Olympic kayaker Alyce Burnett on being the nerdy underdog. By Jack Kerr.


Blades of glory: Alyce Burnett, 23, kayaker

Kayaking is one of Australia’s best Olympic sports. We’ve won gold at the last few Olympics, so we’re one of the top-tier sports, even if we’re not in the limelight as much as some of the others are. And Australia is definitely one of the best countries internationally.

Like a lot of Australian kayakers, I’m from a surf-lifesaving background. Kayaking on the flat water is a good way to improve your technique for paddling on the surf skis, and some of us stick with it. Also, with the kayak, the best person always wins, whereas in the surf, people can often catch a wave and get lucky. I think everyone’s been stuck on the wrong end of that in surf, and it gets a bit old. There’s only one of us in our Olympic team that hasn’t come to kayaking through surf lifesaving.

Yes, we’ll be in that dirty water in Rio. It’s not as bad as the water at the sailing venue, but we have been given some warnings to be careful, like not to ingest any of it. Which is a little bit hard if you’re at the back of the boat. That’s okay; we’ll just not breathe throughout the race. 

They’ve told us to wear sunnies the whole time, because disease can get through your eyes, too. But I’m not really worried. They had an event there last year and everyone was okay.

The AOC [Australian Olympic Committee] is pretty on to everything, and they’re not that stressed about Zika. They are keeping us up to date on everything, and have told us how to stay safe. There’s been a big media beat-up about the Zika virus, but if the World Health Organisation is okay for us to go, I’m okay to go. And to be honest, I’m going to the Olympics no matter what. 

The rowers go backwards, we go forwards. We’re the smart ones! We train on the same water as them, and we often have arguments with the rowers over which side of the water we’re meant to be on.

We do about 10 sessions on the water a week. Depending on what phase we’re in, we’ll clock up about 100 kays. In the sprinting phase, like we’re in now, we do a bit less. On top of that, we do three or four gym sessions and some cross-training. 

I wish I could do the rapids – that’s a lot more fun. I’m on the flat water, I go in a straight line for 500 metres. Lucky me. Slalom and sprint kayaking are two different disciplines. Kind of like rugby league and rugby union. Same same but different.

Skateboarding at the 2020 Olympics will be pretty cool. I’ve never watched a skateboarding event before, and I can’t skate, but I surf quite regularly. Though not at the moment – I’m on a surfing ban, in case I get injured. The skateboarders will be the cool ones at the Olympics. The kayakers will be the nerds.

This is my first Olympics. Before being selected, I’d never really had anything to do with any other sports. Kayaking is in its own little bubble: we’re not in the Commonwealth Games, our World Championships are just for us. Now, I’m going to all these different events and meeting all these different athletes. It’s really cool. I’ve promised to party with the swimmers after we finish.

My boyfriend, Jordan Wood, is the current under-23 world kayaking champion. And he’s a new member of the K4 1000 crew, who are the reigning Olympic champions. Both his mum – who’s my coach – and his dad are Olympic medallists in kayaking. Anna went to four different Olympics and medalled in two of them. Steve medalled in ’92. So Jordan’s got a good pedigree.

You go through a lot of partners in K2, and you know when it works. Alyssa Bull and I first jumped in together about a year ago and it just worked as soon as we pushed off from the pontoon. It’s a bit awkward, because you hope the other person is thinking the same thing. But we were both like, ‘Oh my God! How good is this!’ We have the same personality, and our strengths and weaknesses complement each other’s.

Being idiots, that’s what helps us perform well. Before we hop on the water, we’re just bouncing off each other, like kids almost, and we are able to keep our minds off the job. We were the underdogs going into selection, but in those high-pressure situations, the way that we are able to be idiots helped us. That’s what gave us the edge.


1 . This week’s highlights…

AFL: Greater Western Sydney v Collingwood

Saturday, 1.40pm (AEST), Spotless Stadium, Sydney

• Tennis: Wimbledon women’s and men’s singles finals

Saturday and Sunday, 11pm (AEST), All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

• Netball: Australian elimination final  – NSW Swifts v Melbourne Vixens 

Sunday, 12.18pm (AEST), Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre

• Soccer: UEFA Euro 2016 Final – Portugal v France

Monday, 5am (AEST), Stade de France, Paris

• Basketball: Australian Boomers v Pac-12 College All-Stars

Tuesday and Thursday, 7.30pm (AEST), Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Rugby league: State of Origin III – NSW Blues v Queensland Maroons

Wednesday, 8pm (AEST), ANZ Stadium, Sydney

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Blades of glory".

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Jack Kerr is a dual Australian Sports Commission Media Awards winner who writes about the business of sport.

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