As Tara Vaughan races at her first canoe racing World Cup this week, the teen is still getting her head around sitting in the same boat as Dame Lisa Carrington, Angela Walker writes. 

Three years ago, Tara Vaughan knew virtually nothing about the sport of canoe racing. Two years ago, she fell into the lake when she was leading the field at the national champs.

Now the 18-year-old is about to contest two World Cups as a member of New Zealand’s K4 boat, alongside five-time Olympic champion Dame Lisa Carrington. 

Vaughan’s international debut takes place this weekend at the World Cup in Račice, Czech Republic, followed by the World Cup in Poznań, Poland, a week later.

The talented Auckland newcomer admits being in a crew with the legendary Carrington – our most successful Olympian – is somewhat daunting. 

“I train on the same lake as Lisa [Lake Pupuke] so she’s always been around,” Vaughan explains. “But I’ve definitely always been scared of her.”

During their final preparations to race in Europe, Vaughan was gradually getting used to being in the same team as the superstar paddler, but admitted it still sometimes takes her by surprise. 

“The other day she texted me, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Lisa’,” she says.

Tara Vaughan has taken the skills she learned in surf lifesaving into canoe paddling. Photo: Craig Butland Photography.

At the recent New Zealand canoe sprint championships, on Lake Karapiro, Vaughan lined up at the start of the K1 500m final alongside Carrington. Yet this was no ordinary final.

Dubbed “The Clash of the Titans”, this was the first of three races between Olympic champion Dame Lisa Carrington and reigning world champion Aimee Fisher to decide who would represent New Zealand at the world championships in Halifax, Canada, in August. 

Sitting in her K1 canoe awaiting the start signal, the significance of the race was not lost on Vaughan.

“I was nervous for Lisa and Aimee. On the start line I could see Lisa pop out fast. The whole way down I was having a little sneak peak in front of me,” Vaughan admits.

Fisher edged Carrington by 0.08 seconds to claim the national title. (Carrington went on to win the next two races in their duel for world champs honours).

Vaughan placed a creditable fifth in that race – beaten only by a world champion, an Olympic champion and Olympians Teneale Hatton and Alicia Hoskin. 

Vaughan’s rapid rise in the sport is all the more remarkable given she has only ever raced in four regattas. 

Her first event was the 2020 New Zealand championships, where her fortunes were mixed. She won the novice women K1 100m and K1 200m events, but didn’t manage to get to the finish line in the K1 500m.

“I was winning until 10 metres before the end,” Vaughan says. “Then I fell into the water.”

As she resurfaced, the race commentator told the gathered crowd: “Now that was a ‘Minties moment’.”

Tara Vaughan recovers after falling into Lake Karapiro at the 2020 nationals. Photo: Canoe Racing NZ

Vaughan wasn’t entirely surprised to have ended up in the lake. When she’d started the sport only months earlier, the former Westlake Girls High School student had found herself “doing lots and lots of swimming”.

“It took me over two months just to be able to sit in a kayak. I couldn’t even hold onto the jetty with my bum in the boat. I’d just fall in,” she remembers.

Vaughan had already mastered the surf ski during her years of surf lifesaving. While there was some crossover with canoe racing, she found a kayak to be “a lot skinnier and wobblier than a surf ski.”

It wasn’t until Vaughan won several U18 medals at her next event – 2020 Blue Lakes 2 – she realised she may have a future in the sport.

Last year, at her second nationals, she reaffirmed her early promise by winning the U18 K1 200m, K2 200m and K2 500m events. 

This success saw her named in the New Zealand U18 team to race at the 2021 junior and U23 world championships in Portugal. She was “gutted” when the pandemic scuppered any possibility of the team travelling overseas.

Vaughan, who’s studying for a Bachelor of Sport and Recreation at AUT, says her plans were almost derailed again when she caught Covid a few weeks before the recent New Zealand championships. 

Fortunately she managed a quick recovery and, after a graduated return to training, was primed and ready to compete.

Tara Vaughan says she feels no pressure in making her international debut at a World Cup event. Photo: Craig Butland Photography

In addition to holding her own in the K1 500m, Vaughan was a member of the winning open women K4 500m team. 

Crowned a national champion, it was hard to believe it had only been two years since she’d unceremoniously fallen into the very same lake.

So how has Vaughan managed to achieve so much so soon?

“I’m lucky enough to be part of a really successful system, training amongst the best paddlers in the world, with some of the best coaches and support team members. You couldn’t ask for better,” she says.

“If you want to be a women’s kayaker, there’s no better place than here, training alongside Lisa and Aimee, probably the best two in the world,” Vaughan says. 

Fundamental to Vaughan’s desire to train hard is the positive approach her coach, Gavin Elmiger, takes.

“Gav is such a legend. His whole thing is ‘fun’,” she says. “Everything is fun. You do it for fun. He’s the most positive person you’ll ever meet.”

Tara Vaughan congratulates Greer Morley after they won the NZ U18 K2 500 title last year. Photo: Canoe Racing NZ

Then there’s the support and encouragement she receives from her parents.

“Mum and Dad have always encouraged me to try everything, and just go out and have fun. They don’t care about results, just as long as I’m having fun. And I think that’s been helpful. There’s no pressure or expectation from them,” she says

Vaughan’s parents, Steve and Claire, met as young surf lifesavers, and have had a lifelong involvement with the sport. As a result, Vaughan has grown up in the surf lifesaving community, even getting to watch the best in the world at the 2018 world championships in Adelaide where Steve was manager of the New Zealand team. 

She also got to tag along to the high performance team’s build-up camp and observe the culture development process. Steve Vaughan suspects a seed was sown in his daughter at the time.

Until now, Tara Vaughan hasn’t travelled beyond Australia, and only found out she’d been selected for the New Zealand team six days before they flew to Italy where they’re currently acclimatising and training ahead of their World Cup events. Hoskin and Olivia Brett make up the New Zealand women’s team. 

Vaughan says she has a lot to learn when it comes to paddling in a team boat, and finds it very different to being alone in a boat.

“Obviously you’ve got to think about the other people,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about your best technique, but making the boat work best. You’ve got to make the boat stable with four people in it, which is challenging.

So how’s Vaughan feeling about her international debut? 

“Other than the fact I’m sitting behind Lisa Carrington – no pressure,” Vaughan quips. “If the boat is unstable, I don’t think it will be her fault.”

While Vaughan may still be on a learning curve, the speed she has gone from novice to New Zealand team member suggests she has a bright future.

Leave a comment