A quartet of Kiwi kayakers will be looking to add a new chapter to New Zealand’s proud Olympic canoeing history this week, when they try to qualify a first female K4 boat for next year’s Rio de Janiero Olympics.
EIGHT BLADES dip and flash in the golden light of dawn, creasing the mirrored surface of the Waitemata Harbour’s upper reaches.
Spray flies as four strong bodies lean into their work. Beneath them, a K4 kayak knifes through the water as a certain melody emerges – the swish of paddles, deep intakes of breath, the singing of an 11m length of carbon fibre coming up to speed.
Much is made of the Olympic creed ‘faster, higher, stronger’ but a world-class K4 crew also needs harmony. It’s the athletic equivalent of a barbershop quartet or a girl-band – one off-key note, or a single stroke out of time and the wobbles can set in from which there’s no recovery.
“No-one actually realises how tippy a kayak is and then you put four people into something tippy… you have to keep it in the same time and the same rhythm,” Caitlin Ryan, part of the New Zealand women’s K4 crew, explains. “Sometimes it doesn’t work but most of the time, the goal is to protect the person in front of you. By making it easier for the person in front of you, it makes the boat flow.”
Ryan and teammates Jaimee Lovett, Aimee Fisher and Kayla Imrie are hoping to turn that flow into a deluge this week. After nine months of muscle-shredding gym work, finger-burning frosty mornings and lung-lashing lactic sessions, the four want to lock in a spot at next year’s Rio de Janeiro with a world-class performance at the canoe sprint world championships in Milan from August 19-23.
It’s been 23 years since New Zealand last had an Olympic K4 boat, with Richard Boyle, Finn O’Connor, Stephen Richards, and Mark Scheib making the semifinals in Barcelona in 1992, after earlier men’s K4 crews in 1984 and 1988.
Such has been the improvement from the current crop, however, that qualification won’t be a total shock. They’ve already made a bold statement by winning the K4 500m at a World Cup round in Portugal earlier this year and finishing fifth a week later against the top European crews.
A similar performance in Milan is likely to transform them from passionate amateurs into equally passionate – but fully-funded – Olympians-in-waiting.
That’s the plan, although Lovett – a 27-year-old raised and nurtured on the beaches around Whakatane – is adamant they’re not getting ahead of themselves.
“Rio is the goal but it’s step by step and remembering to think about the process, getting through one block and one session and ticking the boxes,” Lovett explains. “If we tick the boxes, the end goal is what it is and the results will be hopefully what we want.”
ON A BREEZY February morning last year, newly-appointed Canoe Racing New Zealand boss Mark Weatherall sat on the banks of Tikitapu, the stunningly picturesque Rotorua lake and national championships venue, deep in thought.
The “Carrington factor” – as in, the success and role modeling of world and Olympic K1 200m champion Lisa Carrington – had given female paddling stocks in this country a significant boost. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be the next version of Ohope’s favourite daughter.
The only problem? There’s no place for the next Lisa Carrington if the current version is still peerless, motivated and virtually untouchable.
Weatherall realised the best use of the burgeoning female talent was to focus them in other areas, while the best way to open up opportunities for as many paddlers as possible was to put them in a bigger boat.
A K4 was put together – comprising Ryan, Lovett, Fisher and K1 5000m world champion Teneale Hatton – and sent to the world championships, where they finished a meritorious 14th.
“We could see obvious potential in the crew but one of the big things separating them from the leading countries was consistent access to a quality, dedicated coach,” Weatherall explained.
He approached High Performance Sport New Zealand and was delighted when the sports funding and investment agency gave him the thumbs up to find such a coach. After sifting through nearly 50 applicants, CRNZ appointed former Danish marathon kayaker and national coach Rene Olsen in November last year.
NINE MONTHS after Weatherall’s epiphany, Rene Olsen sat on the same patch of lakeside grass in Rotorua, analysing the talent he had at his disposal.
A compact and uncomplicated character, he noted with interest the historical reliance New Zealand kayakers had on paddling fitness, with our long on-water season contrasted with European emphasis on gym strength.
If he could marry the two philosophies, he reasoned, good things could happen, while there were also significant gains to be had getting them all working together.
“You can’t just take the four best paddlers and make the best boat – you have to think about the different qualities each paddler brings to the boat,” Olsen said. “New Zealand is a small country and if someone isn’t performing, there aren’t huge numbers of people lined up to take their place like in Germany or Hungary. I’m used to getting the most out of the talent that is there and not relying on the numbers.”
Within weeks, his quiet positivity and relentless focus on team building started showing, along with an added gym emphasis.
“Last year, I felt like a little kid and I kind of felt out of place… this year, I know I’m as strong as any other girl there…” – Aimee Fisher
“This last six or seven months with Rene have been a massive step up,” Fisher, the 20-year-old Hawke’s Bay product, confirms. “Last year, I felt like a little kid and I kind of felt out of place, being a teenager. This year, I know I’m as strong as any other girl there and I’ve worked as hard as any of them. Every day, we go out there and we’re striving for excellence and breaking new boundaries – I’m really enjoying training and loving life.”
Like Weatherall, all four female paddlers have come through the surf lifesaving scene, graduating to surf skis in their mid-teens before branching out into flatwater racing.
Ryan has been with the Red Beach club, for instance, since she was five, became a qualified lifeguard at 14 and has won six national ski titles in her career, including the coveted open crown in 2012 and 2013.
Now a practicing dental hygienist, Ryan was born just five days after her Wellington crewmate Imrie, who grew up in the Hutt Valley and turned out for the Paekakariki surf club and Mana kayak racing club as soon as she could.
Imrie, 23, has speed, strength and reach, making her the ideal back-seat in the boat, as the four friends fuse together.
“We’re all really good mates but then when we’re on the water, we’re all good colleagues trying to achieve the same goal,” Imrie says. “Everybody has really different personalities but I think that’s really good and we work really well together.”
Unfortunately, the crew is based in Auckland, where golden dawns and mirrored waters are rare and precious. Bleak, squally gloom is far more likely through the middle months of the year, with pre-dark starts and achy bones testing even the tightest teamwork.
But this isn’t an ordinary road to Rio. Rise or fall, succeed or fail, the four friends are in it together, paddling in harmony, something the experienced campaigner Lovett has noted with interest.
“One of the biggest changes is the mentality shift,” she explains. “We used to look at what the wind was going to be like and what the water was going to be like and whether we were going to have a good session – but none of that stuff really matters any more. We’ve got work to do and we just get on and do it. That’s a good shift because when you race, you’re going to have all sorts of conditions. We’re better prepared for that situation now – we just race in whatever and don’t really worry about it.”