Women’s eight to the fore in NZ rowing revival

Having first dipped their oars into Olympic waters three years ago, the Kiwi women's eight are determined to make the podium at rowing's blue riband event in Tokyo 2020. David Leggat looks at their chances. 

The eight has a special place in New Zealand rowing affections.

Back in 1971, a remarkable group of oarsmen won the European championships – then effectively the world championships - toppling the mighty East Germans, and their state-sponsored doping programme.

They repeated the treatment in Munich in 1972 in one of New Zealand’s most famous Olympic golden days.

It was notable not only for the win, but also for what followed.

For the first time, the strains of God Defend New Zealand rang out to celebrate Olympic rowing glory. Tears ran down the cheeks of the large, brawny men on top of the dais.

“We were bawling like babies,” hard-headed crewman Wybo Veldman recalled. “Totally unexpected. Awesome.”

When Rowing NZ got serious about reviving the eights, they were told there would be no extra government funding for the crews. But, fortunately, a group of backers came forward and got the campaign underway in 2015.

It was a five-year plan aimed at getting both a men’s and a women’s eight to next year’s Tokyo Olympics. Progress was more rapid than had been anticipated.

Both crews qualified for Rio. The women, on their Olympic debut, turned in a stunning effort to finish fourth, just 1.3s off a bronze medal. The men were sixth in their final.

And the women’s eight continue to grow in strength as they close in on Tokyo.

Later this month, the world championships will be held in Linz, Austria, with the added pressure of it being the qualifying regatta for the Tokyo Games.

So what’s the best preparation you could give yourselves? How about winning the world class regatta immediately preceding the worlds.

The women’s eight romped to a four-second victory in the third and final World Cup regatta in Rotterdam on July 14.

Of their closest rivals, only the United States were missing. That’ll do nicely for a solid jolt of confidence.

The NZ women's eight on their way to victory at the third World Cup regatta in Rotterdam last month. Photo: Rowing NZ.

The eight in Rotterdam included Rio veterans Grace Prendergast, Kerri Gowler, Kelsey Bevan and Emma Dyke; the cox was Caleb Shepherd; and the other four rowers were Lucy Spoors, Ella Greenslade, Beth Ross and Gowler’s younger sister Jackie.

From there, the women embarked on a solid six-week training block in Slovenia. They go to Linz for the worlds, starting on August 25, in good spirits.

There, they – and the men’s eight - must finish in the top five to automatically qualify for Tokyo next year. There is a ‘last chance’ qualifying regatta shortly before the Olympics, in Lucerne next May, from which one spot is available. But forget that for now.

“We want to go in being able to plan [for Tokyo] from October what our Olympic campaign is, rather than not knowing whether we have a crew that’s going to the Olympics or not,” Rowing NZ's general manager of high performance Judith Hamilton says.

“This year is really important and we’ve said that to the athletes. This is their opportunity to qualify their boat for the Olympics.”

You could call this a veiled warning, and Rowing NZ chief executive Simon Peterson reinforces that point.

“We’re not intending sending any crews to the last chance regatta unless there’s extenuating circumstances, such as a major illness in a crew or gear failure on the course - something we couldn’t have foreseen,” Peterson says.

“The chances of qualifying from the last chance regatta are very small, and even if they do, they have to peak again within three months.

“It’s not a threat, just a reality we’ve put across all the crews. They know it, it’s just not a great option.”

The men got back in the Olympic eights game in Rio, having been absent from the blue riband event since 1984. They first appeared in the Games eights back in 1932 in Los Angeles, but the women broke fresh ground in Rio.

In recent years, New Zealand rowing has been all about small boats, and through rowers like Rob Waddell, twins Caroline Meyer and Georgina Earl, Mahe Drysdale, Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, the country had enjoyed an unprecedented run of success at the highest levels.

Earl and Meyer – formerly Evers-Swindell – led the women’s rowing charge, winning two Olympic double sculling golds.

