Interview with World Champion Lisa Carrington

We caught up for a chat with Lisa Carrington a week before the 2015 World Canoe Sprint Championships. She was spending her final training camp along with the rest of the New Zealand team in Training in Paradise – paddling on lakes Bled and Bohinj (Slovenia).

On the water the Olympic champion looked fierce as if the hunger never fades for her, but once outside that thin carbon shell, she gave us a glimpse of her gentler side. Reserved and composed by nature she was same time also very kind and warm during the interview. In her answers she is giving us an insight into the life and thought process of a true champion.

Lisa Carrington Lake Bohinj
Lisa at Lake Bohinj

You are leaving for the world championship tomorrow. How are you satisfied with the final training camp in Slovenia? Was it as efficient and enjoyable as you thought?
The whole trip felt great. The sessions were done as they were supposed to be done. In the build up to the race it all comes down to the amount training you were able to do and I was in a good place and able to do my sessions the way I wanted them to be done. I paddled with Špela Ponomarenko a few times and did my key sessions with her. In these two weeks I’ve been mostly training on lake Bled, but the trainings we’ve done together were out on lake Bohinj instead. It was really great to have her. And she is looking good!

Let’s go and start at the beginning. How did you get into sports?
I’ve tried many sports; volleyball, a bit of track and field, netball, which is quite big in New Zealand, and surf lifesaving of course. I sat in my first kayak only around the age of 16.

What about the story where you were the bravest little girl attacking  the huge swell in your ski at a surf lifesaving competition while the other girls were really scared? Coaches must  have noticed some of your talents by then?
(laughs) Oh, yes, I was around 12 then and they would only let some of us race in that swell. I think I was naturally a bit stronger. And perhaps I was less scared!

Was the Olympic ambition something that grew with your involvement in sports or a goal you set to pursue in your early childhood?
I think when I was 17 I realized I could go to the Olympics in kayaking. It was after I went to the Junior Worlds in my last year in  high school. So from there I thought it would be good for me and I could go and pursue it after high school. I didn’t know if I can get there or not, but I thought once I left school it was something I wanted to do.

You’ve come a long way since then, enjoying fast acceleration up the ranks. Do you remember this? (I show her the pic below).

Ooh! So funny! When was that?

The photo was taken in Most na Soči in May 2010, during a Training in Paradise camp you attended with the NZ team between the World Cups. It was one year before you won your first world title – nobody was expecting what was about to come?
Oh, no, nobody…

Between 2010 and 2011 your career took off. The definitive breakthrough came with the victory in K1 200m at the World Championship. Since then you established yourself as the dominant force on the international racing circuit. What was the turning point that triggered the success?
Well I think probably I had potential, but it wasn’t realised so much. Then Gordon started coaching me. It was also  very hard for me to get an opportunity to race in the K1 200. But it was what I wanted to do, so we had to figure out how I could do it, as on the same time I was also trialing and racing a K4. So there was the K4 and the K2 with Erin Taylor plus the K1. It was very hard for me to get an opportunity to race my K1 200. But I was lucky because then I’ve won my K1 200m at the World Cup in Duisburg that year. So it is how I could race it at Worlds in 2011. It was a bit of a surprise. It’s happened by chance. Wasn’t the plan. I wanted to do it and though it could be good, but I hadn’t realised by then I was able to win it.

How does Lisa Carrington feel on the start of a big race?
Pretty nervous, yeah. But I think you need to be: nervous but very confident.

…you do look very confident on the start!
(laughs) Yeah, I try to! I need to be confident in order to race properly and race really well!

In one week you will be on the start line in Milan, you know already how you will feel?
Yeah, i do know. And i am lucky because I have the experience and I know how to cope.You can get those bad feelings and you can get scared, this is normal. But you need to get yourself in the right racing mode.

Will it feel different on the 200 and on the 500m?
On the 200 I have a lot of experience, i know that race more, so I am very confident in the 200. Also I can get a little bit worried sometimes, you know, not racing that well and so on, because in that sprint you can not make mistakes… While on the 500 I think it hurts a lot more. So you have to be prepared to hurt, to dig dip. Really deep, yeah.

Since you finished your studies is life different now?
Last year I finished my studies in Bachelor of Arts. I majored in Politics and Māori Studies. And I just started studying what we call a graduate diploma in Sports Psychology.

How did you keep busy while you had more free time?
No more free time, I seem to feel it up with sponsorship and meetings and lots of different stuff. But now that I am gone back to study it is a good as I can say no to things because I have to study.

