Silver Ferns and Olympic Gold

By Alan Oldham

NZL W2-. Bow. Genevieve BEHRENT and Rebecca SCOWN, at the start of their heat in the Women's pair, FISA World Cup III, Malta Lake. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

I gaze out to my left from the right-hand driver seat and watch the early November rain settling on the calm surface of Lake Karapiro, more like light fog than precipitation. I have a lot of time to think; the traffic light is in no rush to change from red to green, after which I will wind along a single lane atop the hydroelectric dam that tamed this stretch of the Waikato River in 1947.

At 172 feet high and 1,099 feet long, the dam and adjacent power plant are conspicuously unremarkable. Out-sized and out-performed by structures far larger in countries far away, this little dam has nevertheless done its job. It has buoyed up the boats and by extension the dreams and hopes of the countless Kiwi rowers who have called Karapiro home.

Finally across, I drive past the Cambridge Rowing Club and wonder just how many Cambridges there are around the world thanks to an earlier age of English expansionism. Supposing that every one must have a rowing club, I find a parking spot at the next facility along the water’s edge, Rowing New Zealand’s Gallagher High Performance Center.

Although not the main purpose of my travels to New Zealand, visiting Karapiro is high on my list of must-do’s in an already packed family trip. No one is around on this soggy Monday, so I content myself with a short stroll and think about the hours, days, and years of training that contributed to the incredible performances of Kiwi rowers just a few months before at the Rio Games.

I shiver in the cool stillness of the air as I consider how such a small nation in the middle of the ocean could have done so much.

A Storied Past, A Brighter Future

New Zealand has a long and storied past in the sport of rowing, but recent decades have seen the Kiwis rise to the status of a truly powerhouse rowing nation. Their success hasn’t just been on the podium; it is also against the clock. New Zealand rowers hold five current World Best Times out of FISA’s 24 Olympic and non-Olympic senior events, more than any other nation. Germany, by comparison, ranks second with three current World Best Times. In fact, New Zealand rowers have established new World Best Times on no fewer than 11 occasions over the last quarter century, also far more than any other nation within the same time period. On top of this, the 2,000-meter world record on the erg is held by Kiwi and Olympic gold medalist sculler Rob Waddell. He actually broke the record twice in his career, pulling 5:38.3 and 5:36.6, a mark that remains unsurpassed.

Although most of New Zealand’s world-beating performances have come in small boats—including 2014 world singles champion Emma Twigg—their big-boat program seems to be emerging from a period of rapid growth and development that has given rise to the first Kiwi eights in almost two generations to race on Olympic waters.

Although it is easy to criticize their results—fourth place for the women, sixth for the men—the real story is how well these crews did in spite of their inexperience.

With an average age of 23.5 years, the New Zealand men’s eight was up against some of the toughest rowers racing today, including Sir Peter Reed in the gold medal British crew. That boat averaged over 30 years of age. Silver medalists Germany and the Netherlands, who finished third, came in at 27 and 28 years on average, respectively.

This gap in international experience is enormous. Yet there the Kiwis were and racing to show what future years will certainly prove: simply getting to the Games is not enough.

The women’s eight, with a bit more of a mix of youth and experience, went even further to put a kiwi stamp on their event, indicating what the world can expect in the next quadrennial or two. Although the U.S. retained control of the event once again, the new Kiwi threat cannot be dismissed. It is even more impressive considering this was the first Kiwi women’s eight at any Olympic Games.

The Dunedin Difference

Sitting on the lower right edge of the South Island, Dunedin is perhaps the furthest outpost of substantial rowing in New Zealand. Standing in the second floor meeting hall of the beautiful glass, steel, and wood Otago University Student’s Association Aquatic Center, I watch as the local schools and Otago rowers take to the waters of Dunedin’s natural harbor.

Many notable New Zealand rowers had done the same thing over the years. Olympic gold medalist and world champion Nathan Cohen raced for Otago University in the early 2000s, as did world champion Fiona Bourke, who took her first strokes as an Otago novice in 2008. Even Hamish Bond, who would go on to stroke the Kiwi Pair to a record eight undefeated seasons, including two Olympic victories, got his start on this harbor while he attended Otago Boys School.

I step outside as the rain stops. Weaving between boats laid out on slings in front of the open bay doors, I just manage to keep from slipping on the deadly, seaweed-slick concrete ramp into the water—an incident I remembered vividly as I later read Hamish Bond’s account of his own struggles with slippery Dunedin ramps in “The Kiwi Pair.”

It’s race day and clubs from across the region have converged on Dunedin. The numbers are modest, but with the university entering their summer season, Otago University Rowing Club CEO Glen Sinclair is pleased with how his small summer team is doing.

