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Dame Lisa Carrington's incredibly special win

Why a historic sporting victory means so much to our world champion kayaker.

By Hayley McLarin
Dame Lisa Carrington has won more Olympic gold medals than any other Kiwi athlete, standing proudly on the centre of the podium as the national anthem plays in her honour an astounding five times.
Every single one is special, she says, and she's proud of them all. But her most recent gold medal from the Canoe Sprint World Championships, which she shares with three others – her K4 teammates – is unique.
Lisa, 34, and her fellow kayakers Alicia Hoskin, Olivia Brett and Tara Vaughan became not only the first New Zealand K4 to win the world champs, but they were also the first squad from the Southern Hemisphere – a huge achievement given the team is in its infancy.
"I'm incredibly proud of these women," Lisa tells Woman's Day. "Winning gold was so special, knowing where we'd come from in just two seasons together. Compared to the squads, we were fairly newly formed, almost like we'd started from scratch.
"I've raced in so many Olympics and world champs, where I've had to be self-reliant as they were individual performances. But this was a real team effort, which makes it even more special for me. I've got huge respect for each individual in the team.
"We've done a lot of work talking about what we want to achieve, which requires people to be honest, open and trusting, to help us understand each other. It's taught me I can be in a team more than I thought I could. I care for these girls so much. Their support, trust and care have taught me so much."
During our fun photoshoot at the Takapuna Boating Club, which looks out over Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, the other women describe Lisa as a mentor, saying she's been generous with her knowledge. And although the Olympic champion insists she sees herself as an equal member of the K4 team, she's happy to share her experience if they find it helpful.
Having moved from Ōhope to Auckland for her sport as "an impressionable 19-year-old", Lisa knows just how important it is for the next generation of female paddlers to have someone to look up to.
"It's really rewarding," she says of her role in the team.
"I care for these girls so much," says Lisa of her winning K4 team.
"I want us to be as good as we can be because, ultimately, I want us to be the fastest in the K4. I love seeing the other girls grow – and if I've helped with that in a small way, even better. But also, I just want to have fun with people who I enjoy being around."
Fun is definitely a factor, but there have been challenges too, with each athlete over-coming hurdles that might deter less determined and dedicated people.
"We spend a lot of time together, so we've got to know each other's little idiosyncrasies, our dreams and our desires," tells Lisa, who shared her romantic wedding to longtime partner Michael Buck with Woman's Day in March 2022.
"This K4 is special as we're really aligned in where we want to go. It doesn't matter if you're the fastest individually – all four of us cross the line at the same time, so there's accountability for everyone."
Lisa praises each of the other women for their passion and drive to become the best in the world.
"Alicia is an incredible teammate," says Lisa. "She's selfless and loves to train. There is nothing worse than having someone who doesn't want to be there."
Of Tara, the youngest in the boat, Lisa adds, "She asks all the questions that people may be too afraid to ask. She's authentic. She has a lot of integrity. She wants to work hard and be the best she can."
And Olivia has taught them to think differently and adopt a new style of training. "It's always good to challenge our processes," says Lisa.
"Understanding what people need to learn is a good thing. If you're all aligned, it's magic – and because this team truly is, I know I can rely on them and get more out of myself.
"The more I feel that they're leaning in, then I put more in – and vice versa. It's been really cool seeing these other people growing and overcoming challenges as it makes me want to do the same. It helps me get better."
And the gold medal they won in Duisburg, Germany, in August is not only theirs, Lisa explains.
"There's a whole team behind our boat. These people come overseas with us and they're not with their families. It's really nice to have this win for these people who really believed in us."
Here's hoping our incredible K4 squad can repeat the feat at the Olympic Games in Paris next year!

Meet the team!

One of Tara Vaughan's favourite photos is of her first competition race, when she fell out of her kayak into the water.
"I was winning, but 10 metres before the end, I just fell in," laughs the 19-year-old. "There's a photo of me swimming with my boat and I've got the biggest smile on my face. I wasn't very good at sport when I was younger, but I was the biggest trier. I'm hopelessly uncoordinated. People give me claps when I catch a ball, but there's nothing I'd rather do than what I do now."
Tara describes herself as "the biggest Lisa fan girl", saying, "She's a real mentor for me. We can use her experience to our advantage. She's always happy to help."
The youngest in the boat, Tara still lives at home. Like the rest of the team, she trains two or three times a day, six days a week, fitting in time to study for a Bachelor of Sport and Recreation.
"It's going take me at least six years at this rate as I put my training first, but I'll still get it done eventually."
It's a sacrifice Tara's happy to make for the K4 squad. "I get to travel the world doing what I like with cool people and I get to try to be better every day. Lisa is super-good at seeing what we need when we don't see it. She's got so much experience. We work hard, but it doesn't feel like a hard job."
Alicia Hoskin was giving it her all in a 2km kayaking time trial when her coach demanded she stop.
"She'd had a call from my dad asking me to get off the water ASAP," recalls the 23-year-old. "A routine health check revealed I had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which is when there's an extra electrical pathway in your heart. It can be life-threatening."
Having just been selected for the 2017 junior world champs team, Alicia tells, "I needed a cardiac ablation, a procedure that could destroy the extra pathway. If it didn't work, I would have to give up sport.
"My diagnosis was mentally challenging, especially not knowing if I would be able to paddle again. I loved sport and I was always known as the sporty kid, but the next six months taught me kayaking is what I do, but it's not what defines me."
Gisborne girl Alicia took up multisport at intermediate – doing kayaking, mountain biking and running. But the more paddling she did, the more she loved it. She started going to regattas, where she first met Lisa. "I got the courage to ask for her autograph. It's awesome to now call her my teammate."
Alicia says the women have "a big task ahead of us" for next year's Olympic Games, but she feels there's still so much they can learn as a team.
"Paddling with Lisa is a privilege. It's not lost on me the amount she has invested into herself as an athlete and how much we can learn from her to allow us to be the best. She's so open with her experiences – the highs and lows – and always down for a laugh."
Before she was even a teenager, Olivia Brett had her Olympic dreams dashed. As a 12-year-old, the talented Christchurch gymnast was back in New Zealand after competing in Hawai'i when she suffered a hip injury, likely caused by years of overstretching.
Forced to swap codes, she took up kayaking, but again her body thwarted her goals. "Before I moved into the senior women's squad, I severely over-trained," tells Olivia, 22.
"I partially tore my MCL and raced at nationals in a knee brace.
"After junior world champs, I was having dizzy spells and I couldn't paddle. It was my body's way of saying, 'You've been in fight-or-flight for so long.' It just stopped functioning properly, so I took time off until the last few weeks of lockdown in 2020."
Olivia is completing a Bachelor of Arts specialising in educational psychology, which can be challenging as she was diagnosed with dyslexia at age five. "I get papers read out loud on my computer, which is a game changer, and the structure of training works well for me."
Olivia is grateful Lisa and the team have embraced her unique needs. "As I've grown up, I've realised people don't know if I don't tell them. It's just a part of me – I'm a kayaker, I have dyslexia and I want to be
a teacher."
Sport is a big part of life for the Brett family. Her half-brother Stephen played for the Crusaders and Ma¯ori All Blacks, while sister Ash also repped Canterbury and NZ Ma¯ori in rugby. But her accomplishment is next level. "Getting gold was amazing," Olivia enthuses. "It was kind of surreal."

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