Lake Karāpiro is quiet and still now. But last week, it was all noise and splashing water with over 3500 paddlers charging across the surface in outrigger canoes.
One of them was New Zealand waka ama legend Corrina Gage.
The 58-year-old was back with her crew, Whaea Engines, competing at the waka ama sprint national championships. Both competitor and coach for the Ruamata Waka Ama Club in Rotorua, Gage has raced at every national sprint championship since the annual event started in New Zealand in 1990.
And even after three decades, Gage’s competitiveness and love for the sport hasn’t changed. But her mindset and growth have evolved.
“Through your sport your motivations change, eh,” says Gage, who’s represented New Zealand in rafting, dragon boating and waka ama. “Initially, it’s absolutely about winning and there’s nothing wrong with that because you have to learn that discipline of training and what’s required for higher performances.
“However, how many medals does a person need? There’s that point where you start to transition, and your ego doesn’t require as much stroking. And once you’ve got those things under your belt and you’ve had that satisfaction, then you can move on.”
The water sport enthusiast has won multiple domestic and international titles across her water codes and travelled the world for sport. Before waka ama, Gage came from an adventure sport background.
“I started in whitewater kayaking as a kid, went into multi-sport, did flat water, represented New Zealand in some marathon kayaking races, also dragon boating, and then onto outrigger canoeing,” says Gage, who has whakapapa to Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tainui and Te Whānau-ā- Apanui. She still dabbles in whitewater rafting.
In the three events Gage’s Whaea Engine crew competed at sprint nationals, they won the senior master women’s double hull and the turns 1000m race and were second in the W6 500m event. Not bad considering they had three paddlers filling in on the team for the regatta.
“It’s always hard to swallow a second,” says Gage. “However, given that the combination we had [on the day] hadn’t paddled together at all, I can’t be unhappy with second. And the crew that beat us most definitely deserved the win.”
But it was her coaching contribution at nationals that stood out for Gage.
“Absolutely without doubt, the most satisfying moment for me was seeing the young men that I’ve been coaching from our club, Ruamata, come second in the double hull; then they won the turns race and came third in the 500m,” she says. “Coaching young men is very satisfying to me as a female coach. I’ve coached men’s crews before but they’re not always that open to being coached by females.
“But these young men were outstanding. They asked me if I would help and they are so willing to engage and try different things. Seeing our young Māori men, at that age in particular, portraying healthy lifestyles, good relationships between males, and being good men, just being a part of that has been amazing.” The crew ranged in age between 18 to late 20s.
In comparison to the mainstream water sports, Gage says the unique point of difference with waka ama is the option to compete in a single or crew boat.
“And that’s huge,” she says. “When you’re doing an individual sport, you’re continually having to keep yourself motivated, apart from the support people around you. Then you go into a crew sport and you have others relying on you.”
It’s something Gage has welcomed as her career has advanced and shown in administrative roles in the governance side of the sport too.
Unlike other sports, age is no barrier in waka ama. Competitors over the week were as young as five and mature as 83.
“It still allows you to be competitive within an age group and you’re progressing with your peers through the sport,” Gage says. “The other significant thing is the variety within the sport. As with kayaking, you’ve got white water kayaking and flat water. I was lucky to experience both of them but they’re still individual.”
The biggest drawcard for Gage – and the main reason she stays in the sport – is the option to compete in open ocean racing.
“At 58, I can still be in competitive crews who are giving the 20-year-olds a hard time in the ocean,” she says. “And it’s a technical racing day, so you don’t just get away with being fit on the day.
“You have to be able to read what’s happening with the conditions, have the skills required to cope with those changing conditions, be able to keep six people fully synchronised through whatever is happening and have that mental endurance over distance races.” The open water races can range from one-and-a-half to six hours.
This aspect of the sport has given Gage some of her biggest moments in her career.
The “Super Bowl” of ocean paddling for women is Na Wahine o Ke Kai – a race in Hawaii that goes from the island of Moloka’i back to Oahu, finishing in Honolulu on Waikiki Beach. Gage has raced in the renowned event almost 20 times.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of crossing an ocean and there are no other canoes ahead of you when you come in to the finish line,” says Gage. “And you might’ve started with anything up to 100 canoes on the start line.”
