The Hart of the Matter

After losing his right leg in a civil roading accident last December, it is no exaggeration to say Corbin Hart’s world turned upside down.

But far from dwelling on the negatives of the traumatic experience, Corbin has chosen to take a positive path by taking up the sport of kayaking, where he hopes to inspire other Para canoeists in the future.

A former ski paddler at the Red Beach Surf Life Saving Club, Corbin was good enough to snare regional medals until he quit the sport aged 17 to focus on work life.

However, it was while working in his role as a supervisor for a road construction firm working north of Auckland on State Highway 16 near the town of Kaukapkapa when the direction of his life was to take a sudden and stark turn.

“I was finished for the morning cleaning my stabilising machine when I slipped,” he explains. “My boot quickly became stuck (in the machine) dragging my leg into the machine. As soon as my foot became wedged I knew I only had a couple of seconds to free it.” 

Unfortunately, for Corbin the machine ripped off the lower part of his right leg where now only a small part of the kneecap remains. 

On his own at the time and fully conscious he pulled his shirt off to wrap it around leg in a desperate attempt effort to stop the blood flow. He then rang 911 “screaming in pain.” It was some ten minutes after the accident when work colleagues arrived in support to secure the shirt more securely and stop Corbin from passing out.

He was later rushed to Auckland Hospital to undergo emergency surgery and his long road to rehabilitation began after leaving hospital a week later.

The 26-year-old Corbin underwent a spell at the Limb Centre and later a period of intensive physio – although he admits post-accident he made a quick mental adjustment which has served him well post-accident.

“I figured out because I’d done everything to keep myself alive, then that alone was enough to inspire me to live every day,” he explains. “I really don’t look at my situation as a negative. As soon as I came off all of the drugs (following the accident) I just carried on with what was my new normal.”

Returning back to his supervisory position in a part-time capacity – he can still work on machinery which does not require foot control – he had thought for some time about exploring the possibility of kayaking.

Loving the “strength and power” of the water from his time in surf lifesaving he finally committed to the switch following a fishing trip with a group work colleagues.

“I mentioned it to the others and when my boss said, ‘yes, I should go for it’ I thought, yes, I’d like to leave a legacy and do something I’m proud of. Just because I’ve lost a leg, why shouldn’t I take up a sport?”

On the back of this Corbin contacted former Red Beach Surf Lifesaving Club member and 2017 World K2 500m champion Caitlin Ryan to explore the possibility of engaging with the sport and he stepped in a kayak for the first time two months ago at Lake Pupuke.

Pushed off the jetty in a kayak that very first time by Caitlin, it took some time to find his balance but he quickly discovered the thrill of paddling.

“It took time to learn how to kayak but for me it has been similar to learning how to drive with my left foot, it soon became normal,” he explains. “That first time I found my balance was a really cool feeling. It gave me a sense of freedom and it got me thinking, I can really start moving from here.”

Very keen to discover how far the sport can take him he is now training five to six times a week at North Shore Canoe Club under the watchful eye of coach Gavin Elmiger and while the adjustment has been challenging, he is fully focused on the road ahead.

Such is his desire to improve he has also spoken to New Zealand’s leading Para canoeist two-time World Championship medallist Scott Martlew – and his coach, Leigh Barker, for additional advice.

“Both have been really helpful,” admits Corbin. “I’ve talked to Scott on the phone and he has sent videos of the foot plate he has in his boat and how I can modify the foot plate on my boat. Leigh has talked to me about the importance of setting paddling benchmarks.”

With this in mind, Corbin, who is based in Red Beach in the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, is targeting the forthcoming Blue Lake regattas in Rotorua to gain experience with the longer term goal a positive outing at the 2021 New Zealand Canoe Sprint Nationals Championships at Lake Karapiro.

Yet whatever happens in his future kayaking journey, he some clear aims about he hopes to make an impact.

“It is hard to tell how far I will go in the sport and whether I will one day end up a gold medallist, but there is more to this journey than winning titles,” he admits. “I believe my story is quite unique, I did whatever I could to stay alive, and my inspiration is to get as many people as possible into para kayaking.”