UPDATE: Lisa Carrington wins two more gold medals (K1 200 and K2 500 with Caitlin Regal) Tuesday afternoon to equal Ian Ferguson’s national record of four Olympic titles. Here’s Suzanne McFadden from June on Carrington’s special connection with coach Gordon Walker.
In part two of Olympic Bonds, on Tokyo-bound athletes and a special person who’s helped them get there, super paddler Lisa Carrington and coach Gordon Walker reveal what’s kept their relationship going strong through three Olympic campaigns.
They’ve been working together almost every day for 10 years, so there’s obviously a lot Lisa Carrington and her coach, Gordon Walker, share.
You can be one of the most dominant Olympic athletes on the planet, it seems, and still get the jitters. And there’s nothing like the intensity of an Olympic competition to really rattle Carrington – and Walker – in the final moments before a race.
“I can only remember a few real nervous moments, and one is the Olympics. Like real nervous,” says Walker, who has experienced his own competition anxieties from his days as a multisport champion. “There’s just no comparison in nerves.”
“For you, or for me?” Carrington, the double Olympic champion says, laughing.
They’re sitting in her North Shore kitchen, after a frosty morning training paddle on Lake Pupuke. “Yeah, the nerves at an Olympics are like nothing else.”
And maybe both will be suffering more than ever when paddling’s superstar lines up to race on the Sea Forest Waterway on Tokyo Bay in the first week of August.
It will be two years since Carrington last raced internationally. No one knows what form her competitors will be in, and only she and her coach will know how potent she is.
And she’ll be racing in an unprecedented four Olympic events – two solo and two in a crew.
It’s Walker’s job to help steer Carrington through the tension in the last 20 minutes before she pushes her boat off from the jetty and heads out to the start-line.
“It can be really challenging, and she’s really nervous, but when you’ve accepted the nerves and found the way through them, then we have a bit of a plan. And then she’s off and then that’s it.
“But it’s pretty awesome when I know what the intention is, what she’s trying to do and I see her put it in place.”
Like at the 2019 world champs in Szeged, Hungary – the last time Carrington raced at a major event. She won two world titles, in the K1 200m and K1 500m, in what she believes was the greatest performance of her career.
“We felt the way for her to do her best there was to really be assertive and confident and aggressive,” Walker says. “And when I saw her do it, it was like ‘Wow, holy cow, that’s actually happening’. When you know where she’s at, you know it’s only going to end one way, and that’s a pretty cool thing to watch.”
For Carrington, it’s a matter of trust – the not-so-secret ingredient in the longevity of their athlete-coach relationship, that’s led to 17 world championship medals (10 of them gold) and three Olympic medals.
“It’s partly because I know Gordy can help me so much. It takes a long time to develop trust, and a long time to be able to share what you really need to get the most out of yourself,” Carrington, who is about to turn 32, says.
“And to be able to challenge each other to get it right. Not that I challenge you heaps, Gordy. But it’s more like I can question – and it not be a bad thing. It takes a bit of time to have the maturity to have those conversations in a really productive way.”
Carrington doesn’t just go to Walker for training advice.
“I look to Gordy for a lot of guidance, because I question myself. Instead of thinking negatively, or having that insecurity, I ask him ‘What’s real about this? How can I work through this?’,” she says.
“That’s incredibly helpful to me, the times I guess it’s great to really have that relationship. I don’t think many people would have that kind of thing.”
When they started working together in late 2010, neither had established themselves in canoe racing.
Walker has a vague recollection of first seeing Carrington paddling on Lake Pupuke. She’d just moved to Auckland from Whakatāne, to paddle alongside the best in the country, and Walker was training for multisport events like the Coast to Coast, which he won three times.
“I’d been there for a few years, people had come and gone. But I remember a group of young paddlers coming through and Lisa was a part of that,” Walker says.
“At that time, we had some really good male paddlers – which has kind of flipped, now. But whoever turned up back then, there was a long way to get to the top.
“Man, if you saw where Lisa was then to where she is now… it’s hard to imagine that gap.”
Zimbabwe-born Walker began coaching Erin Taylor, New Zealand’s first female Olympic canoe sprinter who’d competed at the 2008 Beijing Games, and Carrington was selected in her first New Zealand team. Then Walker became the women’s coach for Canoe Racing NZ.
