Tokyo Olympic: Mental adjustments during COVID-19 keep canoe queen Lisa Carrington on gold-medal quest

Her physical strength is obvious - pushing, propelling, punishing and also perfecting.

But the strength inside you don't see makes Lisa Carrington a champion. 

"I don't really like looking at the big picture too often, because it freaks me out and overwhelms me,” she tells Newshub. “I just come back to what's in front of me, what I can do in that moment."

That's what separates her from the rest and why she's already a double Olympic canoeing champion.

"She has that ability to hunt out those little things, year upon year, that you always knew needed to be improved but you needed to wait for the right moment," says coach Gordon Walker. "It's just something that she is very, very good at doing."

Just as well, because COVID-19 means she hasn't raced internationally for nearly two years, since she won K1 200 and 500 at the world championships. 

Those results should have provided the perfect build-up to Tokyo 2020, but just months out, like the rest of the world's elite athletes, her Olympic dream was put on hold.

"Initially I thought 'woah, one more year that gives my competitors one more year to get better too'," she says. "Well, that's a little bit of fear talking and so what's the controllables, what's ahead of us and, you know, why can't you just get better."

The mental shift may seem small, but it's another reason Carrington is the best.

If a lack of international competition was a negative, she's found plenty of positives around her NZ-based training and, perhaps crucially, some life balance.

Lisa Carrington celebrates victory at Rio 2016
Lisa Carrington celebrates victory at Rio 2016. Photo credit: Photosport

"It's absolutely down to what's good for me," she chuckles. "Not taking myself too seriously is good for me."

And at a time when there are so many unknowns, Lisa and long-time partner Michael Buck have given each other their own certainty, announcing their engagement.

"Not everyone gets to win an Olympic gold medal, but a lot of people get married, so it's been really special to have family and friends connect with me in that way that we can share."

Whanau support in London and Rio proved invaluable for our most successful Māori Olympian, and while they can't be in Tokyo - 'he waka eke noa' - they'll all be with her.

Over six days, Lisa Carrington will wear the black singlet in four events - two in a team and two as an individual. New Zealand's medal hopes couldn't be in better hands.

"The older I get, the more I understand how important it is, how much the silver fern or the black singlet means to me," Carrington reflects. "I want to get there and people to be proud of when I race, and know it's there too, if they want to share in it."