Real Life

Lisa Carrington’s Olympic dream

Our canoeing golden girl Lisa Carrington talks about being newly engaged, what drives her remarkable success and her Tokyo goals.
Michael Rooke, Getty

If the relentless pace of 2021 finds you already surprised that we’re more than halfway through the year, spare a thought for our elite sportswoman and gold medallist Lisa Carrington, who is barrelling towards the most extraordinary and unpredictable Olympic Games since the world wars.

Dressed in a cosy hoodie and sitting in the sun-soaked kitchen of her Auckland home, the Kiwi canoeist is trying to warm up after a morning’s training out on the North Shore’s Lake Pupuke, while also attempting to wrap her head around how little time there is until the big event.

“It’s all gone so fast,” she laughs. “It’s just trying to make sure that we’re still balancing how to get to the Olympics and staying on course – that we’re performing no matter what happens.”

“It’s about being okay to think you’re good enough – that you deserve it.”

Lisa is not being metaphorical – physically getting to Tokyo for the Games, which controversially started on July 23, in a year of ongoing lockdowns and limited flights, is one of many logistical nightmares that her team is nutting out. Getting a flight to Japan isn’t easy – they’re still battling the COVID beast, with Tokyo extending its state of emergency at the time of writing this – and then there’s the new waves of restrictions to deal with as well.

In March, it was confirmed that there were to be no international spectators at the Olympics – so not only will Lisa’s parents, who try to come to every race, be unable to cheer their daughter on, there maybe no one getting loud in the stands either as authorities are still to decide if they will allow locals to attend.

“I don’t think we’re allowed to yell or shout – and there’s no clapping or singing,” Lisa tells. “So there are all these little intricacies around how you’re allowed to be.”

The slow stripping down of what makes the Olympics such a magnificent event has made the 31-year-old pause for thought about her job and what she needs from it, not to mention who she is when all the glitz is stripped away. The past two Games – London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – were full-on affairs. Lisa recalls an estimated crowd of 100,000 people watching her race

in the UK.

“I think about those big moments of glory and remember what they were like, but it also forces me to ask myself, ‘Can I do it without the glory?’ I’d like to be able to think that I can,” she asserts.

As in life, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters to her.

“The glory, the medals, the ceremony and all that extra stuff that gets added on is really special – but it is just an add-on to what you’re trying to do. If the goal was to just stand on top of a podium and receive all the credits or whatever… I think it really detracts from the work that has to happen before that moment. You just have to adapt to what’s there.”

Lisa says the past 12 months have also provided her with a bit of space to plan another kind of future – one that includes canoeing, of course, but other big life moments as well.

She and her long-term partner, Michael “Bucky” Buck, got engaged in March, sharing on Instagram a gorgeous pic from Ōhope Beach, an area of Aotearoa where Lisa first started to develop her love of the water when she followed her older brothers into surf life-saving as a kid.

“Bucky and I have been together for over 11 years now, so it was a matter of when, not if,” she laughs about her recent engagement, joking that her family are very happy after waiting such a long time.

The pair is at the loose-planning stage for a 2022 wedding, tells Lisa, who is busy locking in vendors and venues. The finer details are definitely a “post-Olympics” job, she laughs of the mammoth task ahead.

“It’s nice to think about things afterwards – and exciting things at that. It’s also about valuing the idea that you only want to get married once, right? And from talking to people about weddings, you recognise that it is a pretty special moment.”

Together for 11 years, Lisa and Michael recently got engaged in her happy place, Ōhope beach

When you’re a sportsperson of Lisa’s calibre, your job and your successes are so public that everybody can participate in them. But on the reverse of that, there’s a special kind of loneliness to an elite athlete’s existence. A wedding, she says, is the opposite.

“The Olympics is really big and that’s what I do, but it’s also about valuing the other things that are really important too. With the Olympics, there’s not many people who can share that same experience. But with getting married, that’s something that a lot of people go through, so you’re able to share that. It’s way more relatable to talk about with family and friends.”