However, there had been a lingering feeling that until Rowing NZ got the eights back in the water, something would be missing.

But it wasn’t easy.

Of the financial backers, Peterson is frank: “We are only able to run the eights because of them, that’s the only way we can afford to run the men’s and women’s campaigns.”

So how expensive is it?

The fat end of $500,000 is needed to fund one boat for a European campaign. Once crews have world rankings and qualify for Performance Enhancement Grants, costs do come down. Still, that’s at least $350,000 per boat.

“That’s a very serious investment, and it’s why we did a five-year investment. It wasn’t just a one-year reaction. We knew we had depth in both programmes,” Peterson says.

The eights have meant more opportunities for young rowers.

“It’s something I’m really proud of, and doesn’t often get discussed,” says Peterson, a former first-class cricketer for Auckland, and Rowing NZ CEO since early 2009.

“We have retained a whole generation of rowers, male and female, by having these big boats. Otherwise we would have lost the same athletes.”

The strength of Keri Gowler (left) and Grace Prendergast poses a bit of a conundrum for NZ Rowing looking ahead to Tokyo 2020. Photo: Juliette Drysdale.

Prendergast and Kerri Gowler are also a formidable coxless pair combination, who have won gold and silver at the last two world champs.

And that means a tough decision is looming. They sat out World Cup 2 in Poland in June, with Ruby Tew and Kirstyn Goodger taking their seats, as New Zealand finished fourth, a second off the podium.

“Very few athletes do more than one event at a world champs or Olympics,” former New Zealand rower and long-time coach Hamilton says.

“We know it’s a tough arena. Then to expect our athletes to do two events, that’s where we are testing ourselves. Is it the right thing to do?”

It will likely mean the pair having to race every day – and twice on one day – where their rivals are likely to be doing one race every two days.

Final deliberations on crew composition are being done over the next couple of weeks.

There have been both good and poor days for the women’s eight in the last couple of seasons.

Last year, for example, they could do no better than the B final at the world champs. It’s a demanding event and no wriggle room to have an off-day when it really matters.

“The ups and downs have been frustrating. But, the minute you qualify, you’re in the top five in the world, so you’re a medal chance,” Peterson pointed out.

And a good result for Peterson for the two boats returned to the fold on his watch?

“Good results five years into a five-year strategy would be both boats on the podium. We don’t send boats we don’t think are going to medal.”

In a sense, the women qualifying, then producing a quality performance in Tokyo would be a fitting reward for the sport’s bosses for taking a big, and pricey, step to get the eight up and running. The men had been there before; the women were into fresh territory.

When the women qualified for Rio they were coached by David Thompson, now head of the Canadian women’s programme.

He had a simple philosophy of what worked in an eight. “Culture and character in an eight is two-thirds of the battle. If you haven’t got them working together it just doesn’t fire,” he said.

And the final word from Kelsey Bevan, now in the No 4 seat, providing the grunt in the middle of the boat.

She’s occupied several different seats in her time in the elite crew and she’s relaxed, with only one rider:  “To be honest I just really want to be in the seat that’s going to make the boat go fastest.”

Stumbling at last year’s worlds was a bad break for the women, but there was a silver lining in a sense.

“We dropped the ball, but went back to summer squad [late last year] and it was a really good learning for us,” Bevan says. “You learn more from failures than success. It’s hard to handle at the time, but it’s definitely true.”

Her key for the team in the days leading up to the world championships?

“Work on trusting each other. Trust in the process to put in the fastest race we can do,” she says.

“As soon as you try to race other crews, or look out of the boat and get distracted, then we’re not rowing as well as we can.

“We seem to be improving with each regatta, so we want the world champs to be the best race we have this year.”

Rowing is a sport where there’s no hiding. If a crew hasn’t done the work it shows on the water.

The key date is September 1 - 3.02pm to be precise, the final race of the world champs. The clock is ticking.

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