Once hopeless with a paddle, world silver medallist Kayla Imrie reveals what now goes through her head as she lines up in the K4 kayak. Jim Kayes reports.
As she looks down the lane, along the 500 metres of almost rippleless water, it’s not the impending pain Kayla Imrie thinks about.
It’s a house.
The pain will come, she knows, with about 150m to go; the lactic acid will course through her legs and flood her arms so that they feel like rocks.
She knows she will need to focus, to withdraw mentally and shrug off the hurt, and keep propelling her boat toward the finish line. With the line in sight, she can’t afford to slip.
If she’s in the front of the boat, she is the team’s stroke – the one charged with setting the pace, the rhythm, the pattern for the other three to follow.
If she’s in the second seat, she has to follow the great Lisa Carrington’s lead.
She needs to be perfect in picking up Carrington’s pattern and pace so that those behind her – Caitlyn Ryan and Aimee Fisher – are in sync.
So, as she sits there, waiting for the start of the race, for the mad flurry of whirling paddles, Imrie thinks not of the impending pain, but of her New Zealand K4 team.
“We talk about protecting our house. The four girls are the four walls and there is a roof on top, so we have to protect it,” she says.
“If one of us falls, the roof falls, so we have to be strong and stand together. It’s how we approach the race.”
But this is not all airy-fairy stuff. This is a mental approach based on months and months of hard grind in the gym, on the roads and on the water.
It is relentless training that means, when they are ready to race, Imrie and her K4 teammates can almost predict the outcome.
“We train two or three times a day, six days a week, so we aren’t out there hoping for miracles [on race day]. We know what to do,” she says.
That’s obvious in their results.
The New Zealand squad had their best-ever world championship campaign in Portugal in August – with Carrington winning gold in the K1 200m and silver in the K1 500m; Imrie and Fisher collecting silver in the K2 200m; Carrington and Ryan second in the K2 500m; and the K4 also winning silver over 500m.
Despite the repetitive silvers, with less than a second separating first and second, the Kiwis were satisfied. It showed they’re in touch with the leaders.
Back in Auckland after a month travelling following the world champs, Imrie and the New Zealand squad are easing back into training.
They’ll probably all compete in a few domestic events, including the nationals in March, as they slowly peak for the Olympic qualifiers at the next world champs, in Hungary in August.
That event, and two World Cups in June and July, will be used to again determine who paddles in which boats. Imrie is content, for now, to be in the K4 and K2.
At 26, she has been paddling since she was 17, falling into the sport almost by accident after reluctantly taking up surf life-saving when she was 14.
She was a swimmer in those days who trained Monday to Saturday, so Sundays, when surf clubs train, was her day off.
Her younger brothers, Curtis and Ryan, competed at the Paekakariki club north of Wellington where Imrie grew up.
“I’d go to the beach with them, just to lie on the sand, but someone gave me a paddle board to have a play with,” she recalls.
She was hopeless, she laughs, falling off repeatedly that first day. She headed home to Johnsonville frustrated but determined to do better the following Sunday.
As the competitive juices flowed, she soon mastered the board and was then offered a ski to try. She fell off that the first time, too.
But the rest, as they say, is history. Imrie quickly came to national attention and started making New Zealand squads.
That rapid rise stalled in 2014 when she missed out on the New Zealand squad, yet still trained alongside them on Auckland’s Lake Pupuke.
Near, but not included, led to a lonely and depressing time for a 23-year-old who had moved to Auckland to study, but also to succeed in a kayak.
As tough as that year was, Imrie knows it has helped. She now has a Bachelor of Science majoring in biological science.
In 2015 she found smooth water again, making the K4 team that eventually finished fifth at the Rio Olympics. She now has her sights on Tokyo and a medal with a golden gleam.
There is a rivalry within the New Zealand squad, but it’s a healthy one, where each athlete pushes herself to be better, which in turn forces their teammates to be better.
It’s driven by a desire to be the most elite kayaking team in the world – one that shares philosophies with other team sports, including the All Blacks.
For those men, sharing ideas and knowledge is a huge part of improving the team and you will often hear players say it doesn’t matter who starts, so long as the team wins. The idea is that those who don’t start work harder, driving those who are playing to be at their very best.
It is the same for the kayakers.
“We talk about everyone having a piece of the medal. Whether you are in a boat or not, you have to push the others to be better, so we all have a piece of the medal,” she says.
In a sport that can be lonely and individual, it’s a team-first philosophy that Imrie reflects on when they float up to the start line.
The pain will come, she knows, but she must protect her house.