Olympics

Lightweight duo hunt endangered Olympic gold

BREAKING UPDATE:  Lightweight double scullers Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle have won gold at the world rowing championships in Austria, blitzing the field in the final and banishing the nightmare of last year’s world champs, where they finished sixth. 

They took the lead early in the race, and beat their closest rivals from the Netherlands by over four seconds.  Having qualified New Zealand for a spot at the 2020 Olympics, they will be the duo to beat in Tokyo. 

Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler have also collected another world champions' title in a thrilling final of the women's pair, to go with the gold they won in 2017, and silver last year.  

Read more about McBride and Kiddle here: 

Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle are Kiwi world champions, among the best of their sport.

They’ve been the dominant combination in their lightweight double scull in the lead-up to this year’s edition of the sport’s premier event, the world championships, which began in Linz, Austria, last Sunday.

McBride and Kiddle, from Nelson and Wellington respectively when they’re not at Rowing New Zealand’s headquarters in Cambridge, have become very familiar with the top of the podium this year.

Most recently, they won both World Cup regattas in Poland and the Netherlands - the latter by a whopping seven seconds.

With Kiddle in the stroke seat and McBride in the bow, they cleared their throats for this year’s tilt at world glory with a romp to victory in their heat on Sunday night. The New Zealanders had dialled back 500m from the finish line, such was their lead.

Harder challenges lie ahead, though, starting with Wednesday night’s quarterfinals. Four of the five heat winners were covered by just four seconds.

McBride and Kiddle's determination to win what doubles as the Olympic qualifying event for Tokyo next year, will be also be driven by a desire to put right last year’s glitch, where they finished last in their final.

It should also be boosted by the knowledge that the lightweight division could be preparing for its final foray at an Olympic Games.

“It’s a bit sad,” McBride said of the lightweights’ future. “There’s a lot of talent and depth in the lightweight field internationally.”

And it’s provided some of the closest racing she’s ever seen.

Nothing is locked in, but drums are beating that this could be the end of the road for the lightweights, as the International Olympic Committee and rowing’s world governing body Fisa grapple with issues not specifically related to rowing.

Not only is there the desire for gender equality in the numbers in each sport, but also a reduction in the overall number of athletes competing.

The first issue has been met with the dumping of the men’s lightweight four, and the introduction of the women’s four from the previous Olympic programme.

As for the second element, the 10,616 athletes heading for Tokyo will have to be trimmed to 10,500 for Paris in 2024. Now add in three new sports, surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding, which have to be factored into the numbers.

Rowing is also facing calls to shorten the course length from 2000m – the reasons put forward for their inclusion are being viewing figures and shorter attention spans.

Throw in moves to introduce mixed gender rowing events and it’s a rapidly-changing world for a sport which has been on the Olympic programme since 1900.

Believe it or not, women were only allowed to join the Olympic rowing programme in 1976; lightweight rowing made its debut 20 years later.

Zoe McBride (left) and Jackie Kiddle want to taste Olympic glory before the lightweight boats are scrubbed from the programme. Photo: Rowing NZ.

The double scull for men and women will be the only lightweight classes on the water in Tokyo.

"Since the introduction of lightweights into the Olympics in 1996, rowing has expanded massively around the world, primarily due to the sense that the playing field has been levelled for smaller body types and that they had a more equal chance in this sport,” Fisa president Jean-Christophe Rolland has said.

McBride acknowledges that the clock may be ticking for the lightweights. But for now, their focus remains strong.

“We’re not thinking about it. We’ve got our current goals we’re thinking about. It’s one of those things that, if it does come up, it’ll be one of those bridges we’ll cross,” she says.

Whether they would opt to bulk up and look to row in the open class remains to be seen. Plenty of other lightweights have done so successfully. But, if the move is made, it would be a removal of a plank which has rowing as a sport which can cater for all sizes.

That’s for later. For the moment it’s all about this Saturday night and the lightweight final. The top seven crews, that is the six A finalists and winners of the B final, gain automatic places in the field for Tokyo – for their country to enter a crew, that is, but not the rowers in Linz specifically.

McBride and Kiddle – neither of who have rowed at an Olympics - arrived in Linz in a good frame of mind, have had a good look at their opposition and have been able to build a base of knowledge of what to expect.

In women’s lightweight rowing, the combined weight of the pair must be no more than 114kg, with 59kg the individual limit. So how do they manage to keep within the restriction?

Let’s say there’s no room for a chocolate binge.

“I guess over the years you learn a bit more and figure out what works for you best,” McBride said.

“During training blocks there’s only so much you can control so you try not get too caught up in it. You focus on training and recovering well.

“Leading into the World Cups and world champs is when you dial into it a bit better, but it’s about having trust in each other.”

McBride was identified at an early age as a big prospect. She initially rowed at Kavanagh College in Dunedin and the Otago club before moving to Nelson in 2014. That year, she won the world under 23 gold with Sophie MacKenzie, and repeated it the following year with Kiddle.

In 2016, McBride won the open lightweight single gold, a non-Olympic event having missed out on selection for Rio that year (although she was there as a reserve when Julia Edward and MacKenzie finished fourth in the lightweight double).

That singles success was a win McBride cherished, as it showed what she might be capable of on her own.

There was a silver medal with Kiddle in the 2017 worlds in Florida, before the one black spot in their partnership: the pair finished last in their final at the worlds in Plovdiv, Bulgaria last year. They’d won the World Cup regatta immediately prior to the worlds.

McBride admits it was a regatta that simply went wrong.

“I don’t think we were switched on when we needed to be. It’s such a competitive event, so many crews on the day were capable of doing close to world record performances. Unfortunately we weren’t that crew on the day,” she says.

“We’d  had a bit of adversity leading into it. I had been injured the week before, we had quite a lot on our plate and we just didn’t race to the capability we could have.”

That said, there were good lessons out of the experience.

Having cruised through their heat at the world champs in Linz, Kiddle and McBride are ready for competition to hot up. Photo: Rowing NZ. 

“We had to knuckle down and look at what we wanted to get out of the boat, where to put our energy and time, and come back a better crew.

“It’s those years leading into [a world champs] when you want to take most learnings so when it does matter you know how to get it right. We know more now on what we need to do.”

McBride, at 24 a year younger than her crew mate,  is a strong advocate – “100 percent” – that athletes learn far more out of adversity and defeat than victory.

“It’s about learning how to get back up and not repeat those mistakes. For me, I’ve prioritised enjoying it this year,” she says.

“Last year it got a little too complicated and we got a bit too worked up over some little things. This year it’s about letting it happen and enjoying it.

“We get to travel the world for our sport, so we enjoy those moments for all the tough times. I think that’s made a huge difference as well.”

Off the water, they have focus, too. McBride has almost completed a business degree from Massey University and wants to work in psychology, which she admits is a big passion for her. Kiddle last year graduated with a bachelor of science in animal behaviour and is now doing her Masters at the University of Waikato. She’s also worked at Riding for the Disabled in Cambridge.

Just making Saturday night’s A-final will lock in a place for New Zealand in the lightweight double scull in Tokyo next year. However that’s unlikely to satisfy these two women, who are determined to fully put right their aberration of a year ago.

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