Role model Lisa Carrington: It's OK to be strong, it's OK to be you

In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, New Zealand canoe sprinter Lisa Carrington talks about her Olympic gold hat-trick, female body image, babies, and inspirations Michael Jordan, and Roger Federer.

By Ashlee Tulloch and Ken Browne

Lisa Carrington rewrote Olympic history in sprint canoeing, now she wants to do it again.

The Kiwi is one of the most dominant athletes alive: Olympic gold medallist at London 2012, Rio 2016, a ten-time world champion and the world record holder. She hasn't lost a K1 200m race since early 2012.

As the world catches on to this understated star, opponents can only hope of catching up.

Carrington has become globally known and locally celebrated, a street being named after her in her home town of Whakatane on New Zealand's North Island.

“Carrington Lane” leads down to the surf club in the Bay of Plenty, close to Ohope where she grew up, right next to the ocean.

Of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Porou descent, at London 2012 she became the first Maori ever to win Olympic gold. Now, Carrington is aiming to become the first woman ever to win K1 200m and 500m gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Lisa spoke live to Olympic Channel's Ash Tulloch exclusively on her possible Tokyo three-peat, Simone Biles comparisons, body pride, how she's happy she can help her boyfriend lift a fridge into the house, and so much more.

Strong women

Carrington's coaches are amazed by her.

“Every six months she’s better than what she was in the preceding six months,” her longtime coach Gordon Walker told NBC recently.

With the work she's put in, the Kiwi paddler is stronger than ever.

At 30, Carrington is 1.68m (5'6) tall and 63.5 kilos (140 pounds) of pure power and muscle. Adding a 20kg weight to her chin-up workout has led to some serious biceps that help haul over water at top speed.

Canoeists are big and muscular because they need to be.

"I can help my boyfriend lift fridges"

When told about the bullying that U.S. gymnastics star Aly Raisman received as a youngster, Lisa can relate.

"It is in some ways challenging to be muscular when you're growing up because it's associated with a guy and how they're supposed to look, and girls aren't supposed to be masculine.

"Our bodies are basically the outcome of our training, our sport, for me it wasn't a thing that - I just want to be strong and I think that having muscles just tells you that we've worked hard.

"It is challenging to be considered to be looking muscular and considered big. I guess you just have to be OK with yourself and do what you do."

"I would love for girls to just be who they are, and be strong because that's what they want to be" - Lisa Carrington to Olympic Channel

Lisa Carrington signing autographs on the red carpet at the 2015 Steinlager Awards. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images for NZRU)

There are lots of practical perks to being well built too.

"What I love about my sport is that I get to be strong. I can help my boyfriend lift fridges into the house, or new equipment, couches..

"It's cool to have that strength to be able help around."

Simone Biles comparisons

A recent NBC article about the Kiwi paddler started with the line:

"If Simone Biles is the world’s most dominant Olympic sports athlete, what does that make Lisa Carrington?"

True to form, the New Zealander shied away from this comparison after it was read to her.

"In New Zealand we're so far away from the rest of the world," she continued.

"It's a huge honour to be considered and even to be written about, and I guess there's a huge amount of pride there.

"Everyone has their own perception, everyone has their own success and every sport is really different in the challenges we face, who we're competing against.

"I think what sport does is it allows us to have that avenue to be able to express our true physical and mental potential, so whatever that it is, I think everyone is pretty amazing in what they're trying to achieve."

A naked photo shoot inspired by Serena?

Naturally discreet and easy-going, Carrington never set out to become a role model, it just happened.

"I don't want to be in front of someone and tell them I'm their role model, I want them to see what I do and say 'she's doing something really cool and that inspires me.'"

Serena Williams is another Olympic champion role model who has brought her body positivity to another level.

Serena has posed naked for the ESPN Body Issue, and on the cover of Vogue magazine and seen by millions online.

Is that something Carrington would consider?

"I don't know because I'm quite a reserved person and it's quite full-on.

"But it's the kind of thing, you do it because someone else has done it, and knowing that many people have done it and it's acceptable and in a way it'd be challenging to accept your own pictures and seeing yourself in that light because for me that's super challenging, for sure.

"But because Serena showed she can do it, anyone can" says Carrington.

