When Taris Harker was decarded from the New Zealand men’s kayak squad in October 2018 following a mysterious heart condition many might have believed his international ambitions would have reached the end of the road.
However, despite taking a year away from the sport, kayaking was the itch he couldn’t quite scratch and following a 12-month break from the sport he tentatively returned to paddling a little over 18 months ago.
Fast forward to the present and the 24-year-old Karapiro Kayak Club paddler is in a very different place. With no sign of his heart issues re-emerging and once again able to fully train, Taris has impressed in a series of regattas and re-joins the New Zealand squad – which is now under the direction of coach Tim Brabants at Lake Karapiro.
“I’m stoked to be back in the squad,” explains Taris. “It was a relief and now I’m back in the group, I can put myself in a position where it is not easy but easier to win selection (for international regattas). I’m under the umbrella of Canoe Racing NZ now and I have a HP coach on the water with me. I see it as a way I can progress faster.”
Raised in Christchurch, Taris started out as a surf lifesaver before later picking up kayaking at the Arawa Club. In 2011 following the Christchurch earthquake he relocated with his family to Tauranga where he continued to develop under the coaching of Scott Bicknell. A powerfully-built paddler he enjoyed notable success over the 200m distance and went on to represent his country at the World Junior Championships and in his most recent international outing he placed 12th as part of the New Zealand K4 crew – which also included Max Brown, Kurtis Imrie and Ashton Reiser – at the 2018 World U23 Championships in Bulgaria.
However, on his return to pre-season training in New Zealand he started to encounter heart issues. Even under moderate levels of exercise his heart rate would suddenly spike. He struggled to complete sessions and he would wake up every morning feeling exhausted.
“There was clearly an issue there, although we never got to the bottom of it,” recalls Taris of the heart “Doctors thought training has caused it (the heart problem), so they told me to take time off.”
He heeded their advice, stopped training and was eventually decarded. Accepting of the decision he up a job as a quantity surveyor but remained connected to the sport, coaching twice a week at the Karapiro Kayak Club.
For 12 months he put any thoughts of re-engaging with active paddling to the back of his mind until the urge to return once more proved irresistible.
“I had been working 50 hours a week when I thought, I’m not quite ready to sit at my desk just yet,” he recalls. “The company I work for have been fantastic but I still have other things that I want to achieve in kayaking. I’m not quite ready to start that phase of my life yet. I’ll re-start training and give it one more time and If it doesn’t work out, I’m fine with that. There was just the thing in the back of my mind that I wanted to give it a go.”
Carefully monitoring his fatigue levels and prepared to take the odd session off in order to avoid the risk of a return of his irregular heart rate – he has so far not encountered any further issues.
However, that is not to say since his return to paddling in October 2019, it has been an easy road to full fitness.
“It was shocking how much I’d gone backwards and it took maybe two to three months to get my fitness back,” he explains. “I couldn’t even complete some VO2 max sessions. I’d complete paddling sessions within a comfortable heart rate but I’d only be going at nine and a half kilometres an hour when previously at the same heart rate, I’d be two kilometres faster.”
Nonetheless, on his competitive return, he was encouraged to finish fourth in the K1 200m at Blue Lake 2 just two months after re-starting training.
In early 2020 he felt his speed and strength returning and at last year’s national he impressed; missing out on gold to Ashton Reiser by just 0.03 in the K1 200m and winning K2 and K4 200m silver medals.
Further challenges awaited in 2020. The global pandemic plunged the country into lockdown and for a period he trained out of a hastily put together gym in his car port in the home he shares with fellow paddler Tim Waller and two sprint cyclists.
Occasionally he admits to slightly over-doing the training during the winter of 2020 – which lead to several bouts of sickness. However, under the guidance of his coach of Scott Bicknell the training programme was consistently reviewed and the right balance was found.
“Scott has been fantastic and I can’t give him enough credit,” he adds. “Then, the parents and kids I coach have been great, which has added another level of interest and the senior group I trained with have been fantastic.”
Taris returned to competition last October at Blue Lake 1 and continued to impress. He won the K1 200m – defeating many of the New Zealand’s men’s kayak squad members in the process – and finished second behind Kurtis Imrie in the men’s K1 500m.
At Blue Lake 2 in December he claimed top spot again in the K1 200m – defeating Ben Duffy by 0.11 – as well as finishing third alongside club-mate Ethan Moore in the K2 200m.
His form had opened an conversation with CRNZ to discuss what steps he needed to take for readmittance to the men’s national squad. However, around this time that route had became more complicated following the axing of the 200m events – Taris’ speciality – from the Olympic programme after the Tokyo Games.
“I was gutted to hear the news,” he said of the axing of the 200m events. “I signed a petition forcing the ICF to reconsider and shared it on social media but it didn’t make any difference. I then tried to focus on the next goal. My goal remained to go to the Olympic Games, so I re-set the focus to the team boats. I know the 1000m is not something I’m going to be very good at because I’m not that type of athlete but the K2 500m or the K4 500m, I’m okay with that.”
Following the postponement of the Nationals due to the global pandemic an unofficial mini-regatta that weekend took place at Lake Karapiro involving the national squad and a group of Karapiro Kayak club paddlers.
There Taris impressed and following this performance he was invited back into the fold of the men’s New Zealand Kayak squad.
Delighted to return to a squad which includes Tokyo-bound K2 1000m paddlers Max Brown and Kurtis Imrie – he says he is excited to be back paddling again and hopes his return can usher in some further international experiences.
“Paris (2024 Olympics) is definitely an achievable goal but in the shorter-term the major goal is to get some overseas race experience,” he explains. “It has been a while (2018) the sooner I can get over there the better and it could be cool to make some A finals at the World Championships.”