Introducing Kurtis Imrie

Author -  Karen Simpson

In the first of a new series highlighting some of New Zealand’s top paddlers we found out more about Kurtis and his canoe sprint journey.

Introducing Kurtis Imrie

In the first of a new series highlighting some of New Zealand’s top paddlers we found out more about Kurtis and his canoe sprint journey.



The 22-year-old Mana Kayak Club athlete is one of the most high-profile members of the men’s elite squad. In the first of a new series highlighting some of New Zealand’s top paddlers we found out more about Kurtis and his canoe sprint journey.

Strong genes

Born in Lower Hutt but raised the youngest of three siblings in the northern suburbs of Wellington, Kurtis hails from a strong sporting pedigree.

His dad was a “reasonably good” local rugby player and mum was “quite a strong” representative netballer. Growing up the baby of the family, Kurtis admits he was always keen to beat his elder siblings (his older sister Kayla won two canoe sprint World Championship silver medals in August and older brother, Ryan, plays for Wellington’s Maori rugby team) and adds: “We always had a healthy competition growing up. Put it this way, there was always a race to the dinner table for whoever wanted seconds!”

Canoe Sprint introduction

Introduced to surf lifesaving at the Paekakariki Surf Club at the age of nine helped crystallise Kurtis’ passion for water sports. Also featuring as a competitive swimmer he later embraced surf ski and at age “15 or 16” started to focus more on kayaking through the Mana Kayak Club.

“I saw kayaking had a potential opening to the Olympic Games and surf lifesaving didn’t,” he explains. “I had a big goal to one day become an Olympian, so that’s why I headed in the direction of kayaking.”

Early successes

Boasting a naturally good connection with the water through his swimming background, Kurtis proved a quick learner in the kayak. At the 2012 National Championships he finished runner-up to Taris Harker (Kurtis’ fellow NZ elite team colleague) in the U16 K1 200m and K1 500m, which proved a big breakthrough moment.

“This gave me the motivation to train harder,” he adds. “I then made my first New Zealand team in 2013 with the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney, which really opened my eyes to being an international paddler. I was up against the Australians and Hungarians – I was a little fish in a big pond. It was a great experience and I was lucky enough to come away with a bronze medal in the head to head event.”

World Champs

In 2013 he made his debut at the ICF World U18 Championships, finishing third in the K1 1000m B Final before his career took another significant step forward at the 2014 edition in Szeged, Hungary.

“I was lucky enough to scrape into the K1 1000m A final,” he recalls. “Once in the final all the pressure disappeared. I was ranked last and in lane one, but I had nothing to lose. I was third going into the final 250m, and although I dropped back to fifth, I was very happy to finish fifth in the world.”

Illness setback

Struggling to “fire on all cylinders” when placing second in the K1 1000m B Final at the 2015 World U23 Championships, he was soon to receive an explanation for his below-par display after he was diagnosed with glandular fever.

Facing eight months out of the boat tested his patience, resolve and belief, and it was a far from easy journey.

“I went from training twice a day to struggling to get out of bed and go for a walk,” he explains. “I’ve learned a lot from the experience, particularly how to respect my body more. I realised back then that doing multiple sports was catching up with me.”

Squad system

The direction of Kurtis’ career was to alter in 2016 when he left his family behind in Wellington to move north to Auckland to be part of the high-performance squad. Fortunate to move in with family friends to ease the adjustment and being able to continue his electrical apprenticeship was also important. Last year he was on the move again as the men’s elite squad relocated to Lake Karapiro, where he has thrived under the coaching of Canoe Racing NZ men’s elite coach Frederic Loyer.

“Everything we do as part of our training is monitored from our heart rate to how many kilometres we paddle and our energy levels,” explains Kurtis, who typically fits in eight on water training sessions plus three gym sessions a week “Previously this was not the case. In the past I largely trained on my own, so to be part of a team environment is very motivating.”

Progress made

The fruits of working in a squad environment could be seen at the 2017 World U23 Championships in Romania when Kurtis placed an impressive fifth in the K1 500m final – less than an hour after placing ninth in the A Final as part of the New Zealand K4 500m crew.

Believing he has made sizeable strides in his ability to work in team boats over the past year or so he then medalled in every event he entered at 2018 Nationals before going on to the World U23 Championships where he performed “reasonably well.”

“We hit PB’s and we just missed out on the K4 500m final by 0.2 seconds,” he adds. “I think it was just inexperience (from the previous year) because we’d changed two of our crew. We didn’t think we’d be the fastest boat out of the blocks but we surprised ourselves because we were probably in the lead at 400m in our semi-final only for the wheels to fall off.”

Olympic ambition

Believing his best event is the K1 500m he nonetheless plans to focus on the K1 1000m and K2 1000m as both are Olympic events and in the latter event he has formed a strong team with Max Brown (which placed fourth in the B Final at 2018 Worlds).

Next year, he insists, is a crucial one for his development.

“2019 is a big one because it is an Olympic qualifying year,” he explains. “My aim is to make an impression at nationals, and then to go to the World Cups and World Championships gain some race experience and try to qualify a boat (for the Olympics).”

Sister act

With older sister Kayla winning World Championship silver medals in the K2 200m and K4 500m this year, Kurtis has the perfect mentor to look up to.

“She’s phenomenal and a big inspiration for me,” he says. “It is awesome to see someone achieve so much from my own gene pool and this acts as a big motivation. I can ask any question of her any day of the week, she is an open book who wants me to be the best that I can.”

Introducing Kurtis Imrie

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