The landscape of international rowing at the elite end is changing. The reason for making this point is that many of the countries we compete against are continuing to challenge the normal assumptions that influence our sport and the performances of their athletes and crews. Various teams have gained or increased their access to funding streams that are enabling them to better prepare, support and challenge their athletes. The 2006 World Championships showed us the battle lines are being drawn and involve pushing the limits of what is physically possible for athletes and crews to achieve in training and racing.
One of the shifts for many countries has been to continue down centralising and squad based training systems. This needs to be understood particularly from a club’s perspective. I want to take this opportunity to share my World Championship experience and to inform our members about the influences that will directly impact on the nature of our club.
The gains in performance are being made, but many systems promote an increased quantity approach that in the main is a short-term gain that often is unsustainable through to the Olympic Games. Now this year has seen a number of World Best times. It is often assumed that the gains required for each new Olympics cycle is between 2 – 4 seconds on the fastest times rowed. This year in Eton reminded me a great deal of what it was like in Seville, Spain in 2002, when many new Worlds Best time were set. The point I make is that I think these gains indicate that many countries review and make changes to their program after the Olympics and the initial gains and increases that come with the shift in focus are reached within 2 years. Obviously this could indicate a performance peak for countries aiming to make big gains early. Risks are taken in the period and much success and improvement is exciting.
The concern from a club perspective is the pull for athletes to reduce their involvements in clubs and to position themselves in a national centre. Many of the countries we compete against have adopted this approach to training. In Australia we have managed to hold off on this, but the current pressure is building. Already the women’s program has gone along way down this path. Understand this is not a criticism of this approach, but rather I want to flag a concern from an athlete and club perspective.
In 2002 James and I were involved in an amazing race, in which we came fourth. It was fast and furious, and the Worlds Best time was improved by 4 sec. This year although the pair field didn’t compete at that level, what was noticeable was some of the other events that made gains. Two that come to mind are the men’s double scull and single scull, both class fields that saw hotly contested races and new levels being challenged.
The men’s pair field had a changing of the guard with many of the best crews from before 2004 not being able to maintain their standing at the front of the field. New Zealand have continued to show a great tenacity with a style of rowing that involves high rating and no visible signs of backing off. The amount of energy output appears to be relentless. We only hear stories, but it sounds like the amount of training involved in their preparation is very high. They race with an intensity at which I marvel, and even question how will they keep it up over the next two years.
For Duncan and I in the pair we believed that the Kiwis would be the crew to beat. They went in as the World Champions and I remember well their effort in Athens where they placed fourth. Our mind set was directed towards having a perfect row and to not wait to see and react to how the Kiwis or any other crew would race the final, particularly when we almost fell in during the semi final. Yes my fault with that one, seems that with the wing rigger you can get your handle stuck under the cross arm. Admittedly the water was sensationally rough, but no excuses, just a brief moment where we stopped and then started. Simple really just could have been a disaster. It was a good reminder of why in rough water it is better to be in front.
Our motto for the race was, ‘Here & Now’. It was going to be Duncan’s first gold medal if we could have the ideal row and for me it was important to get in the moment and not get caught up in the past or my past performances with James. We had a strong purpose around why we had come together and the importance of making the opportunity count. The drive to succeed for both of us was very interesting particularly considering that our reason were slightly different. The joy was in working over the season in interval style of preparing which involved me (and my family and coach) traveling to Queensland for 3 – 4 week blocks. The training was intense not because of volume but rather quality and intent. Effectively we had 10 weeks together before heading overseas.
The final was not optimal, but I think extremely close considering a comment Duncan made in the media, “I am still not completely comfortable with rowing sweep and the pair”. He was very open to changing and challenging how he moved in the boat and even how both of us develop trust and harmony within our combination. A wonderful stage in the race was just after the 250m mark where our focus that we had discussed and planned worked perfectly and effortlessly. This needs to be kept in context of what we had aimed to do which was to get into rhythm while operating at the upper end of our capacities. The presence of mind to stay relaxed and clam while the physical work was being done was great and the result was to slide through the Chinese crew and slip away from the rest of the field. Our strength was how long we rowed and this allowed us to keep the rating to a level that was optimal for us. It didn’t happen by chance it was something we had planned when we first started training together back in September on a weekend trip to Canberra. We discussed and laid the foundations there that lead to rowing the way we did, long and levered.
Crossing the finish line was a beautiful thing, when Duncan turned around he looked like a young enthusiastic child who had just done something special for the first time. It was right there that I was reminded why I row. The sport naturally brings out the best in people. Looking at Duncan in the moment I could see the kid who loved rowing for the excitement and challenge of pushing the physical limits and finding something beyond.
The half way mark in the build up to Beijing has passed and as athletes and coaches focus more closely on that elusive prize of Olympic success, it will be interesting to observe and participate in the journey. The question will be who is able to go beyond the ceiling and reach past the ordinary to realise their dreams. Personally I feel the most important thing for most crews and athletes is to build the trust, harmony and understanding of the state that will enable their best to shine through when required. It is great to be back involved in rowing and importantly to be involved in our club as another aspiring athlete living the dream.