“Rowing is 90% technique, 10% physical.” It’s a common saying among rowers that the sport is 90 per cent technical, and 10 per cent physical. That may be overstating the case somewhat, but it does play to a long-standing notion in the sport that technique is paramount. It’s the reason so many rowers spend hours in a boat on a lake or in a gym maturing their stroke. It’s why almost every country in the world has performance centers, specifically designed to help rowers develop and maintain their technique. And it’s why so many rowers carefully study video footage of their performances, wiping the sweat from their brows as they stare longingly into the middle distance, searching for an elusive three-second improvement that may come with a twitch of the oar handle.
It’s a critical message, too, because if you’re rowing well then you’re rowing fast, right? Well, yes and no. While it’s true that a good technique is the foundation of any fast rowing, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Fast rowers work just as hard at refining their physical fitness, and it’s this element of their preparation that may be the real difference maker.
It’s why the New Zealand men’s eight enjoyed one of the best starts to a rowing season in recent memory with a win in the second World Cup regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland July. Their time of 5min 14.97sec was almost a second quicker than second-placed Great Britain, and it was just 0.6sec off the world record. A month later, and the Kiwis were back in top form, this time as one of the top two teams in the world, winning the final World Cup regatta in Poznan, Poland. They finished 0.5sec ahead of Great Britain.
It was an outstanding effort, especially given their relatively low-key pre-season, when the squad spent just four weeks together in training. It sent a clear message to their rivals – the New Zealand men’s eight are fast, and they’re getting fitter, too.
This year’s World Championships, held in Sarasota, Florida, are likely to produce similarly close results. New Zealand has won gold at two of the last three world titles, and while they finished runner-up to Great Britain last year, they beat the Brits convincingly in the two pre-Championship regattas.
“We’re not happy just being the best eight in the world, we want to be the best eight in history.” Their training leading into the Championships has been good, too, says cox Caleb Shepherd, who is the only member of the crew that remains from the world champion crew of 2011.
“We had a long lead-up into the World Cups and really got to work on the fundamentals of our game,” says. “But as soon as the World Cups were over we went straight back to work on how we could get faster. We spent three weeks in North Carolina in July and then had three weeks back in NZ before heading over to the States, so we’ve had a really good preparation.”
But the crew is well aware that other crews are getting faster, too, and Shepherd says the intensity of the training is ratcheted up with each passing week. “We’re not happy just being the best eight in the world, we want to be the best eight in history,” he says.
“Our coach, Dave Thompson, has that mentality and that’s what we want. We’re not looking to be the best eight in the World this year, we want to be the best eight that has ever rowed.”
The Kiwis have a legitimate chance to claim that title. It’s been eight years since the last World Championship title for a New Zealand men’s crew, and it was the coxed four that claimed gold. The men’s eight last triumphed in 2001, and they’re aiming to return to the top of the podium for the first time since then.
“It really is a whole new ball game,” Shepherd says. “It’s a new crew, a new system and a different coach, but we’re still aiming to go better than ever before.”
The coach, Dave Thompson, hails from Barwon Rowing Club in Geelong Victoria. He’s a four-time Olympian, and has been a senior coach at the Australian Institute of Sport since 2002. The Kiwis are fortunate to have his expertise at their disposal. He’s helped them to connect the dots between fitness and technique by developing a training method that pays homage to the power of the mind.
One session – called ‘The Chase’ – serves to illustrate the point. The crew gathers in a gym, and Thompson leads his group through some basic warm-up exercises, like jogging on the spot and some skipping. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, all conducted in a quiet voice, but then Thompson gets things going with a sudden burst of intensity. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” he shouts, and the crew is on its feet, racing to the first two exercise stations.
The first is a medicine ball throw, where the rowers throw a 3kg ball against a brick wall. Each throw is timed and recorded, and then the crew moves on to the next station. They pick up a medicine ball and begin a series of ‘get-ups’ – a demanding exercise that involves swinging the ball above their heads close to the ground, before dropping to the ground and lifting the ball over their heads from a prone position. Once they’ve done 15, the crew goes back to the wall for another medicine ball throw, before jogging over to the final exercise station. It’s here that the purpose of the drill becomes apparent. The rower will stand on one leg and hit a target, which is shaped like a boat, with a medicine ball. Every time the rower hits the bullseye, two points are awarded. An accuracy of 75 per cent is required to achieve a score of 50.
“We want to be the best eight that has ever rowed.”
It’s a tough drill, and the rowers are fatiguing as they do sprints on a set of water rowers. The crew is working at almost 90 per cent of its maximum heart rate, and the rowers are breathing heavily, but they carry on, and they don’t stop until they’ve achieved their score.
Their heart rates drop down as the session winds down, and Thompson takes the opportunity to explain the importance of his rigorous training sessions. He tells the rowers that they must be able to focus their mind at critical times during a race, even when they’re fatigued.
“We want to be able to get ourselves through the pain,” he says. “We can’t expect to get to the line and be fresh and smiling if we’ve been working hard. We’ve got to be able to pull ourselves through that pain and concentrate on what we’re doing. It’s about the difference between winning and losing.”
Thompson knows the difference between the aforementioned conditions, because he’s experienced each of them. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he was stroke in the Australian men’s eight that claimed gold. Then, two years later at the World Championships in Gifu, Japan, he was in the crew that finished second. Both crews won world titles at the preceding World Cup regattas, but in Japan, the Australians could only manage a silver.
The Brits were in that race, and proved to be the better crew on the day. Thompson admits that the loss hurt, but he’s determined that the same result won’t occur when the two crews clash at the World Championships in Florida.
“I still remember that day,” he says. “I’ll never forget being on the podium and seeing the Brits standing there. I was so angry and upset, and I thought about it for a long time afterwards. I think we were close, we were so close, but we couldn’t quite get there. I’ve always wanted another chance to get it right, and now I have it.”
The Kiwi coach says it’s been a joy to work with the crew, and he’s been impressed by their response to his training sessions. In particular, he’s been pleased by their attitude to everything that they do.
“Just watching the guys respond to day-to-day challenges is a real pleasure,” he says. “They really want to be the best, and that’s a great thing to see. It’s very easy to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going well, but when you’re going well, it’s so much rewarding.
“I had a good race a couple of weeks ago against the Canadian opposition, and it really is a feeling of satisfaction when you win a race like that. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the winning boat, and even though the race is only 1,000 meters.