Lisa Carrington may be the world’s most dominant Olympian
If Simone Biles is the world’s most dominant Olympic sports athlete, what does that make Lisa Carrington?
Carrington, a sprint kayaker from New Zealand, is undefeated in her sport’s splash-and-dash, the K-1 200m, since 2012 (one year longer than Biles’ all-around win streak). In 2014, she shattered a record set by her sport’s icon of icons -- by more than one second in a 40-second race. And Carrington is coming off what she believes was the greatest performance of her career at the 2019 World Championships.
“Every six months she’s better than what she was in the preceding six months,” said her longtime coach, Gordon Walker.
Carrington, 30, is a 5-foot-6, 140-pound tower of power, her biceps developed through weighted chin-up sets.
She was born in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand’s North Island with a magnetic relationship to the water. Carrington came to kayak from competitive surf lifesaving in her mid-teens. She first joined team boats at world championships in 2009 and 2010.
In 2011, Carrington made her solo world champs debut. She won. After an early 2012 defeat, she is undefeated in the 200m. That includes two Olympic gold medals and another six world titles.
U.S. Olympian Maggie Hogan, who raced Carrington in the longer 500m event, said the 200m is not only the shortest race in the sport, but it should also be the most fickle. Carrington shatters that thought.
“It’s like running an 800m on a balance beam,” Hogan said. “You’ve got to be pretty skilled on the balance beam before you can apply all that power. What Lisa does very well is she maintains her stroke efficiency even at really high stroke rates.”
Hogan gave plenty of credit to Walker, whom she called “a guru.”
Carrington started her career focusing on the 500m, since the 200m was not on the Olympic program at the time. Walker became her coach at the end of 2010, when she began developing into a 200m sprinter, since the distance would debut at the Olympics in 2012. Walker said that, together, they chopped one second off her time in six months.
“Learning how to produce power,” Carrington said. “How to go fast rather than just slog it out and try to get as fit as possible.”
The improvement continued the rest of the decade with no major setbacks.
“She is five percent better,” than the field, said Walker, who counts strength-to-weight-ratio as a tenet. “So when she’s at the 200m mark, the others are at the 190m mark. It’s actually hard to comprehend the gap she has on the rest of the field.
“At no point in time is there any place in the race where somebody else is as good or better than her.”
Walker highlighted three competitions: Carrington’s defeat in 2012 before the streak began. Last year’s world championships. And the 2014 World Championships in Moscow.
Six years ago, Carrington had the 500m final, followed by the 200m about 90 minutes later. In the 500m, she got stuck at the start, her gate taking an extra half-second to open, Walker said. She passed everybody for the lead before falling back to silver.
“That fired her up,” Walker said.
In the 200m final, Carrington clocked the fastest time in history, taking more than one second off a mark set by German kayak legend Birgit Fischer 20 years earlier. The runner-up also bettered Fischer’s old mark, but was nearly a second behind Carrington.
“We had an amazing tailwind that day,” Carrington said. True, but she had been approaching Fischer’s time leading up to that competition and has since posted other times that would have broken the record.
“Birgit, you can argue she’s the most accomplished Olympian of all time, not just in our sport,” Hogan said of the eight-time gold medalist (all in 500m races) from 1980-2004. “I remember when Michael Phelps won eight golds in Beijing, newscasters talking about it and bringing up Birgit Fischer as an example.”
Fischer had the benefit of teammates within the deep German program, part of Olympic champion two- and four-woman events. Carrington is from a nation with no other female Olympic flatwater medalists.
“What Lisa did is equally as impressive [as Fischer],” Hogan said. “Is her career as long as Birgit? No, but I think what you’re seeing is a totally dominant athlete on the world stage, which is really uncommon these days because the field is extraordinarily deep.”
Carrington has branched out to the only other Olympic women’s distance, 500m. She won her first world title in the 500m in 2015, then took silver or bronze medals at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 and 2018 Worlds.
Then came 2019. Carrington swept the 200m and 500m at worlds, winning each final by more than a second and a half. Her 200m margin -- 1.94 seconds and the largest of her global championship career -- was six tenths greater than what separated second place and ninth place.
“Historic, all-time events,” Walker said.
No woman has won Olympic gold medals in both the 200m and 500m, given the 200m debuted at the Olympics in 2012. The last man to do it was in 2000. Carrington, if she pulls it off in Tokyo, where she also plans to race the K-4 500m with three other Kiwis, might walk away.
“I kind of figured that I would just see how it would go at the Games,” she said while in lockdown last month, unable to train in the water or see Walker face-to-face. “I was happy to continue, and I was also happy to call it there.”
Carrington has never wanted to be famous. In New Zealand, an athlete can live a fairly normal life if they’re not on the All Black rugby team.
So maybe few know of Carrington’s penchant for do-it-yourself work around the house. She recently painted her whole perimeter fence.
Maybe few know about her Māori heritage from her dad’s side. She regularly wears a pounamu necklace. She has one tattoo -- from high school -- of a koru, or spiral wave representing continual movement and all of one’s life experiences.
What she doesn’t dwell on is the exact number of 200m races she’s won consecutively.
“It’s probably something I’ll look back on,” she said, guessing the streak is around 40. “Winning medals and doing the best opens a lot of doors, but, for me, being in it for so long, as much as it’s about winning or being the best, there’s a lot more to it.
“It’s not just settling for winning. It’s settling for finding my own best and my own potential.”
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