Introducing: Briar McLeely

Author -  Karen Simpson

We find out more about the 22-year-old North Shore paddler seeking to make an impact on the international scene.

Introducing: Briar McLeely

We find out more about the 22-year-old North Shore paddler seeking to make an impact on the international scene.

Briar McLeely.JPG

We find out more about the 22-year-old North Shore paddler seeking to make an impact on the international scene. 

Water baby

Born the youngest of four siblings in the city of Gisborne, water has been an important part of her life from as long as she can remember. A member of the Wainui Surf Club from the age of four, just two years later, after her family relocated to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula near Auckland, she transferred to the Red Beach Surf Club.

Growing up with three older brothers helped forge a strong competitive spirit within Briar.

“I guess I’m the angel of the family,” she says with a laugh. “My brothers always made me work. There was a lot of rough and tumble at the dinner table to get seconds and it taught me to stick up for myself.”

Sporting pedigree

Mad-keen on all sports, Briar tried her hand at soccer, volleyball and touch rugby and maintained her connection with surf lifesaving, where she was coincidentally coached for a stint by four-time World Championship medal-winning kayaker Caitlin Ryan.

“Caitlin was awesome, although I’d say back then I wasn’t the best of athletes,” Briar admits. “I didn’t really listen and if something wasn’t fun I’d go off and do my own thing.”

Kayak switch

Taking up kayaking aged 17 to improve her ski-paddle technique, proved a far from straight-forward transition for Briar.

“I fell out (of the kayak) heaps,” she says. “But I did many different drills and didn’t worry too much if I fell out. Slowly I improved, I got used to balancing the boat and I quickly found I could keep up with club members.”

Keen to test her ability in 2013 she made her competitive debut in a kayak at Blue Lakes and despite her inexperience excelled to finish in the top two in both K1 and K2 500m U18 disciplines.

“I didn’t really know anything about the sport back then,” she says. “I remember Blue Lake had no jetty and I wondered how I would get in the boat. But after paddling well I was encouraged by the reaction. When I started to paddle in team boats, I thought it was really cool. I’ve always enjoyed team sports and working out how to paddle a boat as part of a team was fascinating.”

International debuT

Briar’s rise was rapid. At her first National Canoe Sprint Championships in 2014 she struck gold in the K1 200m and later that year competed at the World Junior Championships in Szeged, Hungary.

Finishing fifth in the K2 500m B Final alongside Britney Ford, Briar fondly recalls her maiden overseas experience.

“I was blown away by everything,” she says. “It was amazing. “I’d never been to Europe before, and I barely knew where Hungary was, but it was such a proud feeling to represent New Zealand.”

Career Highlight

In 2015 Briar competed at the World U23 Championships in Portugal. Placing ninth in the A Final of the K4 500m, she was pipped to a spot in the K2 500m A Final paddling alongside her good pal Rebecca Cole. The duo had to settle for second in the B Final but this acted as a spur for the future.

“It was my first experience of aiming high but not quite achieving my goals,” recalls Briar, who was coached by Gavin Elmiger at that time. “It left me hungry for more.”

Returning to training with renewed motivation, the following year Briar bounced back to finish fifth in the K2 500m A Final - alongside Rebecca - at the World U23 Championships in Belarus.

“I would say it was the highlight of my career so far,” she explains. “To finish fifth in the world was quite incredible and Rebecca and I were both shocked.”

Time out

In 2017, Briar was given a taste of life on the World Cup circuit. Paddling alongside Kayla Imrie, of whom the North Shore Club athlete describes as “a great paddler and also a real nice person” was a memorable experience as the pair finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the K2 200m in Montemor-O-Velho and Szeged.

Yet post her two World Cup appearances, she opted to take a period of absence from elite paddling.

“I had accelerated into the high performance programme very quickly, but I felt I had missed out on developing as a person,” she explains. “I decided after the World Championships to take a break to get a clearer view on the next few years and my future goals. I continued to paddle at club level but I just needed some time for the fog to clear and enjoy other areas of my life.”

Elite return

After eight or so months away she decided to return to elite paddling in late-February, convinced it was the right decision.

“I had been lucky enough to represent my country at World Championships and I felt kayaking could be a platform to help inspire others.”

Coached by the New Zealand women’s high performance trio; Jasper Bats, Gordon Walker and Nathan Luce has proved a revelation and she approaches each session with a much clearer focus than in the past.

“I think I’ve become much more open to new learnings and opportunities,” Briar adds. “In the past I become fixated on what I thought was best for me as an athlete but I’ve learned to let go of many things and I have a great trust in the programme.”

The educational psychology student at Massey University has also found inspiration in her world-class training group led by two-time Olympic champion Lisa Carrington and bolstered by Caitlin Ryan, Aimee Fisher, Kayla Imrie and Rebecca Cole.

“It is inspiring to see world champion paddlers on the water every day,” adds Briar, who admits she has a close relationship with Caitlin and looks to the 2017 world K2 500m champion for advice. “I feel very lucky to be paddling on the same stretch of water as them.”

Domestic ambitions

Living with mum and dad in Stanmore Bay, Briar was pleased with her competitive return in the two Blue Lake regattas earlier this season and has now set on her sights on a good performance at the National Championships on Lake Karapiro in February.

“My first goal is to make the A Final (of the K1 500m) and give it a crack from there,” she adds. “I hope to test out some new race plans and hopefully my technique will allow me to move the boat faster, although, to be honest, for me, it is all about doing the processes well and executing the race plan.”

International goals

Believing she has ability to be flexible and sit at any position in the K2 and in seat one, two and four in the K4 boat, effervescent Briar has quite rightly fixed her gaze on more international experience this year.

“To reach the Olympics, the pinnacle of the sport is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a young kid,” she says. “As for this year, I’d love to compete overseas again.”

Introducing: Briar McLeely

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