What does it take to be an Olympic athlete?
Hopping on a bike and racing around the house, doing laps, with your two younger brothers may not seem like the beginnings of an Olympic canoeing career, but for Kayla Imrie her story begins with a healthy amount of sibling rivalry.
“They’ve pushed me along the way”, Kayla said. “It’s had a big impact on how I think about paddling now”.
Back in March, she swam with her brothers in the Surf Life Saving Championship in Christchurch, much like old times. While her brothers will always be some of her most fierce competition, Kayla is paddling her way to the top. Her recent World Cup success is proof of great things to come.
Paddling alongside other talented women
Like many girls entering the sport now, Kayla was inspired by Lisa Carrington’s winning performance at the London 2012 Games.
“Lisa Carrington paved the way for females in our sport”, she said.
Women are now leading the way in the development of Olympic canoeing in New Zealand, with Kayla Imrie on the front lines, paddling alongside Lisa Carrington, Aimee Fisher and Caitlin Ryan.
The all-star women’s team recently left the World Cup in Portugal with much to celebrate -- four gold medals, including a K4 500m victory.
In the final seconds of the race, just before the boat crossed the K4 500m finish in line, Kayla was thinking: “Work. Work hard for my teammates and protect them as best as I can”, she says. “Once we crossed the finish line, I was thrilled with how our team had pieced the race together”.
For some, it may come as a shock to learn that women’s canoeing events were only added to the Canoe Sprint World Championships in 2010.
In 2015, the New Zealand women’s K4 boat met the qualifying Olympic standard for the first time. As a result: Kayla Imrie, Jaimee Lovett, Aimee Fisher and Caitlin Ryan were selected to compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
For Kayla, paddling at the Rio Games was a dream come true.
“We placed fifth at the Olympics after I had been with the team for only 18 months. I think that was probably the happiest fifth placing anyone has ever seen at the Olympic Games”, she recalls.
Prior to that, the last time New Zealand had an Olympic K4 boat was at the Barcelona Games in 1992. The K4 boat, which made the semifinals that year, was paddled by a male crew.
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How she trains for greatness
If you think about your average week, most Kiwis manage about 3 to 5 hours of gym training.
The training load for Kayla is 16-plus workouts per week with each session lasting about an hour-and-a-half.
“Trying to make it to the top is never going to be an easy job”, says Kayla. “If it was easy, everybody would do it”.
While canoeing is a water sport, not all training occurs on the water. There are aspects of strength training that happen in the gym, and recovery time is spent doing activities that don’t exert her paddling muscles, such as running or stability practice.
To support this demanding schedule, Kayla focuses on managing her nutrition. She knows that eating well is an essential part of maintaining her performance.
“If you’re not getting the right fuel, like a car, you’re not going to go very fast the next day”, she said.
This year, Kayla seeks to improve her K1 performance and how she supports team boat performance. A lot has changed for her as she’s moved from second seat to serving as the new driver/stroker for the team.
"Changing to and from any seat in the boat is always quite dramatic. Just like a netball or rugby team, each seat has a different role to play during the race”, she said. “Moving to stroke seat means my key role is to set up a good stroke pattern and rating so that the girls behind me can easily follow and be able to maximise their power output in each stroke”.
Beyond many hours spent training, the journey to where Kayla is today has been challenging in other ways. Leaving her hometown, Wellington, behind was one of the first hurdles to overcome to make it as a professional athlete:
“Leaving home and being distant from the support network I had at home was hard. Not that the support network left, but I had to rebuild a closer network in my own surroundings in Auckland”.
Over the years, another challenge for Kayla has been:
“Not making teams when you think you’re doing really well in paddling and trying to keep positive for the following year -- to really push and try to make it next time around”.
What’s next for Kayla?
The 2020 Tokyo summer Olympics are in her sights.
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) has approved a race program for Tokyo to further gender equality in sports. These changes, if ratified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will level the playing field with an equal number of women’s and men’s events as well as an equal number of spaces for female and male competitors.
For female athletes looking to pursue any sport, Kayla has the following message:
“Believe in yourself and remember you need to persevere. There will be massive lows”, she said. “But everybody is in that same boat if they want to make it to the top. Don’t think that you can’t do it”.
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