Her first win in the open division came in early 2000, and with the same crew she’s taken out the master division every time they’ve entered.
Gage first got into the waka arm from kayaking when an Australian crew asked her if she’d race with them in Na Wahine o Ke Kai.
“I told them I’d never paddled before so they asked if I would go a month before; I went and then did a 42 mile open ocean with them. That was my first time in waka ama and it has continued since then,” she says.
In the last few years, Gage has also developed her overseas coaching base. Last year she was booked into eight coaching trips, from Brazil and Hong Kong to the United States and Singapore, in the lead-up to the world sprint championships in Hawaii. But Covid-19 struck and she was left stranded on the international front.
“It forced me to be more innovative which has been a good thing,” says Gage. She used to have a day job at what’s now known as the Hillary Outdoor Education Centre, but when she noticed her coaching was taking up more time than her paid work, she transitioned to full-time coaching 10 years ago.
As she also has contracts with Waka Ama New Zealand to assist with coaching courses to help build the capacity at home, Gage was able to develop skills around how to work with crews and individuals from a distance.
“You don’t have to be a world champion to be a world champion coach.”
With her track record, how does she keep improving as a paddler and coach?
“I think it’s really important to always keep in mind that there will be something that you don’t know. If you think you know everything, then that’s going to be an absolute stain on your coaching,” she says.
“I’m always open to learning new things from people who I’m coaching, listening to them in terms of what their unique challenges are and always being open to problem solving. Knowing that there’s no one right answer to anything is key to anyone’s coaching.”
From a coaching perspective, the feeling of achievement, loss and ups and downs experienced as an athlete is still there.
“It is a similar feeling and I have been surprised by that over the years,” admits Gage. “Probably the biggest high for me in that regard – even though it was a long time ago and it was huge within our sport – was 2006 when New Zealand hosted a world championship and I was the overall head coach for that.”
Each time a team took the water, she felt proud and rode the same emotional wave with them. “It’s not always about your paddlers winning,” Gage says. “What was their objective and did they achieve that objective? Did you assist them to improve their performance?
“I think when we talk about high performance, there’s a disproportionate focus on higher performance being on winning as opposed to a higher performance for that particular individual or crew. And so it’s about those incremental gains for everybody so their satisfaction does flow into it becoming a satisfying experience for me [as coach].”
Gage’s outdoor education experience meant she was already familiar with teaching technical skills from a range of sports – skiing through to rock climbing to kayaking and canoeing.
“I think my evolution to coach nationally and internationally has, I’d like to think, been successful primarily because of my background and knowing how to impart information to others in a way that makes sense to them,” she says.
“As with any sport, you can have lots of high-level competitors but they’re not necessarily good at passing on how they do and what they do to others. You don’t have to be a world champion to be a world champion coach.”
Her next goal is focused on long distance racing with her 50s crew. Half of the team who raced at the sprint nationals have been training for the longer format nationals.
“Our intent is to contend for first overall, rather than just in our 50s age group,” Gage says. “I say ‘contend’ – that’s going to be tough, but if there are people in front of us, we’ll certainly be working for it.”
There is a long distance race in Rarotonga scheduled for November. But if Covid-19 restrictions ramp up, they’re planning on racing within New Zealand so their training isn’t wasted.
Given all of her achievements, when Gage reflects back on her career, what does she want to have left behind in the sport?
“Wow, that’s a really big question, it’s heavy,” she says. “For me it is most certainly not only about supporting New Zealand paddlers to be the best in the world – that is absolutely satisfying for us to beat other countries, you can’t help that patriotic part of yourself. But entwined in that is also that journey around helping people to participate. Full stop.”
Engaging people in sport and knowing the opportunities waka ama provides in changing lifestyles is also what she thinks about. “There’s that aspect our paddlers improving their performance and getting satisfaction out of improving their performance across all ages,” says Gage. “And I’d like to know that I have contributed to all of those aspects.”
With age not being a competing factor, Gage will keep going the distance in supporting her beloved sport and people.