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Kayaking: Just ticket to Games goal

In an era of corporate and government funding, Andrew Alderson found an Olympian who helped fund her campaign to Rio by selling raffle tickets.
Firefighter Anne Cairns helped save two people from the Manawatu River. Photo / Gary Rodgers
Firefighter Anne Cairns helped save two people from the Manawatu River. Photo / Gary Rodgers

Anne Cairns has slept under a mosquito net hung from Zambian trees, frozen in a leaky tent in Scotland and saved people from hypothermia in the flooded Manawatu River ... but she's never kayaked at an Olympics.

That ambition will be realised next month.

The 35-year-old earned the Oceania women's K1 200m spot for the Rio Games at Adelaide in February to become Samoa's first female Olympic kayaker.

New Zealand's Lisa Carrington had already qualified by winning last year's world championships.

Cairns' funding is limited. She has reverted to the age-old method of selling raffle tickets and age-new method of setting up a Givealittle page to eke out her Rio pathway.

In an increasingly corporatised and government-funded sporting landscape, Cairns' story of community support resonates. It's in line with Olympic founder Baron de Coubertin's blueprint that "the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Cairns has represented New Zealand in sprint kayaking, wild-water kayaking and whitewater rafting. She came close to securing a place at the Beijing Olympics with the New Zealand K4 500m crew, but that evaporated when a Hungarian crewmate struck a residency problem.

Cairns can sympathise. She was born and raised in New Zealand, but has dual citizenship via her Samoan mother Koko.

She lives in Dannevirke, works as a firefighter in Palmerston North and travels as far as Backpaddock Lakes near Waipukurau or the Foxton River to train.

Hotel accommodation has also not always been a luxury in pursuit of her paddling dreams.

"I remember one world champs when we had a spring preparation camp at Aberfeldy in Scotland. We organised a tent and said, 'she'll be right'. We woke in sub-zero temperatures with a leaky tent and no dry gear," she chuckles.

"Another time on a rafting camp on the Zambezi River, me and another girl had forgotten our tents so hung mosquito nets in the trees for three nights with monkeys living in the upper branches."

As a trained lifeguard, Cairns also came to prominence last November when she helped two people to safety from a log in the Manawatu River during floods. She dived in wearing a T-shirt and shorts. That earned her a picture on the front page of the local paper and required a shout of dessert for her fire service comrades.

They returned the favour by presenting her with a cake and sausage rolls as part of a farewell morning tea last month. She has taken a sabbatical to prepare for the Games.

Workmates were generous in other capacities to get her to Rio.

She had six weeks off to train in Europe this year and, by swapping shifts with colleagues who didn't mind working extra days for nothing, she could juggle the circumstances.

That support extended to selling raffle tickets and setting up the Givealittle page.

"I was a bit dubious about that page initially," Cairns says.

"I thought that was meant to be for sick people, but I decided it was OK because my friends said it was up to other people to decide. It raised over $1500."

Cairns was also grateful to friends and family, particularly her partner Nigel's father Pat Walshe who took charge to help raise $6500 via raffles. The funds enabled Cairns and coach Richard Forbes to train and race in Europe and to organise a camp on the Gold Coast.

Serendipity even saw Carrington's parents, Pat and Glynis, offer complimentary accommodation at their Ohope motel. Cairns used to compete at surf lifesaving events with Lisa's brother.

"It's humbling and overwhelming how much everyone has been prepared to help," Cairns says. "Anybody who gets to the Olympics is excited, but I'd almost considered my chance had gone."

Her parents, sister and Nigel will also seize their opportunity. They have booked flights, accommodation near a metro stop, and have tickets to see Anne racing live.

"My dad's still working from his home office at 70," Cairns says of her father, Lawrie, who met Koko while working for the New Zealand Lands and Survey Department in Samoa. "My sister and partner also work full-time but have managed to get time off and to fund it. You've got to make it happen however you can."

That should make it all the more memorable when she sits in the starting blocks on August 15.

- Herald on Sunday

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