‘Failure, self-doubt and learning’: The inside story of the New Zealand eight’s Tokyo gold

Crew mates needed three attempts to convince Shaun Kirkham he had just won an Olympic gold medal, after the New Zealand eight crossed the finish line in Tokyo.

The veteran rower was so used to things going wrong that he couldn’t take it in.

“It felt like the best moment of my life – I was so scared somehow that it was going to be taken away from me,” he says.

“There’s a funny photo of me just staring into the abyss across the finish line. I had immediately got imposter syndrome – I thought it couldn’t possibly be real.

“I’ve been in the eight since we started this project as an under-23 crew in 2013. There had been so many times when it had failed.”

Indeed, from 2015 to 2019, Kirkham and his eight mates never tasted victory.

The 29-year-old describes the journey to the top of the Olympic podium as a story of “failure, resilience, self-doubt and learning”.

So here is that story, as described by Kirkham, and his most famous teammate, the great Kiwi rower Hamish Bond, who had ruled the rowing world for an age alongside Eric Murray before joining the eight.

New Zealand’s defeat to the Netherlands in the Olympic heats laid a false trail for sports pundits, who found it easy to keep writing the Kiwi eight off.

Behind the scenes, it was a very different story, one of a crew which had found its mojo at precisely the right time.

Yes, they had to qualify for Japan the hard way, via the Last Chance regatta in Lucerne just six weeks before the Olympics.

But while in Switzerland, they had made some serious progress, in terms of belief in a different rowing rhythm, allied to a radical philosophy which downplayed the importance of chasing Olympic gold.

A major turning point for the eight came in early 2019, when the redoubtable Bond quit his cycling stint, which had scored a Commonwealth Games bronze medal, to join the crew.

Along the way in the eight, the great oarsman would find he not only had to backtrack on his own rowing beliefs, but kind of re-tune a men’s rowing programme which he considered had gone soft.

Bond says: “I always thought on paper that man for man, we had the best crew, in terms of power to weight, and small boat moving ability.

“Hands down, we had the best four pairs of any eight I know. But we had to learn how to transfer that into an eight, which was a long-term process.

“When I came into the boat I thought I knew a way to row which worked…that I’d try to get them to row how I did with Eric, and good things will happen.

“It just didn’t work as I anticipated. I couldn’t work out whether my philosophies didn’t work in an eight boat, or whether I couldn’t get these particular guys to do it. It was an impossible question to answer.”

Bond and Murray, the double Olympic gold medal pair, had based their approach on not slowing their boat down, a “harmonious” technique of picking the boat speed back up before it became harder to do so.

But Bond came to realise that this didn’t work in an eight because it was a faster boat.

“Because the pair was going slower, you could put the blade in and the boat and the weight, the feeling on the end of the handle, would always be there,” he said.

But applied to the eight, this technique nullified acceleration in the first half of the stroke – it was akin to an overpowered race car spinning its wheels with little traction.

Whereas the technique had a compounding effect in a positive way in the pair, it was the exact opposite with the eight.

Kirkham, as the crew veteran, was the one rower who tried to turn Bond’s thinking around at times.

Bond says: “Shaun didn’t bleat, but he tried to get us to be more aggressive, more rip and bust, because he had felt the success of that in his long tenure, when the eight had gone well.

“I didn’t overrule him, but it was difficult for me to reconcile that approach.

“I won’t say I held things back, but it took me a while, because it was so removed from what I knew was successful.”

Essentially, the eight dropped their stroke rate, from 40 to 38 per minute, and heaved harder. It was a method they reinforced after an average start in Lucerne.

“It was more or less just smack the heck out of it, dial up the aggression factor and just rip it,” Bond says, adding there was an exhilarating aspect to the change.

“That’s the whole attraction of being in the eight – it’s unlike anything else in the sport. You can feel the power – it’s the pinnacle.”

Kirkham says: “We called it the big boy rhythm – actually, we called it a lot of things, stuff you couldn’t include in a news article.

“It meant bringing the ratings down a couple of beats, placing the blade with a bit more purpose and really swinging on the thing.”

There were a number of crew changes in the years leading up to Tokyo. The great Mahe Drysdale came and went, veteran James Lassche retired, Stephen Jones and Brook Robertson moved out to the pair.

The world silver medal pair of Tom Murray and Michael Brake stepped in, along with Dan Williamson, who returned from Yale University because of the pandemic, and Tom Mackintosh. They joined Bond, Kirkham, Phillip Wilson, Matt Macdonald and cox Sam Bosworth, the survivors of the failed 2019 world championship mission.

The way Kirkham tells it, these changes were not major disruptions, and the arrival of Murray and Brake was a huge signal from rowing bosses that the eight was the priority.

But there were plenty of other hurdles, from injuries, the 2020 Olympic cancellation disappointment and training in lockdown and isolation.

The initial 2020 national lockdown forced the rowers off the water.

“We had different set ups in our garages with rowing machines and rudimentary weights,” says Kirkham, who has a house in Leamington, near Lake Karapiro.

“My garage was pretty grim, pretty dark, and leaking. I had to knuckle down and do as much as I could mentally handle in there.

“To be training there for a month – looking back, it seems pretty crazy.”

After returning from Lucerne on the eve of the Olympics, they had two weeks of managed isolation in Christchurch. This meant a return to improvised gym work and extreme rowing machine efforts on the MIQ hotel balconies.

Crew members desperate for cohesion couldn’t even see each other from those balconies, although they could hear the loud whir of the machines. Kirkham clocked up 380km in 13 days.

“It was mind numbingly boring, very hard, long and difficult kilometres, but we couldn’t let the foot off the throttle at that point,” he says.

