North & South
Olympic champion Hamish Carter’s artistic older sister Cathy helped pave the way for his sporting success. By Donna Chisholm.
Olympic champion Hamish Carter and his artist sister, Cathy, on chasing their dreams.
It is New Year’s Eve, 2016 in the holiday resort town of Pauanui and teams are lining up for the start of the annual summer triathlon. Nearly a decade after Olympic gold medal-winner Hamish Carter hung up his lycra, he’s about to get back in the saddle for a 10km bike ride in the team event. Wife Marisa, a former triathlete herself and New Zealand representative freestyler, is taking the 400m surf swim leg, and their 14-year- old son, Austin, will do the 5km run.
Also at the start line, in a second “Team Carter”, is Hamish’s sister, Cathy, taking on her brother in the bike ride. Her husband, PR consultant Paul Hewlett, is in a too-tight wetsuit for the swim while their son Theo, 21, prepares for the last leg, the run.
For one of the few times in his life, Hamish Carter doesn’t actually give a damn where he finishes and a few months on, doesn’t even remember. This is a race not for the glory of victory, but something he realises is just as important – family fun. “I made it pretty clear I wasn’t going to push myself because I couldn’t be bothered,” he says. “When I retired, I’d had enough and I wasn’t interested in ever [competing] again – if I hadn’t done another race in my life, I wouldn’t have cared. But we thought it’d be cool because we could do it as a family.”
For Hamish and Cathy Carter, the youngest and oldest of five children, sibling rivalries and holidays at the beach and in the waters of Pauanui were always at the spiritual heart of their close family. More than 40 years on, the rivalry has mellowed into mutual respect, but their connection to the water remains.
Hamish’s swimming ability – he can’t remember ever learning, only that he was always good at it – helped him to become the world’s best triathlete. For Cathy, the water she swam, played and dived in as a child is now at the centre of her life’s work as an artist and photographer. “I want to be a voice for the water,” she says.
Cathy was the only New Zealand finalist in the Head On International Portrait Competition in Australia in
2015 and one of only two in 2016. Her work is now being exhibited and sold in Paris. She is a relative latecomer to her career as an artist, after her mum told her art could be a hobby but not a career.
Instead, she worked in marketing and advertising and had three children (Theo, Rousseau, now 18 and Zarina, 16) before heading to AUT University in her 40s to study visual arts. She began sculpting in glass before finding her artistic milieu in water photography. She wants her work to challenge our own relationship with water, and what we are doing to protect it.
“There is a spooky mood to her art,” says Hamish, who has one of her “massive” photographs on his living room wall. “It’s a photo that’s meant to depict drowning, or the feeling of drowning. The water is really black and closing in on you, so there’s a real dark side to it, but that’s what draws you in.
“I’ve done a lot of open-water swimming. You’re out in the ocean, there’s nothing around you and you’ve swum all this way out… you’ve got to swim all the way back and you feel really vulnerable, really challenged. I’ve been very connected to water all my life and it’s one of those things I wouldn’t have been conscious of until Cath’s art made it more obvious. It’s a reflection of how we lived our life.”
For Cathy, the connection is even more profound. “I find water a place of transformation. I used to dream that I could breathe underwater and I loved challenging friends to see if they could beat me swimming underwater lengths. Water is where my passion is. I love any excuse to be in it or on it or beside it. It really affects me psychologically very positively and I also like the fact it’s such an unmanageable environment. It’s quite scary at times. It really makes you feel alive.”
With nearly nine years between them, they’ve got to know each other better as adults than they did as children growing up in Auckland, where both of them still live. Not only do they share the family’s “freaky sporty gene” but also its creative streak. Hamish says he missed out on the arty talent, but he had to be creative in the way he approached his sport. “When I went into triathlon, everyone trained in squads. After a year I looked around and thought I could do it better. I started swimming with swimmers, cycling with cyclists and running with runners. It completely changed the way I trained and when I went to race, I was faster than other people.”
So fast that by the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he was ranked number one in the world and hot favourite to take New Zealand’s first triathlon gold medal. With his wife and family watching, he finished a dismal 26th. The performance could have broken him, but in many ways it healed him. Four years later, at 33, he achieved Olympic glory in Athens – and believes the Sydney failure made him a better person.
