The focus on smaller boats brought New Zealand rowers unprecedented success. In the five Olympics from 2000 to 2016 they won eight gold medals, one silver and four bronze, more than doubling the country’s total at all Olympics to 24. At London in 2012, rowers won five medals, including three gold. Of 99 world championship medals (46 gold) won by New Zealanders to 2017, 10 were gained at Karāpiro in 2010 and nine each at Bled (2011), Amsterdam (2014) and Lac d'Aiguebelette (2015). Women had won 43 world championship medals, 19 of them gold.
In 2009 eight Kiwi crews were ranked in the world’s top eight in Olympic events, and overall New Zealand rowing ranked second in the world, behind Germany. Their recent successes owed much to the high-performance training introduced in 2005.
Philippa Baker and Brenda Lawson
Philippa Baker won the world lightweight single sculls at Vienna in 1991. She and Brenda Lawson were world double sculls champions in 1993 and 1994. The duo came fourth at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and reached the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, USA.
21-year-old Rob Waddell burst onto the world stage by finishing seventh in the single sculls at the 1996 Olympics. After winning world titles in 1998 and 1999, he triumphed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Waddell sailed in the 2003 and 2007 America’s Cup campaigns before losing an epic series of single sculls match races against Mahé Drysdale in early 2008. With Nathan Cohen, he finished fourth in the double sculls at the 2008 Beijing Olympics before having an operation for a heart defect that had dogged him throughout his career.
A break from the dishes
Caroline Evers-Swindell recalled: ‘Every year [coach] Richard [Tonks] gave us a month off and in that time our hands would become soft and smooth again. As soon as we were back in training, our hands would be shredded. There’d be an open blister on every joint on every finger, and across the palms too … We[‘d] have to row through the blisters. The first two or three weeks were the worst, but we’d get out of doing the dishes.’1
Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell achieved two second placings in the 2001 world championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, in the quadruple and double sculls. Once they specialised in the latter event they were unstoppable, winning world titles in 2002 and 2003 and Olympic gold in Athens in 2004. A third world title in 2005 was followed by bronze in 2006 and silver in 2007. At the Beijing Olympics they surged from well back in the field to win a second Olympic gold by the smallest possible margin, .01 seconds.
Hamish Bond and Eric Murray
Hamish Bond and Eric Murray were half of a world champion coxless four in 2007. They combined to win three successive world coxless pairs titles from 2009 before dominating their Olympic opponents in London in 2012 in world-best time. They won the 2012 Halberg supreme award for their achievement. They successfully defended their Olympic title at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Duel of champions
In 2007 Rob Waddell, after time out crewing on America’s Cup yachts, decided to trial for the Beijing Olympics in the single sculls. New Zealand was allowed only one spot, so in March 2008 a trial over three races was held on Lake Karāpiro between Mahé Drysdale and Waddell. The duel attracted huge international interest. Drysdale won the first race, Waddell the second, and the decider was shaping as a classic duel before Waddell was affected by heart fibrillations, leaving the race and the spot to Drysdale.
Inspired by Rob Waddell, Mahé Drysdale took up rowing and was part of the coxless four at the Athens Olympics. Switching to single sculls, he won successive world championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and arrived at the Beijing Olympics as favourite. However, a debilitating viral infection sapped him of strength, and sheer courage gained him a bronze. Further world championship victories in 2009 and 2011 tuned him for the London Olympics, where he finally won the gold. He successfully defended his Olympic title at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan
The third gold medallists at London were Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan in the double sculls. Like Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown in the women’s pair, they had won world championships in 2010 and 2011, and Cohen had come fourth with Waddell at Beijing. At London Cohen and Sullivan mowed down their rivals in the last 500 metres. Haigh and Scown won bronze.
The dreaded erg
New Zealand rowers have learnt to fear the ergometer (‘erg’). A rowing machine invented by University of Sydney physiology lecturer Frank Cotton in the 1940s, it was introduced to New Zealand in the early 1960s. Eventually it became standard club equipment. Six minutes of torture on the erg was often used to choose crews for the next meeting.
New Zealand’s success owed much to Richard (Dick) Tonks, the head coach from 2001 to 2013. Growing up in Whanganui in a rowing family, he won Olympic silver in the coxless fours under Rusty Robertson. Tonks, who was Halberg coach of the year four times, worked closely with sports exercise physiologist Brett Smith.