Sinclair and I “met online,” so to speak, in 2015 when I was writing an article about the Otago team and sent him an email to set up a phone interview. I had been looking forward to talking in person and I also hoped he might be able to shed some light on my question about why such a small nation has launched so much rowing talent onto the world stage? Was it the universities, which help serve as breeding grounds for rowing prowess in North America?

“We’re in a unique situation,” Sinclair tells me, referring to the Otago team and boathouse. “None of the other universities in New Zealand have what is here.”

Although I won’t have the opportunity to visit any of New Zealand’s other university rowing clubs on this trip, I can see what he is saying. Otago University Rowing operates at a level above the standard Kiwi college team, regularly sending crews abroad to compete in China, Russia, and the United States.

“The norm for developing young rowers is going to college in the U.S., coming here, or going directly to train with the under-23s at Karapiro, where they will probably do online courses,” says Sinclair.

More broadly though, the reality is that university rowing in New Zealand is on the periphery of the high-performance athlete development system.

“[High] school rowing here is so big,” offers Sinclair, who sees one major role of university teams in providing opportunities for rowers faced with tough development realities. “Many see the end of high school as the end of rowing if they aren’t already into a regional performance center. A lot of people believe that if they don’t make it into a center, they shouldn’t keep going.”

It is here, perhaps, where New Zealand’s universities do have the greatest impact, by providing a safe space where fun and failure can add fuel for improvement. But it isn’t just having more people continue in the sport that motivates Sinclair. An emphasis on novice recruitment to bring in new rowers is equally as important.

With international opportunities racing for Otago and even representing New Zealand at both the World University Rowing Championships and on the Kiwi under-21 squad, it is a pathway to development that could give a bit more time for anyone to reach the next level. Time and the commitment to improvement, when taken together, can have powerful results in any setting.

Invaluable Experience

If there is any doubt about where a “mediocre” Olympic debut for young athletes can lead, consider the case of the New Zealand men’s four. Fifth in the Athens Games in 2004 and seventh in Beijing four years later, these races were far from a waste of time and effort; they proved indispensable in the development of some of today’s top Kiwis.

Two little-known rowers named Mahé Drysdale and Eric Murray were part of that 2004 crew attending their first Olympics. Murray would race the four again in Beijing with a young first-time Olympian named Hamish Bond, while Drysdale claimed Olympic Bronze in the single that year. From there the story takes on a decidedly golden hue.

How they arrived at that point, however, is something well worth wondering about and goes to the heart of my question about what sets the rowers of these islands apart. [See sidebar, “Pathway to the Podium”]

Striving for More

At 38 and 34 years old respectively, Drysdale and Murray are both, in their own time, pushing toward the realm of what has for so long been considered rowers’ “old age.” The system that supports them though seems equal to the task of pushing the limits of age at both ends of the spectrum.

Another four years for Drysdale will see him defending his two Olympic golds and pushing for another at the age of 41. Murray and his partner Bond have a few more years than that to break into the 40+ mark, but neither shows any sign of slowing down.

The push from beneath as well is adding pressure and momentum to the Kiwi achievements. With more younger rowers coming in and developing the skills to compete at the Olympic level earlier in their careers, a staggeringly long involvement in elite sport seems open to any rower with the strength, stamina, and resolve to endure the harsh realities of finding in success and failure a reason to keep striving for more.

Coffee in Picton

On Nov. 14, 2016, at 12:02 a.m., the second largest earthquake in New Zealand’s recorded history struck near the town of Kaikoura. Shaken awake by the magnitude 7.8 event, my wife and I scooped up our son from the travel crib and spent most of the night in a doorway with our Airbnb hosts.

With the main highway washed into the Pacific Ocean in several places—sections of road we had driven along only a few hours before—the small town of Picton became our temporary home base along with scores of fellow stranded travelers.

When we venture downtown that morning, yellow police tape already surrounds a portion of street where two building facades lay sprawling onto the road. Aftershocks continue to shake beneath us, yet everyone seems to be going about their business as if nothing was wrong.

What could at first have appeared as indifference, I begin to see for what it really is: a deep resilience that brings calmness and clarity of thought to a people determined to find, even in disaster, an opportunity to put forth their best selves.

Sitting with my coffee, I shift my gaze from the broken buildings onto the calm harbor waters and string of hills stretching out of sight toward the open ocean. It is perhaps this quiet quality of New Zealanders, I think, to make the most of what they have in each moment that can transform the remarkable into something simple and win Olympic gold with silver ferns.