It was in 1999 that Kiwi kayakers Anne Cairns and Carl Barnes first travelled overseas together for a junior world championship in Italy, becoming close friends along the way. But little did they know, 22 years later, they'd be a couple – and on a joint mission to bring home gold at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Born and raised in Palmerston North, Anne is due to compete in the canoe sprint events on August 2, with her boyfriend Carl by her side as team coach and manager. It'll be a sweet moment for them both after two decades of struggle and sacrifice, with Anne making big compromises to achieve her paddling goals and Carl facing up to mental health challenges.
"We sometimes look at our situation now and think we could never have predicted us coming together like this," Anne, 40, tells Woman's Day. "But that's life – so much is about timing, circumstance and opportunity, so we're happy to just keep rolling with it."
Recalling their trip to the Junior World Downriver Championships in Milan all those years ago, Anne says, "Our personalities gelled well and we became really good mates. We were both aged 18 and I was a bit of a fan girl because he won the World Junior title there."
For his part, Carl remembers his "intense and focused" attitude contrasted to Anne's more "easy-going nature", but any thoughts of a romance were quickly quashed in the mind of the Taranaki dairy farmer.
"I thought Anne was out of my league," he confesses, making Anne laugh.
She insists, "I always thought of myself as pretty aloof and would never have thought someone like Carl would even be interested."
Following their European trip, both went their separate ways. Carl to study health sciences in Dunedin and Anne to begin her own studies at Massey University.
While she continued to kayak competitively, following his triumph, Carl plunged into a severe depression and quit the sport.
For several years, he grappled with his mental health until he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder.
"It can be very destructive," explains Carl, 40. "It was like I'd lose my ability to rationalise certain things, especially around spending money and not needing sleep."
Medication has helped control the extremes of his disorder, but Carl's mental health battle is an ongoing struggle and he has been hospitalised three times while experiencing "elevated manic episodes". He says, "I needed hospital help to restabilise. Each time I experienced a high, there was always an equal, opposite low."
For many years, the pair remained loosely connected but lived separate lives. Carl had two children and was married, while Anne was also in a long-term relationship.
"We'd make the occasional phone call and I heard through mutual friends what he'd been up to," adds Anne. "We always had a genuine interest in how each other was doing."
In 2012, Anne, a qualified PE teacher, sought a new challenge and retrained as a firefighter. But it was later that same year, after watching fellow kayaker Lisa Carrington win gold at the London Olympics, that she set her ultimate goal – to compete at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
But not for New Zealand. Because her mother is Samoan, Anne represents our Pacific neighbour in her chosen sport.
She tells, "I am half Samoan and it's just as important to me as my Kiwi side, so I looked into competing for Samoa. Through my kayaking knowledge, I was aware of what the qualifying process would look like for Samoa."
The path was not easy. Samoa had no formal canoe sprint system and she needed to self-fund her Olympic bid.
"I learnt to budget, and figure out what I could and couldn't do," she says. "I had to be resourceful, stay with families in Europe and ask for help with boats."
After competing at the 2015 World Champs in Milan, Anne qualified for the K1 200m and K1 500m events for Rio at the Oceania Championships.
The Games were an enormous thrill for Anne, who says, "It was a buzz and that was a big drawcard in me trying to compete for the Tokyo Olympics. I had an opportunity to make it happen again and I knew if I didn't go for it, I'd regret it."
While Anne trained, Carl kept working on his mental health, drawing on support from family and friends, including Anne.
Carl says, "She was awesome to talk things over with. She'd listen and never judge."
Then, two years ago, when both their long-term relationships had "run their course", Anne and Carl became an item. Smiling, Carl recalls, "I remember telling Anne what an outstanding person she was but that I always felt she was out of my league. It was a bit comical because she then reciprocated the same feelings back to me. We thought it would be cool to develop that connection we had when we were young."
Geographically, the relationship has been challenging. Anne works as a firefighter in Palmerston North, typically spending half a week in Manawatu and half a week living in New Plymouth with Carl.
Fitting in training can be demanding. Anne paddles across half a dozen different locations on river, lake and sea, including Palmerston North's Hokowhitu Lagoon, which she jokes is little more than a "duck pond".
But Carl has proven a rock-solid support for Anne in her kayaking ambitions. She says, "He's very technically minded, quite the opposite to me, so I always benefit from his guidance. He has such a good way of passing on knowledge. He listens to all my gripes and because of his kayaking background, he knows where I'm at."
Anne has also played a part in luring her boyfriend back into a kayak, with Carl recently winning the masters gold in the K1 1000m at the New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships.
The move back to paddling has proved hugely beneficial to Carl, who says, "The exercise has been therapeutically awesome for my disorder, but the best part of my return to the sport is to be reconnected with the paddling community."
Meanwhile, Anne booked her spot on the three-strong Samoan team for Tokyo at the Oceania Championships in Sydney in February 2020. Despite the frustration of the postponed Olympics, she's excited about competing in the K1 200m and K1 500m events, with Carl in her corner as Samoan team coach and manager.
"Anne's coach couldn't make it to Japan because he has a young family and other commitments, so he rang and asked me whether it might be something I'd consider," adds Carl. "Ultimately, I would've only taken the position had the other members of the team seen a value in me attending and when they agreed, it was too good an opportunity to turn down."
Grinning, Anne says, "I'm over the moon. The way that it's lined up is awesome. I'd hoped Carl, my sister and parents would have watched me in Tokyo, but with no overseas spectators allowed, I was gutted. So for Carl to be given the chance to be able to come is really special."
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