The Kiwi pair made in heaven
Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler have overcome Olympic disappointment to become the world's best coxless pair. Juliette Drysdale, a former world champion in the pair, discovers what makes them tick.
There’s a well-known expression in rowing that ‘pairs are made in heaven’. In other words, some combinations click right from the first stroke.
It’s one of the unique things about the coxless pair - you could throw the two best rowers in the world together in a boat, and they wouldn’t necessarily be fast.
Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler are lucky enough to have this natural synergy – which they discovered when they were first paired together by Rowing New Zealand selectors at the national trials in 2014.
Of course, they’ve put countless hours into training and honing their technique since then but, right from the outset, the 2017 world champions have had a combination that undeniably works.
The first thing you need to understand about the coxless pair is that each of the rowers have one oar, so they’re essentially trying to row as one person. That makes it one of the most difficult boats to master.
It’s crucial that each of the rowers, one on bow and one on stroke, match each other in timing and power in order for the boat to go fast and straight.
Gowler sits in the stroke seat and loves the challenge that the pair presents. “The pair is really challenging because you literally only have control over one side. I can’t do anything without Grace and she can’t do anything without me,” she says. “I really like that though, you’ve really got to work together to make it work.”
Sitting with Gowler and Prendergast at the Gallagher High Performance Centre on Lake Karapiro - where they’re based with the rest of the New Zealand rowing team, preparing for next month’s world championships in Bulgaria – it’s easy to see how comfortable they are together.
The duo are understated yet hold an air of quiet confidence, and it’s quickly apparent the level of trust they have in each other – a crucial element in rowing, particularly in the pair. Their bond is noticeable not just in their opinions but also in the way they express themselves - even in the way they finish each other’s sentences.
They come alive when I ask them about the contrast in their personalities, and enjoy pointing out their differences.
“One of the main differences would probably be our temperament,” says 26-year-old Prendergast. “I’m naturally quite a calm person and don’t give away a lot…”
“Whereas I’m literally the opposite,” Gowler, 25, jumps in. “I like to say how I’m feeling rather than hold it back. Being different has helped us and we’re probably still learning stuff about each other now.”
So, how do their personality traits play out in a race? “Kerri is able to get us up and going, but I’ve got enough coolness to make sure we don’t take it too far, to control it once we get there,” says Prendergast.
Gowler adds: “The really good thing about Grace is that I feel like all I have to do is do what I’m doing and she’ll let me know if something needs to change. She has the confidence and coolness, to say ‘No, we’ve got time – run it'.”
Another unique aspect of the pair is the nature of the roles in the boat - the stroke setting the rhythm and rate, while the bow-person typically makes the calls. The speed of a pair can often be defined by the bow-person’s ability to perfectly and subtly match - or mirror - the stroke person in every way.
A huge part of the sport is ‘boat feel’ is - being able to feel the water through your blade. And there are subtleties in small boat rowing as opposed to the pure brawn required in a bigger boat like an eight.
When the pair is up and running, it’s very quiet apart from the sound of the oars turning in the gates at the finish and the hiss of bubbles beneath the hull as the boat literally lifts in the water and almost takes on a life of its own.
When the boat is running well, it’s an unbeatable and highly addictive feeling. You may be pressing your legs down, breathing hard, with your heart almost beating out of your chest and yet, strangely, the boat is running almost effortlessly.
I ask Gowler to describe the feeling in the boat when it’s going well. “I sometimes find that the more I try to put into it, the more I kill boat speed, so I’ve really tried to find a line between applying power, but also how I do that, just softer with the boat. It’s about finding a balance,” she says.
Prendergast agrees: “When I think of a bow seat in particular, I try to make Kerri’s life easy. If she can get maximum work on, if she’s feeling really comfortable and really good, then all I have to do is try and match that.
“We make sure that we don’t damage that effort on the way up the slide. It’s about looking after that effort and looking after the boat speed once you’ve got it.”
In 2016, Gowler and Prendergast failed to gain Olympic selection in the pair, despite having won world championship silver in both the pair and eight the year before. The spot went to Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent, who won Olympic silver in Rio.
Both Gowler and Prendergast say missing out was one of the most disappointing, yet defining, moments in their careers.
“Obviously it wasn’t just a one day thing, but it did feel like everything just came tumbling down,” Prendergast says.
“We looked back at that year and saw the things that we tripped up on; we put our seats up for grabs, almost. I think we’ve taken a lot from that into this four years. As gutted as we were at the time, I think it will help us to be more successful now.”
Prendergast and Gowler haven’t been beaten since they won gold at the world championships in Florida last October. Leading into their world title defence in Plovdiv next month, they've won two World Cup regattas, in Austria and Switzerland.
They are undoubtedly chasing an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in two years’ time, but they are notably vigilant in their approach, conscientiously ticking off their smaller goals and systematically celebrating all the milestones along the way. They are wary of focusing too much on the Olympics.
“We are definitely determined to enjoy the journey rather than put a result on what we’re doing. We don’t want to be defined by one race, we want the whole journey to be really cool,” Prendergast explains.
Gowler emphasises that they are focused on the process. “While we do think ahead, we are very much just focused on the world championships this year. I think we’re tracking well and we can see the next improvements we need to make. It’s pretty exciting to be at this stage and still feel like we’ve got so far to go.”