Now leading a team of campaign consultants at High Performance Sport New Zealand, he says he drew on that experience “every day” as he worked with our triathletes and women’s K4 paddlers preparing for the Rio Games. “But this is not about me, anymore. It’s about helping them identify what’s important and what’s not. Some of those athletes will need to go through the same thing before they’re ready.”
HAMISH CARTER, 45
“We had a busy, full house all the time. When I was growing up, Mum and Dad were amazing [father, Clive, was a lawyer, while their mother, Pat, was a teacher]. But by the time I came along, a lot of the time they were off doing their own thing and that’s fair enough, too. They’d had five kids and their lives had been on hold. Cath, being the oldest, had a role that filled in the gaps if Mum and Dad weren’t there. It was up to Cath and my brothers to see issues resolved. It was probably quite hard at times for her.
I was teased a lot as the youngest and that’s quite normal. The downside of being the youngest is being teased, the upside is I got a lot more opportunities at a lot younger age. I was generally thrown into things very early on and had to keep
up. If the family went skiing, they all just rolled off the top of the chair and took off and I had to somehow keep up. There were a couple of times I was left standing at the top of a cliff on the edge of the mountain and I’d lost everyone and I was sort of like, ‘Shit, where do I go now?’
When we were at the beach, they were all off doing things and I would try to tag along, so I was pushed pretty hard to make my mark. In a big family I strived, I guess, to stand out. Being the youngest, you could have got left behind or lost in the crowd.
I think I was fiery. I probably had to be. I generally ended up losing my temper. If I was playing a game against anyone in the family and I started losing, I would completely lose it. Everyone thought it was funny and that made it worse. I threw everything that wasn’t tied down. I think that competitiveness was always there.
If I hadn’t been the youngest, it could have been harder to pursue a career in sport. It was easier for me, because by then Mum and Dad were far more relaxed about what anyone decided to do. But if Cath had left school and said, ‘I’m going to be an artist,’ they would have said there was no way in a million years. I don’t think I had a conversation with Mum and Dad around what I was going to do, I just ended up going overseas to be an athlete.
I had a much easier time, but I also had to stand on my own two feet. They left me up to my own devices and I wouldn’t change that for anything because it made me who I was. It was a great lesson in trust.
Cath paved the way for the younger ones to come through. She and [brother] Doug had to get Mum and Dad to relax a little around parenting and they bore the brunt. There was much less flexibility around what they should or shouldn’t do.
Sydney was a really critical event in my life that needed to happen. I had to change the way I understood what performance at the highest level looked like. I beat myself up. There’s an element of the driver in you that is sometimes not that constructive or collaborative. It can be pretty confronting. It was lucky for me it was the right thing that happened at the right time. If it had happened even two or three years before that, I might not have been brave enough to face my demons and learn from it, nor would I have had the right people around me to get me through that phase in my life.
My family wasn’t at the forefront of me doing this, but they were always the backstop. No matter how much I extended myself to the brink of my ability, there was this foundation that sat behind me that I couldn’t fall off, no matter what. They were always going to be there, which is pretty cool. I only hope that as parents of our two kids [Austin and daughter Phoebe, 12], we can achieve the same for them.
With the kids, we consciously try to push it [the Olympic gold] to the back. You want your kids to have their own space to grow into and although it may influence some aspects of their lives, hopefully it doesn’t too much. It’s about having a blank canvas for them to pursue what they love, whatever that happens to be. Although I’d say that was what Mum and Dad provided for me, I think Cath would probably say they didn’t provide that for her, because we were just at opposite ends of the spectrum, which is quite fascinating.
Because she wasn’t encouraged to pursue what she really, really loved, it’s so cool to see her do it now and that’s inspired a lot of the family to go, ‘Shit, it’s never too late.’ It takes a massive amount of perseverance and tenacity to not let that die. It’s fantastic she made it happen. We’re really proud she’s gone and done that.”
