With all the pressure of her epic Olympic Games schedule, paddler Lisa Carrington thinks of home, and one bright-eyed supporter. Suzanne McFadden reports.
When Lisa Carrington calls home from Tokyo once a day, there’s always one thing she wants to talk about first. And that’s Colin.
Colin is Carrington’s cavoodle puppy, who came into her life during the first year of Covid. It was a challenging year for the superstar paddler – the 12-month delay of the Olympics, a review into the top echelon of her sport, and no international competition.
So when she phones her fiancé, Michael Buck (aka Bucky), back in Auckland, the opening topic won’t always be her races, Olympic gold medal victories – now three from these Games alone – or how she’s feeling.
“Yes, Colin is the most important thing. She just asks: ‘Can you send me a pic of him?’” Buck laughs. “He certainly helped her last year with everything going on.”
It’s impossible to underestimate the pressure Carrington, 32, has been under with the weight of expectations and the disruptions. So Colin has been a blessing.
“It’s nice when there’s something there that doesn’t care about anything apart from loving you,” Buck says.
The dog, who by the way is golden, will have no idea his ‘mum’ became New Zealand’s most decorated Olympian on Thursday, winning the sixth Olympic medal of her career, her fifth gold, in her third victory at these Games alone.
This was the elusive one – the K1 500. The race she’d been striving to claim since the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she won bronze.
“Learning from Rio, you might have the capability to have great races, but to actually execute it and do it is another thing. It’s taken me five years to get the courage to go out there and do something that is really scary and hurts a lot,” Carrington said after the gruelling race.
“I hate it, but I love it.”
Buck understands the enormity of Carrington’s victory, in the style of all her other race wins on Sea Forest Waterway this week: leading from the start and powering home, untouchable.
“This one has taken a huge amount of effort; she’s focused on this one for so many years. Every year they’ve taken a really big step, and it’s culminated in that moment there,” he said as the race replayed on the big screen behind him.
At the start of these Olympics, her third, Carrington suffered from a bad case of nerves. “She was quite scared, really,” Buck says.
When he spoke to her after her double gold on Tuesday – in the K1 200 and K2 500 with Caitlin Regal – Carrington was trying to process it all, “appreciate it before resetting” for two more shots at gold in her unprecedented four-event agenda.
In their conversation on Wednesday night, Carrington was “really calm” – a portent, Buck felt, that something special would unfold in the K1 500.
Buck watched from the New Zealand Team HQ in the Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront, as he has been every day Carrington has raced. He sat in the packed stand with Viv Walker, wife of Carrington’s coach, Gordon, and the three Walker children.
He looked calm through her semifinal early in the afternoon, applauding as his partner won yet another race. But in the final, he was up on his feet before she’d left the starting blocks, and with 250m to go, his cheers grew louder and more insistent. “Go, go, go Lisa!”
As Carrington crossed the finishline in 1m 51.216s – a tad faster than her semifinal win, and 0.6s ahead of silver medallist Tamara Csipes of Hungary – Buck hugged friends and family.
“Incredible,” was his initial reaction. “To put it all out there, the courage she had to show, was just amazing. To back up after that amazing Tuesday, I just don’t know how she did it.”
Somehow, she did. Carrington climbed out of her kayak and sat cross-legged on the jetty, completely spent. Draped in a cold wet towel, her coach and support crew bent down and hugged her.
Buck phoned Carrington’s parents back home in Ōhope, the Bay of Plenty beach settlement where Carrington fell in love with the water. They’d watched the race at the Ōhope Chartered Club and were raising a glass of champagne to their golden daughter. They’d got off school early – dad, Pat, is the principal and mum, Glynis, a teacher at Waiotahi Valley School in Opotiki, where Carrington spent her young learning years.
Buck was a sportsman too – a competitive swimmer, water polo player and surf life saver (they met through mutual friends in the sport).
“We met the year before she started competing internationally and so we’ve grown through this together,” he says. “The level I got to is nowhere near this, but it gives me the ability to appreciate what she’s going through.”
Over the past seven weeks they’ve been apart, they speak once a day, but text often. “I’ve learned over the years that trying to give advice or my thoughts isn’t necessary. I let her drive the communication and I just listen, and try to make things light-hearted where I can,” he says.
She’s been focused on, but not all-consumed by, this monumental Olympic campaign. “She has a purpose and she lives by that,” Buck explains. “She eats well, but doesn’t count her calories. She doesn’t necessarily look at what times her competitors are doing.
“But she’s refined her thinking over the years, so everything slots in a little clearer. She sticks to her routine and does her journaling every day. Getting her thoughts down on paper, so she can focus on her purpose, not what others expect or hope.”
Buck knows this new distinction in New Zealand sporting history won’t change who Carrington is. “The great thing about Lisa is she’s so grounded and humble. She’s ultimately a small-town New Zealand girl,” he said.
But he hopes new opportunities will arise from it for her. “It’s tough for an athlete with such a finite period to make hay,” he says. “But at the same time, that’s not why she does it.
“There may be times that are quite overwhelming for her when she comes home. But she will be reconnecting with her roots, going home to family in Ohope.”
It’s not over yet, either. Carrington will be back again on Friday to race in the K4 500 heats with her close-knit teammates, Regal, Teneale Hatton and Alicia Hoskins.
The cheers in The Cloud were just as loud for Regal on Thursday. The K2 500 gold medallist finished third in her K1 500 semifinal, which her dad, Teri, knew she would be disappointed with. But she came back to win the B final, ending up seventh overall.
For the record: Carrington has five gold medals and one bronze. She eclipses the five-medal career haul of fellow kayakers Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald, and equestrian Sir Mark Todd. She also leads the way in gold medals, overtaking Ferguson’s four.