“Part of why we’ve stayed together so long is that I’ve always known there’s a lot more to give, a lot more to do, and a lot more to learn,” Walker says.
“You always feel like you have to go back tomorrow because you haven’t learned enough. Training is hard and intense, there’s always a lot of tension and pressure from all sorts of different areas. But it’s about being able to stay together through those times that are difficult and challenging.”
Carrington reckons over the years the challenges have become harder to negotiate.
“I guess the bigger the challenge, you can think ‘well I could fold to it’, but I don’t think that it’s in either of our natures to fold. We have such a desire to work through it,” she says.
“I probably demand too much from Gordy, to be honest. To have these top performances, especially at the Olympics, you don’t just clock off at 5pm. Even for Gordy.
“I don’t think it’s an easy job being a coach. If I put that much demand on myself, unfortunately I put that on him too – in the nicest possible way, I hope.”
Walker doesn’t feel burdened, he shares the same drive and passion, he says. He thrives on the challenge of helping Carrington – who hasn’t been beaten in the K1 200 since 2012 – get stronger and faster every year.
“Lisa has a really dynamic mind, so it’s like with food – she really likes something, and then gets really sick of it quickly. There always has to be something new, but not fashionable,” Walker says.
“She will learn that thing, then it’s on to the next. There are two streams – one that’s dynamic and constantly changing and then one deep down that’s consistent. So there’s things that have never changed – advice from 10 years ago that’s just the same today.”
They follow the Darwinian philosophy on change – where the fittest win out because they best adapt to their environment.
“We’re just trying to adapt. We stripped back [Carrington’s] performance from the year before, looked at it and said: ‘Okay out of these 10 things, can you improve one and keep the other nine the same?’ It’s really simple,” he says.
“One of the reasons Lisa is so good is that she can keep improving. If I was one of her competitors, that would be one of the hardest things to come to terms with. As good as she is now, if you want to beat her you’ve got to think about where she’s going to be in another year.
“There are so many areas where she can change and improve, like strength, fitness, flexibility, nutrition and mentally – the way she approaches things has changed immensely.”
Carrington and the rest of New Zealand’s canoe sprint team are about to head to Australia for a few weeks’ training and acclimatisation on their way to a very different Olympics in Japan.
The pandemic hasn’t changed Carrington’s approach towards Tokyo. “I’ve just had another year to get better. Not competing is tricky… I miss out on the experience from racing in high pressure situations, but the training can be quite good because we don’t get disruptions,” she says.
“Gordy has the vision and the plan. I can just work on the daily stuff and be present in the moment. He helps me stay on course to where I need to get to.”
They’re on the water Monday to Saturday, twice a day most of the time. Carrington jokes that it’s “unfortunate” Walker lives just down the road from her: “We even bump into each other at the supermarket.”
But Walker insists his paddlers have balance in their lives, making sure they spend time with family and friends.
“The hardest thing as an athlete is having balance,” says Carrington, now engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Michael Buck. “We’re kind of always on the clock, especially if we want to be better. But it’s all about prioritising those things, like seeing family and friends, and doing the things that make me me.”
Walker’s family have always been around canoe racing. Carrington was recently looking back at photos of the 2012 London Olympics, where she won her first gold, and Walker’s three young children were there celebrating with her.
“I still see them as that little. But I’ve learned so much since then, and Gordy has been a huge part of that,” Carrington says.
Has Walker ever seen an athlete like Carrington?
“No. And I’ve seen some good ones,” he says. Like 2004 Olympic canoe silver medallist Ben Fouhy, and cyclist Hayden Roulston, a 2008 Olympic silver and bronze medallist: “Both flippin’ remarkable”.
“But one of the incredible things about Lisa is that she’s a combination of amazing forces. She has multiple amazing physical capabilities along with a mentality that wants to grow a lot. And a desire to want to keep going.
“Ten years ago, she was a world champion. She could have stopped then as our only female [canoe sprint] world champion. But to have done another year, then another year, then another with such a consistent approach, that’s different.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with her, to have the time to do it. It’s kind of a joint passion, which is pretty cool.”