Gordon Walker earned the prestigious Coach of the Decade prize at the Halberg Awards earlier this year. We chat to the highly successful CRNZ Technical Director about his fascinating sporting journey. In the first part one of our two-part feature we focus on Gordy’s early development and road to CRNZ.
“In life, just try and find something that gives you energy” -Gordon Walker.
Of all the phrases, quotes and philosophies Gordon Walker espoused during a compelling one-and-a-quarter hours of conversation about his highly successful career – perhaps this was the one that most stood out.
It may be a relatively simple statement, but it is one that rings true for everyone – particularly so for any youngsters still yet to find their calling.
For the past decade Gordy’s energy has firmly fixed on coaching at CRNZ – where he has played a pivotal role in inspiring and developing one of the most envied women’s canoe sprint program’s in the world.
Tireless in his pursuit of excellence, as coach to 12-time global champion Lisa Carrington he has forged one of the most successful double acts in New Zealand sport.
An energy which earned him the prestigious honour of Coach of the Decade at the Halberg Awards in March – defeating such coaching icons such as Sir Steve Hansen, Dame Noeline Taurua and Dick Tonks.
The honour was not just a special moment for Gordy, but more generally a celebration for the sport of canoe sprint, although the technical director at CRNZ was quick to deflect attention from himself.
“I’ve always struggled with awards for other people’s (Lisa and the women within the New Zealand program) success,” he explains. “For me, the best award you can get is if the athletes value what you offer. Having said that, I have a pride in the tenacity I’ve shown in the face of heaps of challenges. I could have said this is too demanding, but I’ve stayed true to the course. It was amazing to see the joy the award gave other people in the team. To be able to share that was pretty special.”
Born in Zimbabwe to a Scottish dad and an English mother, Gordy relocated with the family to Auckland at the age of six.
From the age of nine he attended Southwell Boarding School in Hamilton – a period where his passion for sport developed.
“I did everything; orienteering, cross country, tennis. I played XV rugby and first XI hockey,” he recalls. “I would try any sport.”
From the age of 13 he attended Kings College in Auckland, where his father, Ian, who had trialled for the British Lions as a “competitive and combative” hooker, taught physics and maths.
Not particularly motivated by academic life, Gordy nonetheless continued to enjoy sport featuring as a first XI hockey player and a competitive cross country runner.
“I was decent at sport but I was never the best, I was never that kid that stood out from the rest,” he explains.
ntrigued by Greg LeMond, the first athlete from the US to win the Tour de France, he developed a fascination for cycling. He bought a bike and started to carry out some rudimentary training.
Describing himself as an “okay” competitive cyclist, after leaving school he studied architectural drafting at Polytech but still harboured some big sporting goals.
“If you had asked me at 19 what I wanted to do, it would have been a pro cyclist,” he explains.
Yet his ambitions were given a rude awakening when riding the Tour of Southland for the first time.
“There was a lot of cyclists on another level, which made me think I needed to do a lot more work to improve,” he says. “The standard was incredible.”
His cycling career came to an abrupt end with a nasty bike accident. A new sports science degree offered by the University of Auckland piqued his interest and he signed up with great enthusiasm as their first intake in 1994. Aged 21 at the time, the decision proved pivotal on his future coaching journey.
“I’d never had a coach as a cyclist but I’d read a tonne of books,” he recalls. “One thing I learned from my dad was to treat each challenge like a puzzle and to try and break down the bigger task into small pieces. I’d already done a training apprenticeship in how to train through cycling. Then through my degree (in sports science) I could start to connect the dots. Listening to every lecture I was always thinking: ‘how could I one day apply this to cycling’.”
Keen to broaden his academic understanding he also studied physiology and after graduating at the age of 24 he returned to competitive cycling.
Armed now with a far greater knowledge base, his cycling showed significant improvements.
“Within just two to three months I got better – and a big part of that was that I was applying what I learned,” he adds.
However, unable to get a job in sports science or physiology he turned to coaching. He started out coaching cyclists, which later expanded to triathletes, runners and mountain bikers.
Yet no coaching job was off-limits as he also guided athletes to more “random” sporting goals such as swimming the English Channel, attempting a record-breaking Auckland to Wellington cycle ride and coaching a runner to complete the gruelling 250km Marathon des Sables through the Sahara Desert.
Each assignment presented a fresh challenge, but critically broadened his coaching experiences.
“What this period taught me is you don’t need to have personally swum the English Channel or to have run the Marathon des Sables, but as coach it is about figuring the performance equation in that sport and putting together a plan to step you closer and closer to the goal.”
A change in his personal circumstances gave him a bunch of free time. Fascinated since he was boy by the Coast to Coast multisport race he decided to take this opportunity to have a crack at the 2003 edition of the iconic 243km long-event.
Having competed as a runner, cyclist and as a competitive canoe slalom racer in his teens, he figured his background would serve him well in the Coast to Coast.
On debut he placed a solid seventh – although he was honest enough to admit he had misjudged the endurance required for an event which lasts upwards of 11 hours.
Gradually enhancing his endurance reserves he was fortunate to surround himself with an A Team of sporting talent led by 2004 Olympic K1 1000m silver medallist Ben Fouhy, multiple Ironman NZ winner Cameron Brown and former Commonwealth Games distance runner Kerry Rodger.
“I was really lucky to have met Ben and actually employed him in the bike shop,” he explains. “I became great friends with him and he became an incredible training resource. I did a lot of riding with Cameron and learned a lot training with him. Going for a long run with Kerry – I would try and download everything he would say about training methods and running.
“On top of this, I read and consumed as much as I could on training, I found it fascinating. I loved the pursuit of doing something well. Of figuring it out.”
After successive years finishing runner-up in 2005 and 2006 editions of the Coast to Coast – in 2007 he finally cracked the code to claim victory in 11:39:30. He later returned to claim further victories in 2009 and 2010.
So now he is an elite-level coach, how important are his own personal sporting experiences?
“Everyone has to draw on the resources and experiences they’ve had to help people,” he explains. “For sure, it would have helped had I won an Olympics gold medal in kayaking but I haven’t, so I can’t draw upon that. Coaching is about drawing upon your own life experiences, what you can learn from them and what can you glean from other people.
“To win the Coast to Coast is really hard as an Aucklander because it is much more difficult to train on the course. But I had the advantage of being able to train with the likes Ben Fouhy, Kerry Rodger and Cameron Brown. You have to use what you’ve got, and the difference is I had those people to train with.”
Following his third and final Coast to Coast victory he quit multisport racing to focus on the next stage of journey.
Aware he wanted to tap into the world of high performance sport and be part of a programme “where there are no barriers to becoming better” he successfully applied for a coaching internship in 2010 for a coaching role at Canoe Racing NZ and so began the next chapter of his sporting journey.
***Read part two of Gordy’s sporting journey focused on his time at CRNZ and his very successful partnership with Lisa Carrington tomorrow.