It had already been a tough year for Kirkham, who missed ten weeks in the boat because of bulging discs in his back.

We’ll back track a bit here. When the rowers emerged from the early 2020 pandemic lockdown, Hamish Bond was far from impressed.

Bond had recorded a two-second personal best on a two kilometre rowing test, the only crew member to do so among the wider group which at this point did not include Tom Murray and Michael Brake.

“Come on, I’m 34, I can attack this and try and get something out of the lockdown,” he recalls thinking.

“I don’t know if I was mad, disappointed – but that’s where I felt we needed to change things.

“I remember the meeting we had…I could see the talent, but there was unreliability. People would step up occasionally. That was my biggest disappointment.

“Being five seconds short of your PB is not okay at an age when you should be better every year.

“You can’t just turn up at the Olympics and throw down a Hail Mary – there has to be something behind it in terms of belief in your own ability, the crew’s ability, that you can fire on the right day.”

Bond believed while the women’s programme had stayed strong, the men had become too numbers orientated, of staying within boundaries like heart rate zones.

During his development, he had been surrounded by Rob Waddell, Mahe Drysdale, George Bridgewater, Eric Murray – people who were prepared to pick each other off.

“The hard-nosed attitude had seeped away from the men’s programme,” he says.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘to hell with the programme – I’m on a good day and I’m going to show everyone how good I am.’

“I think that had been lost.”

A long Bond text implored individual team mates to grasp change which could “set us up for something big in Tokyo or at worst set you guys up as the next standard bearers for NZ rowing”.

The text continued: “I know I’m not good at everything but also know I’m good at a lot of the things that really make a boat go fast on race day.

“Too often I feel guys are too timid or lack the will power to say, what if, and go after the performance or session that will become a new personal norm or benchmark.

“I see my role as trying to turn you guys into the next generational talent…”

Bond nominates Mackintosh as the first to take the bull by the norms.

Bond was sidelined after the lockdown by yet another rib fracture, but he was delighted to see Mackintosh – who had no sculling experience – “lighting it up”.

“He was beating all the scullers – he had taken it upon himself, to be the best,” says Bond.

“Tom seemed to grasp it straight away – and the others followed that. It fed into the other guys in the crew.”

In January, Macdonald, in his early 20s, equalled the legendary Bond in a two-kilometre rowing machine test, chopping five seconds off his personal best.

“Everyone had those moments – threw out the programme, threw out the text book and decided to throw down,” Bond says.

It was paying clear dividends close to the departure for Tokyo.

A significant part of the training involved the eight being split into set pairs, a fairly daunting business considering Bond – who partnered Tom Murray in these exercises – was involved.

On this particular day, Kirkham and Wilson – probably the last two rowers to make the selection cut – initially roared away from Bond and Murray, a statement about their credentials.

Around this time, the eight had its finest training day in the big boat, beating one of their regular benchmarks, the women’s eight, in five of six capped-rate handicap races.

So what went wrong in the opening Tokyo heat, where a second placing forced the Kiwis into the repechage?

There is a difficulty using a slower stroke rate – it is counterintuitive to row slower to go faster, particularly when the pressure goes on in a massive event.

Bond feels that the inexperience of cox Bosworth and stroke Macdonald may have played a part.

Both Kirkham and Bond say it can be difficult to slow a stroke rate down across the eight.

Bond says: “For the stroke, it’s like riding a bucking horse. He’s like a rag doll who can’t go against the rhythm of the whole crew. Same with the cox. If you don’t all calm down together, you get out of sync.”

But the heat defeat did enable the crew to re-commit to the slower stroke rate approach after the race, and clearly understand what had gone wrong.

It wasn’t just the physical training which kicked in.

Sean Colgan, a former American Olympic rower and businessman who lives in New Zealand, is the major backer of the eight.

Now and then, he would join a team barbecue, bringing up “half a deer” as Bond puts it from his Hawke’s Bay farm.

Colgan helped instil an ethos of “wanting to win, but not needing to win”.

Bond says: “We had spoken about how winning is obviously fulfilling and makes you feel it was a career more wisely spent, but it won’t fundamentally change who you are, that the same people who loved you before the race will love you after it.

“If you need to win, it adds a different layer and level of pressure on yourself, which can feed into your technique.

“We were in a place where we could say we are going to do it this way, we think it will work, but because we don’t need to win, we were able to dial back the level of frenetic-ness which can creep into an Olympic final.”

Before the repechage, with their belief in the slower-rate approach emboldened, they ripped into training.

“We got really vicious with driving the boat through the water after that heat – we got a lot of confidence, to have faith in that aggressive rhythm,” says Kirkham.

History beckoned, as they won the repechage over the well rated Brits.

As Bond recalls it, Bosworth calmed the crew down twice during the first 500metres of the final, and they responded in unison, setting up a thrilling win of nearly a second over Germany.

Among the post-final texts Bond received were those from the Canadian gold medal eight in Beijing. The way the Kiwis rowed reminded the Canadians of how they had done it 13 years ago. The public may have been none the wiser, but those in the know understood what this particular magic was all about.

Kirkham’s description of the final sums up what the Olympics can mean, in terms of dreams fulfilled.

“We believed if we rowed to this rhythm, which felt incredible in training, it would take a very fast crew to beat us,” says the stalwart.

“And if somebody could beat us, then hats off to them. That was the mindset.

“The boat was running so well that it almost didn’t feel hard, even though I knew I was on the red line.

“Halfway through the final I could feel we had real momentum on the field. In my peripheral vision I could see we were moving through crews that I really admired growing up when I was learning how to row, the German and British eights.

“Being able to move through them like we did was quite amazing – I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life.”

Source: Read Full Article