Multi-skilled paddler swaps countries in bid to reignite her kayak career and make her mum proud by qualifying for the Rio games

Anne Cairns is a born paddler, a veteran of a range of paddling sports. But at the canoe racing national championships next week she'll take the first step towards achieving something that has eluded her - Olympic qualification.

Cairns has represented New Zealand in sprint kayaking, wildwater kayaking, and whitewater rafting.

She will return to the flat water in the K1 200m and 500m-sprint class at Lake Karapiro, but this time she'll be racing for Samoa.

The 34-year-old was a member of the New Zealand flat-water kayaking squad from 2006 to 2009. During that time she was part of a successful K4 team that looked destined to make the cut for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but one of the crew, Agnes Szabo, was unable to secure residency in time.

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After Szabo was ruled out, the crew disbanded and Cairns' Olympic dream seemed dead and buried.

"I'd been a self-funded athlete," Cairns says. "I pretty much had to get a wriggle on and start paying off what I'd ticked up."

Cairns had trained as a physical education teacher, but wanted to go in a different direction. Which direction she didn't know.

"I was in a bit of a rut about what I wanted to do. A friend of mine in the women's rafting team was a firefighter in Auckland. She said, 'why don't you try out for the Fire Service?'"

It proved to be an inspired suggestion. Cairns has spent the past two-and-a-half years working at a station in Palmerston North.

She lives in nearby Dannevirke, but stays with family when she's rostered on to work.

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"My parents and sister still live in Palmerston, so I stay with them. It means I can train a bit easier as well. There's no water for me to train on in Dannevirke."

The nature of her job also makes life easier for Cairns when she's in competition mode.

"Being a firefighter is a lifestyle choice, because I know I can get a bit of training in at work as well. We get an hour of physical training each day, so I factor that into my programme."

Cairns holds dual New Zealand and Samoan citizenship, and spotted a way to reignite her sprint kayak career by racing under the Samoan flag.

This year the nationals at Lake Karapiro will double as the Oceania championships, meaning paddlers from Pacific nations can enter.

The pathway opens up the possibility for Olympic qualification, although Cairns knows making the cut will be difficult.

"It relies on how other countries in Oceania qualify and what boats they try to qualify. I'll race the Oceanias here this year and the world champs in Italy in August. After that, I'll have a bit of an idea about what the chances are.

"I'm realistic about where I'm at and what I'm doing. I'm not a fulltime athlete at all."

Cairns' racing for Samoa is entirely self-funded. She doesn't have a coach in the traditional sense, but is getting some help with her training from an old friend.

Despite these difficulties, she knows she's doing her mum proud.

"It's a really big thing for her," says Cairns. "To be able to represent her, her family, and her side of my culture - she's really chuffed."

Cairns says making it to the Olympics would be a dream, but concedes trying to crack it in her mid-thirties isn't as straightforward as it was a few years ago.

"During that period I was studying, so I had the freedom to come up to Auckland and train with a really good squad. I guess that was the best shot at it then.

"Obviously I've had to move on. I've got a mortgage, a fulltime job, a partner. It's a different period of my life. It's just timing.

"I think I'm still capable of being a really good paddler. I just have to direct that down the Samoan way, where I can have a bit more freedom to have my own life as well."

Although she's determined to go as far as she can, Cairns says her job, in which she often has to deal with serious car crashes and house fires, has given her a new perspective on her sport and on life in general.

"It's definitely made me a more rounded person. It's easy in my sport to get quite focused on what you're doing and what's going on around you.

"To have a job like this balances me a lot. Paddling isn't the be-all and end-all. There's no point getting too down about it, because after what I've seen, there's a whole lot of worse stuff going on in people's worlds."


National and Oceania Championships

Where: Lake Karapiro
When: February 13-15.
Events: Distances include 200m, 500m, 1000m, and 5km.
• Age groups range from under-13s to masters.
• For more information, click here