The Herald continues its series on 12 Kiwi athletes or teams to keep an eye on at the Games - whether for their medal potential, rapid global rise, or captivating road to Tokyo. This is the story of Lisa Carrington.
If you ask Gordon Walker to nominate the most pivotal race of Lisa Carrington's glorious career, the answer may surprise.
Carrington's journey has been success after success, and in Tokyo the 32-year-old could become just the second Kiwi, after rower Hamish Bond, to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals, after her memorable triumphs in London and Rio.
She will be hot favourite for the K1 200m, given she hasn't been beaten in a major final in the sprint event in almost a decade.
It's a staggering streak – more than 3350 days – but long-time coach Walker says her last defeat in the distance was a significant turning point in her journey.
It was May 2012.
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The 22-year-old Carrington was competing at a World Cup event in Duisburg, in the heart of Germany's Rhineland, close to the western border with Holland and Belgium.
The rookie had stunned the canoe racing scene a year earlier, taking K1 200m gold at the 2011 World Championships in the new Olympic event.
But that triumph was achieved in the absence of legendary sprinter Natasa Douchev-Janics. The Hungarian was a three-time Olympic champion, with six medals and 20 world championship sprint titles, including K1 200m wins in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Then 28 years old, she had taken time away to have a baby, but was back for the 2012 season.
"Lisa had beaten some pretty decent paddlers in 2011 but everybody knew that Natasa wasn't there," recalls Walker. "That was pretty clear."
From a field of 42 paddlers, nine progressed to the final. Carrington was in lane eight, near the outside and far from ideal, as she glanced across at Douchev-Janics (lane five) for the first time in a decider.
Just after 11.12am, on May 2, 2012, Carrington's blades flashed into the water in her trademark flying start, with the Hungarian on her shoulder.
It was a thrilling contest – as the two cleared away from the field – and they were impossible to separate crossing the line, as the large crowd stood to applaud.
It was a photo finish, Douchev-Janics recording 40.751 seconds to edge Carrington by less than a tenth of a second (40.847 seconds).
"The margin was less than 30cm," says Walker. "It was a really big moment. It wasn't about getting beaten, it was about saying that was the best in the world and you got close ... maybe you can do it.
"We took that into the training for the next few years – she hasn't been beaten since that time."
The photo of Carrington that afternoon, with the K1 200m silver medal around her neck, is something of a collector's item.
She took gold in London by more than half a second, with Douchev-Janics getting bronze, then won by a similar margin in Rio. Carrington has collected eight world championship titles over the distance, as well as countless World Cup wins.
The nine-year run is one of the most remarkable in New Zealand sports history, but not something that she dwells on.
"It's crazy to think, I guess if I am looking back," Carrington told the Herald. "[But] I don't necessarily like thinking, 'oh this streak, I don't want to lose it'. It's more looking forward and figuring out how much faster can I go."
That, more than anything, is the key to Carrington's success.
In a sport of the finest possible margins, especially in the K1 200m, the Ohope paddler keeps finding swifter passages through the water, epitomised at the 2019 World Championships where she crossed nearly two seconds clear of the silver medallist.
"There is always something to get better at," says Carrington, in her understated way. "I guess it is just searching for it. I've got Gordie [Walker] and other coaches that support us in being the best that we can and it comes down to how much more can I do, what can I work on to get faster, what it is going to take."
According to Walker, Carrington has several distinct advantages.
Firstly, she started with a better-than-average base level as a young kayaker. Then there's her work ethic, spanning more than a decade, which gets her through 10 training sessions a week, complemented by gym work. And perhaps more importantly, Walker believes Carrington has a higher ceiling than most of her competitors.
"Instead of staying ahead she is focusing on herself evolving and changing and growing," explains Walker. "That's what she's managed to do; always improve.
"The key is to make sure you are the one that is improving the most. While people could be catching you, as long as your rate of improvement is the same or better than theirs, you'll always be in front of them."
Like all New Zealand athletes, it's been a strange build-up for Carrington, with the 12-month postponement of the Games and the lack of international competition, which means she hasn't faced her rivals for nearly two years.
"It's challenging anyway, working towards the Olympics, so the differences that we have had to adapt to has just shown the fact that as athletes we need to be adaptable, to figure out what is important and stick to those basics," says Carrington.
"For me it was figuring out what is certain, what do I need to do to be the best paddler I can? It's coming back to that; keep turning up every day and striving for that."
Carrington has also taken on more of a mentoring role in this cycle, part of the drive to broaden the base in the sport, with 21-year-old Alicia Hoskin an example of the emerging talent.
"It's super important for me to be able to support the paddlers coming through," says Carrington. "It's not that easy, doing it, supporting others and trying to strive for what we do on the water.
"The opportunity of working with the team has allowed that. It's also a great way to connect with my teammates. When I am talking to [them] about some things that I work on – I'm like "that's right, that's something I need to do – remember. It's a really great way for me to keep reminding myself of some good things or some things it is going to take to perform."
Carrington and the New Zealand women's contingent spent three weeks training on the Gold Coast in June, before a final camp with the wider kayaking team in Komatsu on the eve of the Games.
Just like five years ago Carrington will attempt the K1 200m/K1 500m double in Tokyo, hoping to defend her crown in the sprint event and make the podium again in the longer race, after a bronze in Rio.
It's not always easy training for both events – Walker draws comparisons with the 400m and 800m in athletics – but Carrington believes they can be complementary.
"You think 'well, if I can go that fast in the 200, how close can I get to that in the 500?'," says Carrington. "The 200 has allowed me to work on my speed and my reaction times and being able to get as fast as I can and think how can I apply that to the 500, which has really supported my endurance, which is actually quite important for the 200 as well."
Adding to her workload, Carrington will also compete in the K2 500m (with Caitlin Regal) and the K4 500m (with Teneale Hatton and Hoskin) in Tokyo.
It will be an intense schedule, mentally, physically and logistically, but Carrington points out that such a plan has been more than four years in the making.
On Tuesday afternoon around 2.30pm, Carrington could become only the second New Zealander, after Bond, to triumph at three successive Olympics, but she takes a more holistic view of her possible astounding achievement.
"I don't look at it as a big sum of three medals or whatever," says Carrington. "I think it is more so 'what do I want to achieve and what can I do'. I would love to go there and just perform the best I can and a gold medal will just be able to top that off."