What does it mean for you to be a Māori descent? What’s it like to be connected with all this heritage?
It is special and different. Connection is massive with all the heritage and the people. The Māori people in New Zealand are very well connected. And Māori is our culture.

At home many places are very westernized, but we still have the local ‘iwi’ which means tribes. There are many tribes around the country, but you know exactly which place is your family coming from. And we have the ‘whakapapa’ which is a concept a bit like the family tree. So maybe they know you are somebody’s distant cousin because they know all the long chain of aunties.
It’s nice, it means having a culture to come back to.

I’ve asked the same question to your coach Gordon Walker already, but I am interested in your answer even more.  What do you think is the one thing that makes you this successful?
I think for me the one thing would be the ability to learn and grow. I think it is the biggest thing that is helping me. Continuous going and learning, as a person and as an athlete.

Lisa Carrington Lake Bled
Lisa during Training Camp on Lake Bled

I’ve read this quote of yours somewhere: “If I find something hard, and I really dislike doing it, then it probably means I have to do it. My support team has been great at helping with the internal pressures of being an athlete, both within and outside the sport.” What does that really mean?
It means that if you find something challenging it is really important to work at it, not go around it. Definitely I think this is very important for somebody’s growth.

Your coach helps you identify these challenges?
Yes, he does help me with that. But I also recognize them alone. It is also physical challenges of course, but mostly mental ones. I think mental challenges are much harder challenges. Tougher to overcome (smiles).

Do you ever miss more competition in training? How do you set daily training goals to yourself? How do you make sure you stay sharp?
I do make a lot of my hard sessions on my own. I do have a couple of training partners back home, so we have a group of a few guys and a girl that we train together when at home. It is more of an environment that we create. With training partners the toughest thing is to find someone who understand the environment that is required for good training. It is very difficult to find somebody who is there to grow themselves and be better personally when you try to beat someone. So competition isn’t so important for me when in training. It is more for the partner to be reliable and be there to do what they need to do to grow them selves, respect the environment and everybody within that environment. It’s quite hard to find somebody that can fit in that mold. Also all the athletes coming through are all in different stages of their development as athletes, so what they need is pretty different to what I would need. But i think every now and then it is really good to have training partners.

I could see in this training camp you can really push yourself. You seem to really be able to make hard sessions even on your own?
Absolutely yes, I can do that. I know what I need to do on the session, I don’t need competition to go hard, because I know how fast I need to go, my stroke rate, my heart rate… I know exactly what I should be achieving out of the session, so I don’t necessarily  need someone to push me.

Do you have any special daily routines?
(Thinks for a long time) I do have a morning routine, but is just so normal it doesn’t even feel a routine. I have a pre-race routine and a warm up one of course.

You could easily stop here and be content with yourself for achieving everything that was possible to achieve in the sport. But you look calm, happy and hungry, going for more! How do you achieve this?
I think it is a very good balance I am having. Not always thinking about training and kayaking, almost like having a contrast between being and athlete and being…you know…a ‘normal’ person. I am making sure to keep a good contact with friends and my family, that type of things.  You know, making sure you are in touch with people outside your sport who have different problems, not kayaking problems (laughs). All of them have different experiences to share and that’s important, so when I come back I am fresh and I am not spending to much time in this environment. I shut off paddling often.

What are your plans or goals for after sports in a distant future?
I am not sure, because I am so much here. I don’t know…have a happy life, a happy family (laughs).
A good job maybe. As I am studying psychology probably something about helping people reach their potential. That’s really cool and could be good.

How do you find the new Nelo Cinco?
Oh, it’s good. I find that accelerates quick out of the water. And it doesn’t have as much rocker – the up and down nose to tail movement. So it just sits a little nicer in the water. Indeed it’s very good. I wanted to keep moving with the times in the boat. It took me a little time to adjust to it but now it feels normal, so that’s perfect.

How did you like Training in Paradise? Would you consider coming here again?
I loved it! I didn’t know Bled is such a touristic place and can get crowded in summer. But it is really pretty. Overall, we had a nice accommodation, delicious food and perfect water conditions. Also, the whole facility with changing rooms, boat shed and the gym – all in one place – is amazing. You did a good job!

Quick ID

DOB: June 23rd 1989
Place of birth: born in Tauranga and raised in Ohope beach, New Zealand
Height: 1.68m
Weight: 53kg
Boat: Nelo Cinco
Paddle: Jantex Gama

Olympic games medals:
Gold K1 (2012)

World Championship medals:
4 golds in K1 200 (2011, 2013, 2014, 2015)
1 gold in K1 500m (2015)
1 silver  in K1 500m (2014)
1 bronze K1 500m (2013)

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