She captured Kiwi hearts when she won gold at the London Olympics, but the champion young kayaker still isn’t sure what all the fuss is about.
Before the start of the Olympic final, Lisa Carrington sat in her kayak, listening to the heartbeat getting louder and faster, and she smiled. She wasn’t having a panic attack; the heartbeat wasn’t hers. It was part of the pre-race build-up at Eton Dorney, the canoe sprint venue at the London Olympics. On a big screen, a heart monitor-style graphic charted the heartbeat, while large speakers played a steady rhythm – de-dum, de-dum, de-dum – alerting spectators and competitors that a race was about to start.
On the water, Carrington flashed a grin, a technique to calm her nerves, project confidence and psych out the seven other women on the start line for the K1 200m final. Carrington was the pre-race favourite, reigning world champion, and on the previous day had set the fastest qualifying time, and a new Olympic record, in her semi-final. The smile and the confidence were justified. Carrington powered past her rivals to win gold, a remarkable performance given that 15 months before London 2012 she had never raced against a world-class field in this category of canoe race.
Carrington is a certainty to be nominated for the Sportswoman of the Year when the Halberg Sports Awards finalists are announced on January 1. She might miss out this year – teenage golfing phenom Lydia Ko and shot putter Valerie Adams are more likely winners – but she has time on her side. London was just the first chapter of the Lisa Carrington story, a story that begins in the Bay of Plenty where her parents, Pat and Glynis, were sporty schoolteachers who gifted the youngest of their three children good genes.
Carrington played representative netball for the Bay of Plenty and also excelled at surf lifesaving. She was in her mid-teens when she realised neither of those sports would take her to the Olympics. She switched her focus to kayaking, encouraged by Olympic gold medallist Ian Ferguson, who recognised her potential at a training camp.
In 2009, she moved to Auckland to join the high-performance programme at Canoe Racing New Zealand (CRNZ). That same year, the International Canoe Federation announced that the women’s K1 200m would be raced for the first time at the Olympics in London. (K1 refers to a one-person kayak; in international canoe racing, there are K1, K2 and K4 categories, as well as C1, C2 and C4 categories, denoting the ‘Canadian’ or ‘canoe’ boats. The difference between the two is that a kayak has a pedal-operated rudder, controlled by the seated kayaker. The canoeist kneels on one knee.)
Those two decisions would change Carrington’s life, but when Gordon Walker, a coach at CRNZ, began working with her at the end of 2010, he saw her as just another promising paddler. “You would have needed great insight to predict she would be Olympic champion less than two years later,” he says.