Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to canoe racing
When Lisa Carrington first saw the message on her computer, she had to do a double take.
The five-time Olympic champion had just returned from an afternoon training session on Lake Pupuke, when an email from an unfamiliar sender popped up on her laptop.
“It was a letter from the honours office, saying you are being considered for this honour and would you accept it,” Carrington tells the Herald. “I just had a look and was like ‘Wow’. And then I had a chat with Bucky (fiancé Michael Buck) about it, because it’s highly confidential.”
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In 2021 Carrington became our most decorated Olympian, with an incredible three golds in Tokyo, which took her overall Games tally to six medals.
And now her remarkable year has been capped off in unique fashion, with Carrington made a dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
It’s wonderful recognition for Carrington, who has transformed kayaking in this country with her achievements, giving the sport enormous profile and funding, and attracting new talent onto the water.
Kayaking insiders say it’s hard to imagine where the sport would be now, if the blonde rocket from Ōhope hadn’t come along.
From difficult times a decade or so ago, canoe racing has probably never been in a better place. Annual investment from High Performance Sport New Zealand has doubled since 2016, while a new generation of male and female paddlers have been inspired by Carrington’s deeds.
Her achievements in Japan took her beyond Ian Ferguson’s record of four Olympic golds, while her six medals have eclipsed the hauls of Ferguson, Paul MacDonald and Mark Todd (five).
She’s the true golden gun; since 2012 Carrington has been involved in almost one third (29 per cent) of New Zealand’s Olympic gold medals.
But Carrington, whose success has always been accompanied by an endearing humility, admitted the latest honour was challenging to process.
“It just doesn’t get bestowed upon you — you have to take it on as well,” says Carrington. “So I was kind of like ‘Well, do I deserve it?’ I had to really think about it and ask myself ‘Do I deserve to stand alongside some of those other New Zealanders, with the dame companionship or the knight?’
“I guess it’s just getting your head around how big it is and what it means, because it’s not something that I’ve expected and I feel that there is still more to go. It’s a really big thing so it deserved some time to think about it.”
Being able to share the honour with parents Pat and Glynis was particularly special, after not seeing them for several months because of the Olympic campaign then Auckland’s extended lockdown.
“They were incredibly proud — it blew them away a little bit,” says Carrington. “It’s a reflection of them and how much they support me.”
It also prompted contemplation for Carrington, whose sporting pathway took a fateful turn in 2006, when she attended a kayaking camp run by Ferguson in Rotorua.
The 16-year-old, who had mainly focused on netball and surf lifesaving, was ambivalent about the trip.
“Looking back, I probably just turned up because Dad said I should,” laughs Carrington. “You know, I guess I wasn’t super enthusiastic. I didn’t know anybody there.
“I went along with one of my friends, [2016 Olympian] Jamie Lovett, and I guess that’s how it all started. We drove over with Dad and just turned up.”
It was a humble beginning, and Carrington’s equipment was a far cry from a sleek, custom-made vessel she uses today.
“I reckon we would have stuck out like sore thumbs,” says Carrington. “We had multisport kayaks. [Compared to] a K1 sprint kayak, it’s like taking a mountain bike to a velodrome.
“That’s all we had — I didn’t know any different. I’d heard of a K1 before but I’d never paddled one. We just started out like that.
“I didn’t really quite understand where kayaking could take me. Coming from a small town, you don’t have big visions of the world.”
Five years later Carrington became the first New Zealand female to win a canoe sprint world championship title, blitzing the field in the K1 200m, but that was just the beginning.
She claimed gold at the 2012 Olympics, before defending her K1 200m title in Rio four years later, along with a K1 500m bronze.
In August Carrington hit unprecedented heights in the Japanese capital, despite a gruelling schedule. She won her third K1 200m title, backed up less than an hour later in the K2 500m race alongside Caitlin Regal, before sealing an historic treble the next day, with a brilliant K1 500m win.
Carrington, who has also garnered 10 world championship titles, including seven successive K1 200m triumphs, struggles to nominate a favourite race across her career.
“Tokyo as a whole was pretty spectacular,” says Carrington. “One race on its own isn’t necessarily a true reflection of where you are at. With Tokyo every race had its own meaning, looking after or preparing for the next race and the next race after that, so that was pretty cool.”
Carrington enjoyed Christmas in Ōhope, and also visited extended family in Te Puke and Pāpāmoa across the break.
“A bit of surf, sun and chill time,” says Carrington. “Being by the beach is definitely my happy place.”
After allowing herself a week off, Carrington was back training on Monday, joining some sessions with delighted youngsters at the Eastern Bay Canoe Racing club, based on the Whakatāne River.
“When I first started there was no club here, so it’s pretty cool,” says Carrington. “It’s a pretty spectacular spot and the club is growing.”
Carrington (32) is one of the youngest appointments to the DNZM or KNZM, along with Paralympian Sophie Pascoe (28), also honoured today.
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Valerie Adams was a few months older than Carrington when she was recognised in 2016. Solo round the world sailor Naomi James was 29, while squash pioneer Susan Devoy was 34. Edmund Hillary was 33 when he received his knighthood in 1953, after the conquest of Mt Everest, and Richard Hadlee was 38.
Carrington is famously down to earth, so how will she adjust to the new title?
“It’s weird; I’m still getting my head around that,” says Carrington. “I feel like I’m just myself … not anything more.
“It doesn’t feel like me, but I guess that’s what people always feel.”
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