'Women can't race 1000m because they have little lungs'

Like many, being told she can't do something 'because she's a woman' lights Lisa's fire.

When the story about a coach who was asked why women can't do the 1000m, and replied 'because they have little lungs' came up, Carrington's reaction was fierce.

"That makes me very angry," says the usually cool and calm Olympian.

"We all try as hard as we can and I don't it's fair. Guys aren't better than girls, we're all on the same level, we're not better than them, we deserve a fair opportunity.

"We may not be as strong, we may not be as fast, we just do things in a different way. We all try our best right?"

Carrington's sources of inspiration

"That's so tough, I reckon, because there are so many amazing people.

"I think being on the outside looking in, you probably don't even know the true story about what people do and how they get through.

"The Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance is amazing. How motivated and determined he is, it's just incredible for people like me to understand the story behind the person and understand what they've been through and what they've done.

"Also, the elegance of Roger Federer and how long he's been in the game for, it's spectacular. An example of how as an athlete you have to look after both your body and your mind."

Lisa Carrington celebrates winning the K1 200m gold medal at London 2012. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Lisa Carrington's nickname: Golden Guns

Being a double Olympic champ comes with a weight of expectation, but that's often eclipsed by an elite Olympians' own demands of themselves.

"I have such high expectations of myself, and while that can be very good, it can also be quite detrimental if I don't achieve something that I think I can. It can really knock your confidence."

The classic response of athletes to questions about medals and times is: It's all about the process. Carrington laughs.

"It has to be about the process, because we spend most of our time training for such a short, 40-second race. It's such a short time, I mean, 40 seconds!

"It's trying not to have external outcomes like medals or times that make you believe you're successful, for me it's trying to be internally driven and just work hard because it's my own personal challenge.

"The draw card is the gold medal, we all line up to win, but you hope that your best is better than everybody else's.

"You don't tell yourself 'I'm going to win that gold medal' because what if you don't?"

Staying grounded has never been a problem for Lisa Carrington. When asked about her nickname 'golden guns', she says, "I wouldn't use it."

Lisa Carrington partner

So has Lisa Carrington you ever googled herself? Definitely not.

But if she had, the first result that would come up on the Google search predictor is 'Lisa Carrington partner'.

Like most other things, she is discrete about her personal life, and you won't find photos of it over social media. But she is in a long-term relationship with boyfriend Michael Buck and does want children in the future.

"I guess it's always on my mind, I mean you don't realise that you're getting older.

"With sportspeople, our bodies are our tools, and you have to change that. You have to compromise your current body, but there's a lot of people who come back."

Many Olympians plan for a child the year after the Olympics, giving them three years to recover and prepare during the 4-year cycle.

"It's not that I don't want to do it, it's just... how does it all fit in, and I guess that's just the complexity of life."

Lisa Carrington and partner Michael Buck on the red carpet. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for NZRU)

Carrington to retire at Tokyo 2020?

"I was expecting to be 31 in Tokyo, now I'm going to be 32.

"I don't know, I think it's really hard to answer that. It's amazing that as athletes we can go on longer, we can stick at sport a lot longer than we have and having the support from our organisations and sponsors and those types of things really make it possible.

"We can continue for as long as we're doing well and performing, so I don't know, I seriously couldn't answer that one.

"I don't know if that's scary because I work so hard just to get to the Olympics and everything I do now is for the Olympics but also for future self.

"Everything I do now is for the Olympics, everything I do is about getting better at sport and at life."

A puppy called Colin

While kids will have to wait, the couple are still adding to the family.

"I'm going to get a puppy in seven weeks, he's a kazoodle," says Lisa.

"My partner, he wants to call the dog Colin. The compromise was that if we got a dog, he got to name it.

One thing's for sure, the dog will have to be a water baby.

"I read that you have to expose it to things early so I'm going to try and make water a thing."

Lisa Carrington's quote to live by

This humble Olympic hero's favourite quote to live by comes from an impassioned President Theodore Roosevelt speech from 1909.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

But Lisa Carrington gives us one of her own during this interview, and it's as simple, real, honest and straight-forward as she is.

"You may fall, it will hurt, but it's OK. It's tough out there but you'll get back up."


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