While the stellar New Zealand women’s squad quite rightly earned the plaudits for plundering three gold medals at Tokyo 2020 – the men’s squad also made their mark.
Exceeding many pre-race predictions Max Brown and Kurtis Imrie (see above) finished fifth in the A final of the K2 1000m making a huge improvement from their last global competition – when placing 15th at the 2019 World Championships.
Its significance should not be understated – and while Max and Kurtis’ breakthrough efforts should be applauded – the performance is more widely representative of a growth and development of the men’s national squad over the past 18 months or so.
Three-time Olympic medallist Tim Brabants (pictured below) came on board as national men’s coach in January 2020 and has overseen the squad’s evolution with the support of CRNZ Development Coach Craig Mustard and Gordon Walker, the technical director at CRNZ, the latter of whom oversees the men’s and women’s programmes.
“For the first few months, it was about absorbing the environment, learning about each athlete’s training style – strengths and areas of development,” explains Tim, who fully acknowledges the role his predecessor Fred Loyer played in the development of the men’s squad.
“Over time, I slowly introduced different ways of doing things whether that was in training execution, preparation prior to training, time management, working as a team, crew boats and integrating with the women’s squad for training camps.”
Significant changes were hampered by the lockdown but over time Tim has tweaked the programme with the athletes responding positively to the calm and unflappable temperament of the British-born coach.
“I encourage all the paddlers to be self-sufficient and take ownership for their training, performance, decision making and planning.
“I also try to bring in good communication every step of the way and an awareness of what we are trying to do and when it needs to be achieved.
“I also try and bring in some of my experiences to try to help the boys from making the same mistakes I made.”
Kurtis Imrie has fully appreciated Tim’s coaching philosophy and believes it has played a key role in his development.
“His really good qualities are – that he is not only trying to get the best out of us, but he makes sure we are learning at the same time,” explains Kurtis.
“To some extent we drive our programme. Yes, he’s coaching us but he wants us to learn to help ourselves.”
Max believes he has also prospered under Tim’s guidance and has benefited from Tim’s vast international experiences as a four-time Olympic representative.
“I was feeling really good a week or so out from the Games, I was ready to roar but two days before our first race (at Tokyo 2020) I felt really flat and the water felt heavy,” explains Max. “I was worried but Tim said ‘it is just part of the taper’. He said, ‘he felt like that before (during taper) but once the racing come he felt fine’. Just to hear that from Tim – who has been there and done it – gave me a lot of relief.”
Of course, the squad is far more than just Max and Kurtis and every member has played a key role in enabling the Olympic representatives to enjoy success in Tokyo.
Earlier this year following the introduction to the squad of Taris Harker, Ben McCallum, Ethan Moore and Sam Ferkins to join Kurtis, Max, Zach Ferkins, Hamish Legarth, Ben Duffy and Ashton Reiser – Tim brought in psychologist Dom Vettise to help bed down the values and culture of the team.
“We all agreed on how we wanted to operate, and the new guys had an input into that,” explains Tim. “We had a shared agreement on how we wanted to be as a team and how we uphold those values, which I think has worked really well.”
Kurtis believes the strength and depth of the squad has helped drive the overall standard in the group – which has been particularly helpful in a period when Covid restrictions starved athletes of international opportunities for the past couple of years.
“The nationals this year (in May) was probably the most competitive nationals I’ve ever involved in,” explains Kurtis.
“With ten of us in the national squad and only nine lane finals – this meant someone would miss out (on the final) and this lifted everyone.
“Covid has made it tough for the past two years but we have used each other in the squad as a marker. Everyone is pushing everybody else in the sessions. Guys like Max and Zac are really good at the threshold, longer sessions, Ashton and Taris are the sprinters (in the squad) and (Ben) Duffy and I are probably better at the 300m-type sessions. We really push each other, which has helped drag up the standard.”
While a competitive environment underpinned by a strong group culture have proved the cornerstone of the men’s squad development – other factors have also played a part.
Regular training camps between the national men’s and the women’s squads – often at Lake Karapiro – have proved hugely beneficial.
“With the lack of overseas travel it has been very significant,” explains Tim. “We’ve probably had four or five camps and each and every time it has got better and better in terms of how the teams have worked together. We’ve had mixed crew boats – which is a pretty unique. From my experience, I don’t think overseas (national) teams quite collaborate in the same way.”
With Max Brown and Kurtis Imrie earning selection for Tokyo 2020 – much work has been devoted to trying to improve their race strategy with greater emphasis placed on a more even-paced approach. In heats, quarter-finals, semis and final this was implemented to near perfection with Tim naturally elated with a performance which saw them finish just over a second outside of the medals.
Yet while Max and Kurtis garnered the attention with their performance, Tim was keen to acknowledge the role the entire group had played in their success.
“One of the first things I did after Max and Kurtis finished fifth is message the whole squad to thank them for the part they played in this result,” says Tim “Both Max and Kurtis realise it is not just about them. They couldn’t have done it if it had only been just the two of them training together.”
Max also fully understands the key contribution made by all ten paddlers in the men’s squad.
“I definitely feel like we represented the boys in Tokyo – it was not just Kurtis and I,” he says. “We wouldn’t have achieved that result without the other guys. We were pushed so hard because everyone wanted that (Olympic) spot in the K2. Following the postponed Games we had to go through the selection process twice. Trying to prove yourself all over was tough. It nearly broke us but we managed to come out the other end on top. The boys are as much a part of the boat as anything else.”
Post-Tokyo the focus now switches to the three-year cycle to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. The removal of the K1 200m and the fact the K2 500m and K4 500m will be key events simplifies the approach – and Tim is very optimistic that New Zealand’s men’s squad can make a big impact in the French capital.
“Tokyo has shown we are starting to make our mark on the world stage,” explains Tim. “I think we have realistic opportunities.
“If you look at the history of New Zealand kayak racing we’ve had strong men’s squads and more recently a very strong women’s squad. But moving forward what I’m most excited about is to have very successful men’s and women’s squads working together.”
Words: Steve Landells
Images: Vera Bucsu and Georgia Schofield