This is an opportunity to write about a person who has been a great inspiration, a cool coach, a mentor and wonderful partner during my rowing career.
James Tomkins coached me in school back in 1992 when along with the Oarsome Foursome they made Australian sporting history with an amazing win in the coxless four. His coaching style was laid back, easy going and a cool example to all of us who enjoyed his presence. During that year two other equally amazing coaches joined him. Laurie Malcolm and Paul McGann who complimented each other very well and as co-coaches were a near perfect match. I have vivid memories of James pulling up in his car with wind surfer on top and getting out look like he had been at the beach all day, which he had and then seeing him jump in the speed boat with Laurie to offer great words of advice and guidance that made a huge impression. Their ability to make the hard training session seem fun was remarkable with the odd occasion where he and Laurie use the speedboat like a surfboard and I remember thinking how great it was to be involved with people that could get the balance right between the challenge and enjoyment.
As role model he presented a laconic nature of easy, relaxed athleticism that was inspiring. The way he carried him self was something special and it instilled confidence in all those around him. So much that another member of the Oarsome Foursome, Nick Green once said that James had a sureness about him that made you believe you would win with him. It’s true the other eight guys I rowed with that year certainly benefited from having him around. It was not about what he said or did, it was intangible, invisible, but I could feel the amazing force or influence he had, and it made me feel more capable as a young athlete.
Our relationship after that first season progressed from young schoolboy athlete and school coach to a friendship when we share many surfing experiences together in my first year after school. On one particular occasion we went out for a surf at Bells beach. Bells is world famous and is south of Melbourne down the west coast of Victoria. We jumped in the water on what we later realised was a fairly large day, large for us anyway. The swell was up with sets coming in well overhead and after about 30min we both got caught inside. The locals had it worked out and were paddling quickly toward the horizon and James and I didn’t pick up the cues until we saw the huge wall of dark blue ocean rising up out the back. It was very large and as it broke we eye balled each other as if to say, shit we’re gone. The white water was the height of a bus and it had broken very wide past us and the only chance we had was to duck dive under and hold on through the washing machine. After what seemed like an hour I popped up through the foam and was gasping for air and there was James with the look of fear in his face that I had not seen before. I felt the same fear as the next slab of water came crunching down as we dived again. After some 5 waves in the set we were like two drowning rates trying all we could to stay afloat. Final when the intensity died down we look at each other and marvelled at what we had experienced. The ocean is a great leveller and it has been something that we have had in common over the years.
There was a time when you would have said James and I were like master and apprentice. This was reflected in a comment that he made about having taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows. This stayed with me even though it was said in jest; it was a great reminder that you can never learning everything that another person knows. James never hide anything from me, but his ability to perform under pressure and to do it in a way that appears magical is extraordinary. The fact is I think some times even he does not full understand why and how he has been so good. The mystery and magical way carries a certain element interest. As a mentor he lead by example and was happy to allow me to work out how to combine with him. He never forces the situation and the trust he had for what I would do sitting behind was fantastic and refreshing. His leadership style was supportive and only when things weren’t working would he be directive. This was rare, as our partnership in and out of the boat seemed to come easy. It had a naturalness about that when we discussed a session we would often rate them highly with minimal faults. Maybe the key to our success was James consistency and his ability to focus on what was working rather than what was not working.
James & Drew in full flight during a 5km Time Trial in 2002
James has been described by many as one of the greatest oarsmen ever, and I would have to agree. My knowledge of the sport is reasonable full as I have enjoyed studying those former masters and James certainly always comes to mind as an ideal model of how to row. His competition record is class and more importantly the way he has achieved success stands. This is not to say he has done it alone, by no means, he has rowed with many of the best. In particular Michael McKay and James started their career together and they performed exceptional together. With Mike providing the fire and James the flow it was an amazing combination that we complimented by others they always peak for the occasion.
When I first started to consider how I would capture my thoughts on James I found myself reflecting on so many great experiences that we have shared together. What was hard to find were memories were things didn’t go well and I could only think of two times. It is through these moments that James showed another side and probably a great reason why he is a great athlete. In 2000 when I had to pull out of selection after my back packed it in, he could have been very self-centred about the build up to Sydney. I was blown away with his commitment and assurance that during that season we would stay together. When the final incident happen and his own performance was being put in jeopardy, he stay focused and went to combine with another rower Matt Long for a bronze medal. The true test of his charter came when we arrive back in Australia about 8 weeks before the games. I was out and could not row and he was emotional and consoling about the opportunity that we were going to miss out on. His ability to show that side and still manage to get on with the job, make no excuses and take the challenge in Sydney was something I can never forget. The other time we things didn’t work out for us was in 2002 at the World Championships. This was the first stage of our comeback and things had gone well, but we hadn’t been tested and when the British crew of James Cracknell and Matt Pinsent took as to task we were devastated. They put together what must have been the near perfect row. The World Best time was smashed and the way they did it was purposeful and direct. It was a compelling example of extremely motivated athletes holding nothing back. It’s truly inspiring even though we were beaten I think we used it to motivate and inspire us. No wasting time or the opportunity on their part and a great lesson for being prepared to go to the wall when it’s required. Well James and I sat in our boat after crossing the finish line for some time. We had come fourth and we both were a little shocked. I remember saying to him, ‘let this burn, let this burn’. After some 30min we had drifted down from the finish line and final we decided to row down. We agreed to not let it happen again. We had not rowed well; particularly early in the race and upon reflection we discussed the reasons why we under performed. We rationalised it out and commented that apart from that race we had enjoyed the season a lot. What was amazing was James honesty, he spoke about not feeling highly motivated prior to the start, he described the sensation of feeling flat. When he said this I understood what he meant and it was like he was speaking for both of us. His ability to articulate clearly an obvious indicator for readiness that certainly led to the poor start we had and what was clear difference between us and the British crew. The fact that he didn’t need to present a certain front made me appreciate the nature of our relationship. He was honest and didn’t hide from what occurred. From that day we become very resolved about how we would perform over the next two years and the result was seen in some wholesale changes we made. James took on the responsibility to improve in key areas that Chris and he felt needed to be worked on. At age 39 in Athens he was quiet possibly in the form of his life which is remarkable considering his past achievements.
Seeing him develop and adapt of the next two years was a great thing to observe. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Well James know nothing of the limitation, he has lasted and maintained success due to his willingness to find ways to improve. Which is remarkable when considering is track record. He could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but no even now in 2007 he is embracing change and challenging himself to find the best way to compete and achieve his goals come Beijing.
My final thought on this tribute like entry is that one of his great assets is his honesty and trust. He doesn’t force things he allows and enables his best to flow. This surfacing of talent can appear mysterious, but it’s better understood as a love for something he is good at. He has often said, when you can do something well it’s almost your responsibility to see how far you can take it. This is gratitude for talent and opportunity, the youthfulness he exhibits leaves a lasting impression, and long after he hangs up his oar many will share stories about the way he rowed.