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Career

Lisa Carrington opens up about body image, loneliness and staying positive in a high-pressure game

Despite her gruelling physical schedule, it's Lisa's mental focus that she attributes to her medal haul.

It's footage that has been beamed into living rooms across the country: Kiwi canoeing champion Lisa Carrington, all steely determination, razor-sharp focus and arms pumping like pistons, cutting a smooth swathe across the water en route to New Zealand sporting history.
In the public eye, Carrington prefers to let her performances in the canoe do the talking. When she's racing, it's intense; it's power and muscle, stakes can be high, and she readily admits that potentially destructive niggling nerves can bubble close to the surface. But when NEXT catches up with her during a rare break from training, the down-to-earth Olympian is the very definition of relaxed.
Arriving at the photo shoot in her favourite baggy pants and jandals, Carrington is happy to go with the flow. She chats good-naturedly through outfit changes, hair revamps, makeup tweaks and count-less poses. A wind machine turned up high delivers an eye-watering blast directly to her face; she smiles through it. A wayward shoulder strap, snagged sleeve or crumpled hemline halts proceedings for the 100th time; she takes it all in her stride.
"I don't like being precious and I don't like to think of myself as any sort of famous person!" she laughs. "I've got a lot of good friends who keep me grounded, and it's so nice just to be at home and be normal. I'm quite a homebody, I love barbecues and cooking and having friends over, and I love being in my track pants!"
It's that same cool head that has no doubt kept her at the top of her game over the past five years, after a gold medal win at the 2012 London Olympics turned her into a household name. Next came Rio in 2016, where she added another gold and a bronze to her medal collection, gliding across the finish line with a triumphant grin.
Earlier this year, the 27-year-old joined the top tier of Kiwi sporting elite at this year's prestigious Halberg Awards, where she took the title of Sportswoman of the Year and, as a cherry on top, the Supreme Award.
It was fitting recognition of the years spent honing her skills on the water, earning her an international reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the 200m and 500m women's single canoe sprint events. With a trophy cabinet filling fast and her sights set on adding to the haul, it's safe to say Carrington, the unassuming girl from Ohope, is currently the country's top sportswoman. But it doesn't mean getting to this point has been easy.
Growing up with the Bay of Plenty beaches on her doorstep, it wasn't long before Carrington developed a love of the water. Surf lifesaving was an ideal way to hang out with friends on the sand, and after watching her two older brothers on the surf ski – similar to a kayak – she soon wanted in on the action.
With the encouragement of her parents, Carrington, who has Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Porou heritage, signed up to some canoeing events, sailed through to the national champs and quickly earned a few placings.
The early wins were enough to get her enthusiastic about the sport, and at 17, she was representing New Zealand at canoeing events abroad. Success snowballed, and these days, Carrington is out on the water 10 times a week, alongside 15 hours in the gym.
In pursuit of the top-level training that would carry her to Olympic gold, Carrington made Auckland her new home base, and she now lives on the city's North Shore with her partner of seven years, Michael Buck. A short drive away is Lake Pupuke, the backdrop to countless early morning kayak sessions where Carrington's coach, Gordon Walker, often paddles alongside her to keep her company.
When you're in a canoe by yourself in the middle of a lake, loneliness can come with the territory, and for Carrington, having people nearby keeps her spirits up.
"When it's the daily grind, it's really important for me to have people around, whether they are paddling with me or just on the edge of the water somewhere," she says. "I'm not good with training by myself. It gets really lonely sometimes, but on the other hand there are times where it's important for me to just go and do my own thing."
But in the sometimes high pressure world of elite sport, loneliness isn't the only hazard of the job. In the right environment, nerves, stress and negative thoughts can combine to create a force so destructive, it can throw even the most committed athlete off course. The idea of the 'mental game' is a widely used concept, and Carrington knows all too well the importance of getting into the right headspace before a big event.
"I absolutely get nervous, and I find it's different before every race," she says. "Sometimes I can be really confident and other times I'm worried about how I'll perform, or nervous as I want to do well. You're putting yourself out there, it's almost like you're naked – everyone can see you, that's your performance, it's like the essence of who you are.
"At the Olympics it's scary; you start to think 'wow, it's all coming down to these few minutes', but you really don't want that sort of thought coming into your head!"
When adrenaline is running high at the Games, the whirlwind of emotions can be exhausting. "Going into big races, it's like the small things that didn't matter, suddenly matter," she explains. "If someone is being loud you think 'argh, that's so irritating!' Your focus is just so strong you get less and less tolerance for anything else. I look back at the Games and think, 'I didn't realise how stressful it was; I must have been so uptight!'"
During a race, Carrington will glance around to see where the other athletes are positioned if she feels she has the time, and sometimes they catch each other's eye. Goodwill towards fellow competitors is all part of staying in a positive headspace, and in canoeing, nobody is keen to start bad blood.
