Back in the hot seat, Twigg’s never rowed better

Closing in on her fourth shot at an elusive Olympic medal, rower Emma Twigg says she's stronger than ever - even after an accident tested her fortitude. 

Seventeen years and four Olympic campaigns into her elite rowing career, Emma Twigg says she’s never felt so good.

Physically she's in peak condition. Eighteen months after coming out of retirement, she’s rowed her way back to the top of the sport, and is almost a sure thing to line up in her single scull on the start-line of the Tokyo Olympics - chasing the elusive medal she’s been brutally denied in her previous attempts.

A few weeks ago, Twigg recorded the fastest 2km erg score in Rowing New Zealand testing since double Olympic gold medallists the Evers-Swindell twins, during their heyday in the 2000s.

When 32-year-old Twigg returned to rowing, her personal best time on the erg was six minutes 34 seconds; she’s since shaved off five seconds and believes she can go faster.

And mentally she’s stronger too.

On the morning of the North Island rowing club championship regatta last month, Twigg’s fortitude was truly put to the test. She woke to a phone call, breaking the news that her coach, Mike Rodger, had been in a serious car accident.

“Mike’s accident definitely wasn’t on my ‘what if’ list heading into the regatta. It was a hugely emotional weekend for me,” Twigg admits.

“He's been a massive part of me getting to where I am, and in my opinion, he’s turned me into a world-class sculler.”

Rodger is slowly rehabilitating from his injuries, but he’s stayed in daily contact with Twigg as they continue to find ways to increase her boat speed towards Tokyo.

Emma Twigg with her rowing coach Mike Rodger. Photo: Rowing NZ.

A former New Zealand rower, Rodgers won silver at the 1994 world championships in the lightweight men’s double sculls with Rob Hamill. He also rowed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the same boat.

The coach-athlete relationship is a special one, says Twigg, seeing each other every day and sharing the same goal. And despite the emotional upheaval, Twigg managed to retain her North Island title.

The road to her fourth Olympics became clearer when she was recently selected as the women’s single sculler in the elite New Zealand rowing squad - requiring no trial following the national championships.

“It’s a huge relief to have the single scull boat secured. It means we can just focus on the job to prepare for Tokyo,” says Twigg.

“When I think back to this point leading into Rio, I still didn’t have the boat qualified, so a lot of my focus was on performing at the ‘last chance’ regatta.”

After a devastating fourth at both the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games, Twigg retired from the sport and moved to Switzerland to work at the International Olympic Committee.

The desk life, says Twigg, was totally overrated compared to the privilege of being an elite athlete - being able to do what you love on a daily basis and testing your physical limits.

After being immersed in the Olympic Games environment again, working at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Twigg decided to make a comeback for Tokyo - feeling she hadn’t fulfilled her potential at an Olympic Games.

To assist with her return to rowing, Twigg assembled what she describes as her ‘team of experts’ - including Rodger, physiologist Caroline McManus, strength and conditioning coach Angus Ross, sports psychologist John Quinn and biomechanist/analyst Justin Evans. Twigg says her team has helped her improve physically and sharpened her mental armoury.

“I feel they’re going to make the difference leading into the games, particularly in that eight-week period we’re home in winter,” she says.

The elite Rowing NZ team will head to Europe for a five-week block of racing in May - competing at two World Cups in Varese, Italy, and Lucerne, Switzerland - before completing their preparations at their headquarters at Lake Karapiro.

Twigg says being at home surrounded by her support team - which includes her wife, Charlotte, who she married in Hawkes Bay in January - is a massive advantage despite being in the midst of a New Zealand winter.

“Normally we’d be in Europe which is going to be warm, but it’s not going to be like the Tokyo conditions – 40 degrees Celcius and 70 percent humidity,” she says.

Heat chambers will be used to mimic the conditions in Tokyo - predicted to be one of the hottest Olympic Games in history.

Right now, though, Twigg admits she needs to keep grinding away, with the renowned Rowing NZ workload and her own strength work.

She says the depth of the women's squad has really progressed in the past four years which has made her daily training environment highly competitive.

“I can go out in a double with four or five other doubles next door to us, and be pacing really hard - it’s awesome,” she says.

“The success of the women's squad means if you’re getting a seat in a boat, you’ve essentially got a shot at an Olympic medal.”

Following her silver medal at last year’s world championships in Austria (hauled in by Ireland's Sanita Puspure), Twigg feels she's moved on technically and physiologically in the last year, increasing her strength levels with her off-the-water physical preparation.

So does she have Puspure locked in her sights?

“It’s not just about saying I want to beat Sanita. She was outstanding last year but I think there are another two or three girls who if they’re on their game, it’s all on,” she says.

There was a real pressure on Twigg at the Rio Olympics to beat Australian rival Kim Brennan. Now she says: “They actually need to beat me”.

Twigg is not content to hang up the oars post-Tokyo. If the passion for rowing is still there, she’s interested in doing another year, at least.

“Now it’s become more and more about seeing what my body can do,” she says. “It amazes me at 32, I’m still pushing the boat out.”

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