The excitement of her loved ones, she says, has been wonderful. “That level of shared experience is really unique and wicked.”

Lisa is extremely close to her parents, Pat and Glynis, and credits their consistent love and support as being the backbone of not only her career, but her ability to take risks in her job as well. Ironically, her parents had to push her to join sporting activities when she was young because she was so shy.

“They were like, ‘We know this is good for you. We know you can do it. You just don’t recognise that right now.’ They taught me that no matter what happened, there was always a sense of acceptance in my home. If I went out and did something big, I always knew there was a place for me at home and that would never change. Moving from a place of certainty, peace and love definitely helped me to do those things that I was quite afraid to do.

Gold at the 2012 Olympics in London

“They instilled that idea of hard work and that it’s never about the winning – it’s about doing your best. Knowing it didn’t matter if I was bad or good made me able to do sports and try things that I didn’t know how to do.”

Lisa also gets her low-key attitude from her mum and dad. “They’re quite humble themselves – they don’t wear big T-shirts that say, ‘I’m Lisa’s parent!’ They are the quiet supporters who are always there, not being too showy.”

The’re also the same people Lisa turns to before big events, when she’s stressed out or anxious.

“In Rio, I was incredibly nervous before my 200m race,” she recalls.

“I wanted to just get rid of the nerves and the pressure, so I remember calling my mum, saying, ‘I love you,’ and breaking into tears. In a moment like that, you realise that you need someone who’s always going to look after you, who’s always going to care, no matter what the outcome is. It was a really special reminder that it will all be okay.”

At the Halbergs, 2015

When it comes to asking Lisa about becoming a mother herself, we’re aware “the baby question” is an emotional minefield for many, especially women in their 30s. It’s already such a loaded decade – too much to do in such a short space of time. For Lisa, it’s the same in many ways.

“Being a female and being 31, I guess there’s a societal pressure to have children and then you’ve also got your biological clock as well,” she muses. “It’s strange for me to be in a position where I have to really start thinking about those things. I almost feel like I’m still in my mid-20s, not having to deal with any of that.”

However, there is an additional layer of pressure that comes with being a professional female athlete. When your body is at its peak for years and years to perform at such a high level, the idea of having a baby can seem like the ultimate variable to throw into your life. Lisa does want a family, she emphasises, but she is all too familiar with what it can mean for a sporting career.

For me to have children, I would really have to… Well, I’d be rolling the die about whether I’d start sport again. Because I don’t know what it would be like. I’ve got to be prepared that if that was going to happen, maybe I couldn’t get back to sport. There are a whole bunch of women who have proven that it’s really achievable and that’s amazing. But for me? I just wouldn’t know if I could.

“We put barriers around age. I’ve noticed that I’ve changed, and adjusted who I am as I’ve aged and matured. In another year’s time, I’ll probably be in another space about it and that’s why these conversations need to happen fairly often. I have these realisations and think, ‘Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can go to the next Olympics. Maybe I can go to two more.’ For me, it’s making sure I make decisions based on what’s right for me and my people at the time, rather than based on emotion.”

Because the competitive side of her job is so overwhelming and her schedule is booked out so far in advance, Lisa admits there was something almost akin to relief when the Olympics was postponed last year, even if it did come hand in hand with some sadness.

“To have another year was almost like a bit of a gift,” she says. “With that little reprieve from the world – because we had to slow down completely and we couldn’t do the things we normally do – it gave me a little bit more space to start working it out because those four years had gone really, really quickly.”

The stringent lockdown rules of level 4 meant that Lisa couldn’t do her normal six days a week out on the lake and it also meant she couldn’t see her training team.

“During the past year, I’ve been able to have more perspective on what I’m doing, which allows me to be a bit better at what I’m doing and be more comfortable to look beyond Tokyo. It’s not knowing exactly what I’m going to do, but being able to plan things and set other things in motion, rather than being too afraid to look past that point.”

Despite dominating her sport for more than a decade, it’s obvious that the love is still there for Lisa, but that’s not to say that she doesn’t have her eye on what the future holds.

