Versatile Anne relishes Heads to Harbour Challenge

A Tokyo-bound Olympic K1 sprinter might be an unlikely prospect to compete at the Manuka Performance Heads to Harbour Paddle Festival in Whakatane on April 3. 

However, Anne Cairns has never been an orthodox paddler and the Samoan K1 Olympian will use the ocean ski event as part of her preparation for her second Olympic Games later this year. 

Dividing her time between living in Palmerston North – where she works as firefighter – and New Plymouth where her partner lives – the versatile 40-year-old describes her lifestyle as “unconventional.”

Training at four to five different location – including on a 750m lagoon which is little more than “a duck pond” may not be the ideal scenario but through a genuine passion for paddling built up over more than 20 years, Anne has “made it work.”

With a background in surf lifesaving, she later developed into a world’s top ten wildwater kayak racer until in 2007 she was introduced to canoe sprint and featured as part of the New Zealand development squad for several seasons. 

Unfortunately, kayaking did not work out back then for the woman born to a Kiwi dad and Samoan mum – but she continued to paddle in both waka ama and multisport.

Yet it was after watching Lisa Carrington strike gold in the K1 200m at the London 2012 Olympics which reignited her passion for canoe sprint and a new dream was born.

“I had some knowledge of how the qualification worked and I thought given my Samoan roots, why don’t I give qualifying for Samoa via the Oceania spot a crack? So in late-2012 I jumped in a K1 again with an eye for qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.” 

Coached at the time by Briton Richard Forbes, Anne achieved her goal and represented her country in both the K1 200m and K1 500m at the Rio Olympic Games.

Describing the experience as “amazing” and “a dream come” she later opted to commit to pursuing a spot on the team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I thought, so few people get the chance to compete at one Olympics but even fewer get the chance to compete at two, so I would regret not giving it another crack,” she adds.

In February last year she booked her Olympic spot for Tokyo via the Oceania Champs in Australia.

Yet Anne has never all been about kayak and prefers to mix up her paddling experiences. She has paddled a waka in the Molokai Crossing. She has won global medals at the Rafting World Championships and in 2015 was invited to make her surf ski debut at the World Surf Ski Championships in Tahiti.

The rookie placed a respectable 17th – behind New Zealand’s gold medallist Teneale Hatton – and despite competed in a borrowed ski that was “a bit tippy for me in the conditions” – it was a memorable experience for the Samoan paddler.

“I had an awesome time over there,” she says. “I love ocean ski racing it is one of my favourite forms of paddling and the more I’ve competing and learned about surf ski the more I’ve enjoying it.”

Given her K1 commitments she spends limited time training in a ski. However, given her surf lifesaving background she has good knowledge of the ocean and with a fierce competitive desire she has put together some very strong results in recent months.

Back in September she claimed victory in the Poor Knights Crossing in Tutakaka and last month she took out a pair of second place finishes at the Bhutty Moore-Morial and King and Queen of the Bay events.

Currently sitting third in the women’s single ski division of the 2020-21 Darcy Price Series – which concludes with the Heads to Harbour event which doubles as the New Zealand Surf Ski Champs – she has been both shocked and delighted with her performance level.

“I haven’t been doing a heap of mileage because I’m on a 200m K1 training programme and it is all about me becoming faster for Tokyo,” adds Anne, who is now coached by Gavin Elmiger. 

“I train on my own, so crossing over to compete in surf ski is a real bonus. I enjoy the racing and just use that as part of my training.”

Anne is relishing the prospect of competing at the inaugural Heads to Harbour event which takes place on a stunning stretch of coastline in an area with which she shares a close affinity.

“I really love being in Ohope,” she explains. “I grew up visiting my auntie there every summer and it has a special place in my heart. 

“It is a beaut of a spot and I can’t wait to get among the racing and to socialise with other paddlers but also to support the Whakatane area. They’ve been through some tough times following the White Island disaster and the closure of the mill in June, which will lead to the loss of more than 200 jobs. To get people visiting the area staying in accommodation there and eating at their restaurants will be a boost to their community.”

To enter Heads to Harbour go here

Photo Credits: Shuttersport Nelson and Oparoozy