History shows that winning a K4 world championship has been an elusive beast for New Zealand Canoe Racing teams. That is, until this past August at the 2023 ICF Canoe Sprint & Paracanoe World Championships when Lisa Carrington, Alicia Hoskin, Olivia Brett and Tara Vaughan made history by becoming the first New Zealand K4 team to win a world title. We sat down with CRNZ Lead Women’s Coach, Gordon Walker, to talk about the vision and the secret to success behind the history-making result in Duisburg.
Gordon Walker may be one of the most successful coaches in canoe racing but when he took on the Lead Coach role for the New Zealand women’s squad in 2016, he knew he had a big task on his hands to raise the performance results of the K4 boat and “solve the hardest Rubik’s cube there is”.
“It’s a big race to win, and it’s a hard race to win,” he says simply. “Only a very small number of countries have ever won a K4 World Championship, and it’s been going for fifty years.”
At that time, he felt New Zealand had a “K1 mindset”, while overseas the dominant canoe racing countries were very focussed on the K4.
“Looking back now, we realise it had been a long time between K4 celebrations,” says Walker.
“In 2014, there was a group of us who realised it was time to commit to the K4 and we knew we just had to give it 100 percent.”
Looking back to learn how to move forward
There is no doubt that kiwi kayakers have been a dominating force on the water individually. Canoe Racing is one of the country’s best performing Olympic sports with a total of 14 medals, and in the women’s K1 200, K2 500, and the K1 1000 the current world’s best times are held by New Zealanders.
However, a K4 win has been hard to come by.
Only the men’s “Dream Team” of Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald, Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell have stood on top of a K4 podium at the highest level, when they won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
New Zealand did not have K4 crews at the Olympics from the mid 90’s until 2016 when a women’s K4 debuted in Rio. The team of Jaimee Lovett, Kayla Imrie, Aimee Fisher and Caitlin Ryan, finished in 5th place, an impressive result after less than two years of training together.
Further success came in the following years when the crew of Aimee Fisher, Caitlin Ryan, Kayla Imrie and Lisa Carrington achieved a world championship bronze medal in 2017, backed up by a silver in 2018. The team were fourth in 2019, before Covid disrupted the Olympic cycle and saw a historic postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games.
When the games finally went ahead in August 2021, a new crew combination of Lisa Carrington, Caitlin Ryan, Alicia Hoskin and Teneale Hatton finished fourth, narrowly missing out on a coveted Olympic medal.
“We had to look hard at what it was going to take to really show up and perform in a final when it really mattered,” says Walker.
Rebuilding the team after Tokyo
The retirement of several athletes from the women’s squad after Tokyo meant they were almost starting again from the ground up, selecting some new and relatively inexperienced paddlers for the 2022 K4 team.
But Lisa, Alicia, Olivia and Tara put on a strong, if not surprising, showing during the international season, placing sixth at World Cup 1, followed by a silver medal in Poznan (World Cup 2). The women went on to finish fifth at the World Championships.
Walker said these results showed that this was a group who could work together pretty well. But he knew that to get closer to winning, the focus had to be on building the team aspect, above all else.
“The harsh reality we faced was we didn’t have the fastest four paddlers in the world,” he admits. “I just knew that our only chance in the K4 was to be a better team that everyone else. It was the only way. And that meant off the water. So that was the start of the vision.”
Walker refers to what he calls “the fifth paddler” – the chemistry that a team can have that’s like an invisible person in the boat making them better.
“The aim became just around being the best team; we wanted to look across the start line and say ‘there’s no other team that’s as good as us’.”
Walker said it snowballed from there, and the team of four started to get faster, train more, and enjoy working together.
He emphasises that there was also the need for the athletes to view the K4 as a very different sport to the K1.
“There are in-built beliefs in every sport,” he explains. “In canoeing, everyone believes that if you have good K1 paddlers then that will translate to the K4, so it was about challenging that thinking and changing the story. And changing the narrative meant changing habits as well as beliefs.”
Putting it all together
Looking back on the World Championship win, Walker says when he watches the video of the women making history, he is incredibly proud. “I watch that, and I’m like ‘wow, they totally nailed the job they had to do’, it was 100 percent achieved with authentic, quality work. Yes, they’re attached to the performance, but they’re also attached to the work.”
He admits that if he casts his mind back to 2022, the goal of winning a World Championship was a “completely crazy idea” but the difference this time was Lisa, Tara, Olivia and Alicia took the idea and believed in it. “They consistently got behind every idea that was put to them and actually made them better – they made their own story.”
Walker says the experience of winning a K4 is incomparable. “It’s a great achievement but it’s also an achievement that you get to share – those girls will never forget the day they won that and what they did in the lead up.”
The flow-on effect
Nathan Luce, CRNZ General Manager of Performance, states that the flow-on effect of what the women’s K4 achieved this year goes beyond their boat and their team.
“Winning the K4 was a massive accomplishment not only for the programme but for the sport.
“In the space of 10 years, we’ve gone from not entering the event on the world stage to winning, which is unheard of in our sport with so many traditional powers.”
Luce says the fantastic thing about the K4 is it’s not just a one-person show. “There’s a whole cohort of people who have contributed to it and inspired a whole lot of young women to follow in their footsteps.”
The impact is seen right through to club level – with four kiwi kayak clubs now laying claim to World Champion paddlers, and Walker says you couldn’t dream for a better result. “Having a strong K4 program means that you’ve got kids starting out at club level who see more opportunities. It doesn’t just come down to paddling skills, the K4 is so much more than that. With humility you can accept the things you need to work on and improve those skills to go faster in a team boat.”
He says he hopes the women’s performance inspires other canoe racing athletes, along with the younger generation coming through at club level.
The Paddle to Paris
The World Championship result has guaranteed a New Zealand women’s K4 will be competing at the Olympics nine months from now, but Walker is realistic about looking ahead to 2024 and the Paris Games.
“There was no expectation around the World Championships, and the same goes for 2024. Our teams always know that there is a huge task ahead, no matter what the event or previous results.”
“What they’ve shown is that it can be done, and that’s the important thing.”