Over the past few years, Lisa has also been slowly carving out some paddling-alternative options. She completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Politics and Māori Studies, and is currently working on a post-graduate diploma in psychology.

With parents Pat and Glynis.

“I’ve worked really closely with my sports psych over the past 10 years and that’s made me realise there’s a potential career in that space,” she says. “Whether or not I’m able to fit

in all the educational requirements to be a psychologist, that’s the direction I’m going in at the moment.”

Lisa jokes that she’s her own case study because she’s always thinking about “how can I be better mentally and physically, and seeing how those two aspects really align”. She adds, “I’m really passionate about helping people find better ways to deal with their own thoughts.”

When it comes to her own mental health and keeping herself resilient, both in the face of sporting competition and the recent global shifts that have affected her goals, it’s a constant work in progress that comes down to some core beliefs.

“It’s about knowing what’s important to me, ensuring that I do a handful of things that help me stay grounded and figuring out the internal things that I can hold tight to, even if other things get taken away.

“But it’s also around identity. As I’ve grown older, I’ve understood how important it is to understand where I’ve come from, and where my parents and grandparents have come from. It helps me find my centre.”

It was up in the air if the Tokyo games would happen, but Lisa’s training hasn’t stopped

Lisa’s whakapapa sees her hail from a Pākehā mother and a Māori father, who’s from Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Porou descent. As a female Māori athlete at the pinnacle of her sport, Lisa is often recognised for her heritage in a way that can make her feel like “a little bit of a fraud”, she says honestly. “Because I haven’t necessarily put in that effort to connect back and to learn more.”

She’s intensely proud of her indigenous roots, but like so many of the younger generation, Lisa wishes she knew more about that part of herself.

“I think it’s probably a life-long thing, right? To get back in touch with my history and where my family have come from. It’s about connecting back and then having real confidence in myself through the people who have gone before me.”

Some of the many, many awards Lisa has picked up recently have been The Most Influential Māori Sportsperson of the Last 30 Years title at the Māori Sports Awards in February and then the Athlete of the Decade award at the Halbergs in March.

Lisa admits that she doesn’t really know what to do with such prestigious accolades, saying, “I don’t look at it too deeply and go, ‘Oh, I’m amazing!’ I’m really grateful, but probably because I’m still in the midst of trying to attain all that I want to achieve, I haven’t really sat down to think about what it means. I’d really like to look back when I’m a grandmother and think, ‘Woah, that was pretty special.'”

There could be an argument made that there is almost an expectation of female athletes that they should always be humble and she assures me she allows herself the odd moment of self-congratulation.

“They probably come as I’m having coffee with my friends, my coach or my partner,” Lisa reveals. But she goes on to admit, “It’s also about being okay to think that you’re good enough – that you deserve it. That’s something I probably need to continue to work on. Having those moments with the people I care about and being able to say, ‘This is cool. I deserve this.'”

The unknown aspects of this year’s Olympics is still the giant elephant in the room when it comes to the sporting world, but Lisa says she learned a lot after the “going, going, gone” rigmarole of last year’s inevitable postponement. Her team stays up-to-date on the ever-increasing list of rules and restrictions only through official sources.

“They may be a little bit slower than the speculation that comes out of the media, but it’s just pointless energy worrying about what you’ve heard through the grapevine. I try not to search it out or seek it out myself. I believe that’s important.”

Living with heightened levels of uncertainty has been the reality for all of us in the past year and Lisa says that, as an athlete, the better you can adapt, the better you can be.

“I reckon I’ve improved because I’ve started to understand what it is about uncertainty or change that I struggle with,” she shares.

“I guess, as humans, we really want solutions and we want certainty, so it’s learning to be okay with not having certainty. It’s like, with the Olympics, if I can truly believe that I don’t need a big stage or a big audience to perform, then whether the Olympics goes ahead shouldn’t change what I’m striving for.”

That said, Lisa insists there are definitely equal amounts of excitement balancing out any apprehension about what’s to come. “It’s just about being prepared – things will happen that we’ve never thought could happen.”

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