"For me to be really comfortable and race my best, I have to have respect for the girls I paddle with," says the athlete, who has also been collecting a cache of medals at the Canoe World Champs since 2011.
"If I'm sitting there thinking, 'I don't like her', then it just creates negativity on the water. There are only eight of us at an Olympic final and nine of us at the world champs, so we'll be paddling around each other warming up before a race, and we'll have little chats."
Then there are the conversations you have internally, which Carrington says are a constant mental balancing act between cutting herself some slack and pushing herself too hard.
"One side of me says, 'I'll just do my best' and the other side is like 'go out there and smash it; be aggressive!' It's like you're juggling two balls
in the air all the time, and making sure you don't overbalance."
When Carrington speaks, there's no umming and ahhing, second guessing or uncertainty. Maybe this wisdom comes from all the time spent with her thoughts alone on the water, or perhaps it's the fact that when your goal is to carve a path to Olympic victory, you need to have a level head.
"You do get frustrated with yourself sometimes," she explains, "but I've never had a point where I've been like, 'why am I doing this?' It's more like, 'well I've chosen to get on the water today, I've made the decision to come to this session, so I'm the only one to blame.' That accountability is really important, it's hard when you blame other people for not feeling good. You need to go 'yup, this is what I choose.'"
For Carrington, being stopped by fans for a photo is a regular occurrence nowadays, but it's her grocery list that seems to really get people talking.
"I don't even think people realise they are doing this, but when they see me at the supermarket they often look in my trolley and comment on the food! I think people assume I only eat healthy things, and when they see the ice cream they say 'oooh'," she laughs. "I love my ice cream and chips; I'm quite good at enjoying treats!"
And when it comes to keeping it real, the easy-going Olympian won't be kowtowing to societal pressures. "If you feel like a treat then you have a treat. You don't want to get sucked in to what society wants you to look like," she says candidly.
In an age where body image is an increasingly hot topic, having your appearance scrutinised is bad enough, but there's an extra element to it when the body in question is what enables your career, powers you to represent your country on the world stage, achieve your goals and live your dreams. Carrington is well used to people commenting on her 'guns', and has said in the past her physique isn't exactly her favourite topic of conversation.
"It is pretty funny when people comment on my muscles; it's like 'yeah, I hadn't noticed'", she deadpans. "For me it's about trying to be in the best physical condition I can be, and as much as you try to not let things impact on you, it's our society, and it does.
"It can be quite hard when you're seeing really slim figures and it's like, 'I'm so muscular and masculine!' But it's all about having that internal confidence. I say to myself, 'I don't really care what people think, this is for my sport.' I think that's just part of the constant progression through life, being totally okay with who you are and what you look like."
Alongside a tight-knit family who are over the moon about her success, her partner Michael, an analyst at a bank, is her biggest fan and supporter. Living with an elite athlete is bound to have its challenges, but Carrington reckons the pair are well matched because, as a former swimmer and surf lifesaver himself, he "gets it."
"He's used to an athlete's schedule," she laughs. "He's not very demanding, and he gets that I need to rest. When you're tired and all you want to do is nothing, you end up neglecting the small things like going around to friends' houses, but he pushes me to still do those things, which is good. It's so nice to have that person outside of sport."
While socialising might be one of her favourite pastimes, indulging in a couple of well-earned wines is strictly off the cards, even when she was surrounded by bottles of the good stuff at the glitzy Halberg Awards. She had training the next morning anyway, and only drinks when she's on her rare 'big breaks' after major events.
However, when the longest break from sport you can remember having is a paltry two months after an exhausting Olympic campaign, downtime can be a precious commodity.
Nevertheless, Carrington has still managed to complete a Bachelor of Arts in politics and Māori studies from Massey University, and is currently working her way through a graduate diploma in psychology.
She credits her 'athlete life adviser', which each sportsperson is assigned once they hit the top level of their field, with helping her sharpen up on time management. As training commitments also make holding down a regular job nigh on impossible, the government provides athletes with funding in the form of a performance enhancement grant.
Then there's the partnerships with sponsors and businesses, which in Carrington's case includes New Zealand Beef and Lamb – a boon for a girl who loves to host a barbecue.
Back on the water, she's gearing up to tackle a new set of goals. There's a world cup in May, world champs in August and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Carrington's pretty sure she's got more in the tank, and she's looking forward to the challenge.
"When you're training, you're just hoping that the work you're doing is beneficial and is making you faster," she muses. "There are always things to improve on, and when you're at that high level you're still improving, but the gains are just way smaller! But I think I can do it."
And with her kind of focus, we bet she will.

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