Juri finds New Zealand a home from home

When Auckland-based Japanese paddler Juri Urada is asked what attracted her to living in New Zealand, she replies with two words; “Lisa Carrington.”

As a young, emerging K1 paddler growing up in “The Land of the Rising Sun” Jiri she was blown away by the accomplishments of the double Olympic K1 200m champion.

In fact, such was her determination to find out more about the secrets of Lisa’s success, Juri was prepared to uproot herself more than 9000 kilometres to live in Auckland and immerse herself in what was initially an alien culture. 

“Lisa is my hero, she is a superstar,” admits Juri. “When I was younger, I was also impressed the New Zealand K4 team and wanted to be like those girls so much.” 

In 2017 the Japanese Canoe Federation contacted Canoe Racing NZ about Juri’s desire to live and train in New Zealand. CRNZ suggested the North Shore Canoe Club on Auckland’s Lake Pupuke – where coincidentally Lisa and the national women’s squad train – would be an ideal base for the then emerging teenage Japanese paddler.

Having flown out to New Zealand in late-2017 with her mum for a quick visit to check out the living and training environment, Juri returned the following April to settle.

Coached by Gavin Elmiger, she has made significant gains over the past three years and next month takes to the water pursuing A Finals in the open women’s K1 200m and K1 500m at the NZCT New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships at Lake Karapiro.

Then in March, she (see Juri left in the below image) returns to her homeland in pursuit of a place in the Japanese team for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics – in what could yet prove a perfectly scripted story rooted with a significant Kiwi flavour.

Born and raised in the prefecture of Toyama situated in central Honshu (Japan’s largest island) she grew up as a sports-loving kid in the small town of Kamiichi.

As an active youngster she competed in athletics, badminton and beach volleyball but inspired by her older sister, who kayaked at the local club based at Lake Saotome, she followed in her sibling’s footsteps.”

“When I first sat in a K1 it was pretty unstable and wobbly,” she admits. “But I also found it fun, when I started paddling and I could feel the wind (on my face), it was such I cool feeling, I loved it.”

While her sister quit the sport at the age of 15, Juri went o to develop into one of Japan’s leading school age kayakers and at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships in China she impressed by securing three medals including K2 200m gold.

Yet with a long-held desire to base herself and advance her career in New Zealand, the following year she started her Auckland adventure.

However, it took time to adapt. On her arrival she could not speak the language and she enrolled on an English language course. 

And she also fondly recalls the first time she saw Lisa Carrington training at Lake Pupuke.

“I couldn’t believe it was actually her,” she remarks.

The friendly and welcoming North Shore Canoe Club also eased her transition – although her first Kiwi regatta at Blue Lake in Rotorua proved a shock to the system for the Japanese paddler.

“It was super cold, and I remember I was so nervous racing the Auckland-based girls,” she explains. “I only made the semi-final, but I was not so disappointed, it was a cool experience to race the New Zealand elite women and under-23 paddlers.”

Training two or three times a day six times a week, Juri believes she is now a much stronger all-round athlete thanks to the heavy workload and technical advances made under the guidance of Gavin.

Evidence of her improvement arrived at the 2020 New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships when she finished a highly respectable sixth in the K1 200m and eighth in the K1 500m, where she was competitive with the leading New Zealand U23 athletes.

In more recent weeks, the 21-year-old she has joined in some of the training sessions with the leading New Zealand U23 paddlers such as Alicia Hoskin, Lucy Matehaere and Samalulu Clifton.

Meanwhile, she has also hopped in the occasional session with the elite paddlers including her hero – Lisa Carrington. 

“It is a great experience to train with world-class paddlers led by Lisa,” says Juri. “It is nice to compare the gap between myself and Lisa, who is a world champion.”

Looking forward to next month’s national championships at Lake Karapiro, she hopes to use the event as an important stepping stone for the Tokyo Olympic Trials in late-March followed by the Japanese U23 Championships in April-May.

“I have a chance to qualify for the team,” admits Juri, who may find it difficult to return to New Zealand later this year because of visa restrictions.

In the longer-term, her ultimate goal is Olympic gold and once retired from paddling she hopes to coach youngsters to help lift the profile of the sport in her native Japan.

Admitting to loving the beach culture in New Zealand and the friendy and laidback nature of the locals, there is little doubt Jiri has fully embraced her time in the country.

But after nearly three years here, has so managed to unlock the secrets to New Zealander’s kayak success?

“Their passion and hard work, and, oh, they are so nice to everyone.” 

And has her reaction to seeing Lisa changed during her time in New Zealand?

“I now say hi to Lisa and sometimes paddle with her, although,” she adds with a laugh, “I’m still a bit nervous talking to her.”