lisa’s student days decorate the library noticeboard.
Glynis tells us, “I’m just so elated for her. It’s a true testament to her focus and how deep she can dig to bring out her best. She’s never been one to blow her own trumpet and doesn’t think of it in terms of breaking records – she just wants to do better today than she did yesterday, building toward the end goal of being the very best she can be. If that excellence transfers to be a gold medal, then that’s fabulous.”
And while the Games may now be at an end, after Tokyo, there’s still plenty for Lisa to look forward to, with a 2022 wedding to plan.
“It’s nice to think about things afterwards – and exciting things at that,” our golden girl says.
“From talking to people about weddings, I’ve recognised that it’s a pretty special moment. The Olympics is really big and that’s what I do, but it’s also about valuing the other things that are really important too.”
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