CATHY CARTER, 53
“As a kid, Hamish was always competitive, always wanted to be involved and hated to be left out of anything. Because he was so volatile, even though he was a lovely kid, we’d tease him a lot, trying to make him go off. One day, we were all in the lounge laughing and hiding and my brother Douglas started teasing him. Hamish started swearing and throwing knives at us. He would have been pretty young, maybe six or seven.
We were all sporty. We’d go tramping, and some hikes were difficult, even for the older of us. He always persevered even if it meant he was crying at the end of it; he’d just keep going. Going for a run was the answer for everything. ‘Tired? You need to go for a run.’ Everyone was told that. ‘You’re bored, go for a run.’
I remember wanting to spend a
lot of time in the water. I competed for the school swimming sports and was the fastest breaststroker at school and I also dived. Holidaying in Pauanui, we spent all our time doing water sports.
Hamish learned to water-ski at the age of four. We’ve got a photo of all four boys up on their skis behind the boat. With my brothers, I was always the one who could kind of step aside, because there was so much competition between them. Because I was the oldest and I was a girl, I often played the part of helping my mother out – being the second mother, as it were.
At school, I loved art but my mother was determined I shouldn’t do art. She said it was a hobby I could do when I left school, so she didn’t allow me to do it when you choose subjects for the fifth and sixth form. She basically wanted me to do the same thing she did, which was to be a home economics dietitian, so she convinced me to do chemistry and physics, and I wasn’t particularly good at either. It’s weird to think your mother had such control over you, but she really did. After two years, she said, ‘If you’re not going to be a dietitian, you can be a teacher.’ I realised I didn’t want to be a teacher, either.
As a child, Hamish had something other than just the physical thing – he had mental strength. I think it is a lot to do with him being the last of a very competitive bunch of kids. He always loved sport and decided to pursue it with a singlemindedness that surprised us all. It took me until I was 40 to be singleminded about pursuing my dream, which was always to be an artist.
We were stunned when he had this meteoric rise, because he was good like the rest of us were good at sport. But when we saw him at Manchester in 1993 – when he came third in the world champs – we realised he could do something with this.
I wasn’t in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics; I had three kids under six. We watched it and it was kind of tragic. I’ve tried to block it out of my memory, I think. I just remember when he started going backwards and then not wanting to watch any more. We were devastated for him. The media had been so positive that he was going to do really well, so to burn out was hard. But I was super proud of him for even finishing the race. In those circumstances, I’d be thinking, ‘I’m not doing very well, I’m going to save myself and pull up.’
He was very hard on himself after that, for sure. Obviously he was looking for something, why he blew out. He wrote that he let the hype around him go to his head, but I don’t think that was the case. He’s always been a very grounded, down-to- earth person. He’s never been a show- off or the kind of kid to brag about himself. All of us in our family are quite hard on ourselves.
Probably he is now more compassionate than he used to be. That experience helped him grow up and to realise that shit happens, you’re not always in control, regardless of how much you try. He seemed to become a more rounded person.
We visited him when he was training in France before the Athens Olympics. It would have been easy to go to the Games. We tossed and turned about it and consulted with the rest of the family, and everyone decided it would be better to let him be there on his own, so he could focus and not have to worry about seeing us or knowing that we were there.
We were in London staying with friends and we watched it on TV with a whole bunch of people. It was so, so nerve-racking. I started doing the washing in the middle of it because I couldn’t stand watching. There were 14 of us and we all started jumping up and down and yelling. I was so proud of him.
Hamish and Marisa built a bach in Pauanui a few years ago and Mum, Doug and I bought one just around the corner. We’re five minutes away from each other. We had to sell the family bach there eight years ago when Dad went into care. He still knows me and Mum, but I’m not sure about the others. Sometimes he knows them and sometimes not. It’s really painful. Hamish won his gold medal before Dad’s Alzheimer’s, so that’s a blessing.
It’s pretty inspiring, actually. Lots of people have dreams and lots of people can potentially do stuff with their lives, but not many people manage to see it through. But I think it was better because of what happened in Sydney.
Coming back from adversity is always an exciting thing. In some ways, coming back to my art has been challenging, but adversity is good for you. It builds resilience and it can make you appreciate life in a new way.”