Emma’s Winter Wonderland

Emma Kemp is earning an enviable reputation over the 10km distance after enjoying two seasons of domestic dominance. 

In Rotorua last month, the 20-year-old Wellington paddler successfully retained both the CRNZ 10km crown and Kayak Krazy Series title in the open women’s division. 

But although her stock is high in the longer distances, Emma still has aspirations to feature in the New Zealand sprint squad with the long-term ambition of winning selection for the 2024 or 2028 Olympics Games.

Born in Edmonton, Canada to a Kiwi father, who was a concert master with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and Canadian mother, she relocated with her family to settle in Wellington at the age of nine.

Starting her competitive sporting life as a swimmer, Emma, who competed for the Pirates Swim Team, was good enough to reach national age-group finals and also performed to national standard in ski and swimming with Lyall Bay Surf Life Saving Club.

However, after a period in which she found she was “plateauing” at surf she was encouraged to try her hand at kayaking with the Mana Club in late-2016.

Keen to give the sport a go she admitted she “initially struggled” with the nuances of kayaking and it took time for her adapt.

“It was a whole new discipline, quite different from ski, where you are not really using your legs or twisting and essentially powering through the waves.”

Coupled with the fresh demands of kayaking, Emma, who had been immersed in competitive sport for many years, also opted to take a year-long break from serious competition.

Requiring time to assess which sport she wanted to pursue it took until late-2017 for her to fully commit to paddling – and from that point on she stepped up her training from a casual once a week to every day. 

Making her competitive kayaking debut at the 2018 New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships on Lake Karapiro she snared several novice gold medals in the K1 200m and K1 500m and silver in the K1 100m.

“It was fun, I didn’t have any expectations, although I felt kind of bad for the kids I beat because I was aged 17 at the time and I was up against 14 and 15-year-olds,” she adds with a laugh.

Under the coaching of Mark Watson, she experienced a steep learning curve and just 12 months after racing as a novice she returned to compete at the nationals as an open woman, competing in the same heat as World Championships medallists Caitlin Ryan and Aimee Fisher.

Describing the experience as both “intimidating and cool”, Emma performed respectably, reaching the K1 500m semi-final gaining much from the appearance.

Returning to training with renewed vigour, Emma, who paddles six to eight times a week with an additional three gym sessions and the occasional run, has continued to make progress.

Studying biomedical science at Victoria University, juggling both her academic and sporting life is demanding but she has fulsome praise for the role of her coach.

“Mark is an amazing coach because his goals match your goals,” she explains. “Whatever I’m doing with my school life he aligns my training. He’s just there to help. He’s been awesome.”

Technically, Emma feels she has made strong progress under Mark’s tutelage through regular video analysis while he has also developed her mental approach to the sport 

“I’ve grown so much over the past few years, not only as an athlete but also as a person,” she insists. “I find I’m now much more able to remove myself from the pressures in school life and training, and analyse them without thinking about the pressure of the what ifs.”

At the 2020 New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships we started to see more evidence of her paddling development as Emma advanced automatically to the open women’s K1 500m final – where she placed ninth. 

The performance was a pivotal one for the still relative kayaking newbie – as it helped crystallise a few thoughts in her mind.

“That was the moment I thought, I’m not half bad at this, I can see myself doing this as a career in the future,” she adds. “I think that had always been the dream (to have a paddling career) but that was the moment it changed from being dream into a goal.”

Emma’s performances earned her selection into the New Zealand U21 team for the Asia Pacific Cup in Japan – an event which was later unfortunately cancelled because of the pandemic.

Despite the disappointment, Emma remains fully committed to excelling in the sprint events, although her performances over the 10km distance for the past two winters, which have also caught the eye .

Initially only entering the 10km Kayak Krazy series to build up endurance and race experience she has quickly discovered an aptitude for racing the distance. Last year she claimed the national 10km and Kayak Krazy Series titles. Meanwhile, she has repeated the feat this year by boasting a 100 per cent record, winning in Hawkes Bay, Mana, Foxton Loop and the grand finale of the winter season – the national championships in Rotorua by a commanding victory margin of more than three-and-a-half minutes.

“It is important to keep moving, especially during the winter in Wellington,” she adds with her trademark laugh, “and I just fell in love with it (10km racing). There is a real skill-set to racing 10km whether it is fighting the wash or taking the corners. 

“I’ve been lucky everything has fallen into place,” she adds. “It has been a cool realisation that I’m at a level where I can race the boys rather than looking behind me. I’ve been so happy, it has been a great learning experience.”

Boasting good natural strength and a mental resilience to stick to the game plan, Emma is also considering competing in marathon racing in the future but for now sprinting is the priority.

Favouring the 500m, she has not however given up hope of improving her start and is optimistic of more progress in the shorter 200m.

But for Emma whatever happens in the future nothing will change that pure feeling of pleasure than when paddling on the water at speed.

“Making the boat move super-fast by making tiny adjustments and seeing those gains is incredible,” she adds. “That feeling of success in a race and that adrenaline rush of flying through the water is addictive  – it’s probably one of the best feelings in the world.