2021 Regatta of Death, & pre-Olympic prep

This last year was going to be a long one, and I came into the season concerned for my fraying motivation level. The Tokyo Olympics still seemed so far away. However within the first few months of this season I realised that the extra year that Covid granted us had been a blessing in disguise. Over that time we had some fantastic development of some of our younger athletes who had really stepped up their game and were setting the standard. My motivation came flooding back in a rush and from early in the season I was attacking training as if the Olympic final was the next day. I love training like this, and feeling like a deranged animal, although this was shortly lived. My wings were cruelly clipped by a severe injury, 2 bulged discs in my back while doing weights. I can’t use the correct words to accurately describe how I felt after picking up that injury, as basically it would be a string of expletives. But to put it simply and to understate, I was angry. Bulged discs take a long time to heal and with time now become a very scarce resource.

7 months out from the Olympics, I was bedridden and couldn’t walk properly, great. But the body is a remarkable thing. With the aid of a cortisone injection to relieve the swelling around the nerves in my back, I was quickly able to start some training again, although rowing was out of the question for at least 2 months. I took to the Assault Bike like a feral dog. For those who don’t know what an assault bike is, it's basically a glorified cross trainer, it feels pretty agricultural, but boy is it a good workout. I was determined to get in the best shape possible and worry about the specific rowing fitness and finesse later. 2 and a half months past training solely on this one piece of gym equipment before I begin slowly integrating back into the team and getting out on the water again. I felt very fit, but boy was I off the pace. Nothing is a true substitute for rowing on the water. The more time you spend honing your movement in the boat, the more easy speed you gain. Getting back in the boat there was nothing easy about the way I was rowing, but I knew I just needed to stick at it. I didn’t have the time to dilly dally as trials for the men’s 8 were quickly approaching. Your seat in the boat is never safe, that’s the nature of high performance sport, and the way it should be. Every year you have to prove to your teammates and yourself that you deserve to be there. I knew this year’s trials were going to be exceptionally difficult and anxiety and nerves were at an all time high. I basically had missed all of the domestic racing and many of the erg tests due to my injury so the selectors had virtually no data on me. I was going to be put under the pump. And as luck would have it, of course I picked up a vomiting and diarrhoea bug before the fabled 2km erg test that kicks off the trial. Fantastic, not off to a good start. I scraped together a semi-decent 2km test somehow (definitely a surprise), but knew my bigger battles were coming on the water.

The on water seat racing was extremely thorough, and I was put to the test on multiple occasions. For those who aren’t familiar, seat racing is a set of selection races where crews will race against each other multiple times while swapping rowers between boats - you very quickly and transparently see which athletes are moving the boat well. I felt very underdone trying to race at these trials and found I was relying on fitness and strength rather than technical proficiency to move the boat, a point the selectors informed me of very clearly. With a mix of close seat races in the small boats, which included both wins and losses, I found myself very much on the back foot. Luckily the last day saw us settling the score in the boat we were all trying to gain selection in, the men’s 8, the boat I know best, the boat I've poured so much into, the boat I am actually good at rowing. This last day of racing went my way and a lot of things clicked into place that I struggled with in the earlier racing. Finally I made the boat, this battle won, onto the next, The Regatta of Death. 

Once the crew was named I was blessed with an extended period without injury or illnesses allowing me the on water time to catch up to the other guys in the crew. I felt like I was back in full force and producing some of the best performances of my rowing career. Sometimes in rowing you just build confidence like a snowball rolling down a hill, this was certainly happening now. Every day our crew was measuring ourselves against each other and using that competition to elevate the performances in the 8.

We soon found ourselves on the plane heading to the Regatta of Death in Switzerland to secure our Olympic berth. Although the nerves were certainly there in full force, there was also a huge amount of excitement in getting to race internationally for the first time in 2 years. In the lead up to this regatta, we would often sit down as a group and do team visualisation sessions. During one of these sessions, I read out how my vision for the lead up to this race in Switzerland. Bare in mind, there are a few references the average reader won’t understand, but here is a snapshot to my state of mind before this big race : 

“Sleep isn't coming easy, I try to distract myself with meaningless youtube videos eventually settling on top 10 anime villain moments of 2020 - oddly specific. Good, a distraction from the pain and importance which is tomorrow, lining up beside Italy, China and Romania. My mind is bouncing consistently between anime and rowing, pretty normal. Time passes and I settle in a restless sleep. Waking up the next morning I have a moment of surreal panic knowing that today is the day, am I ready? I ask myself. I once again seek distraction, putting on my headphones and listening to an interesting audible fictional tale where the protagonists can harness energy from storms. 

Before I know it, I am at lake Lucerne Switzerland getting prepped for our customary pre row. The boys look good, well, strong, but probably good as well, I dunno. I glance over the boat park noting the Roms in the distant, they by contrast, they don't look good, they're big and ugly. I find it interesting that I always believe wrongly or rightly, that other crews are bigger than us, but are they? Or am I used to my teammates and don’t recognise their height and size like I do with other nations' rowers. When I was younger I always felt intimidated by other 8s, but now, screw it, and screw them, they don’t matter. We matter more I arrogantly believe. 

“Hands on”, “lift”, I take the weight on my shoulder. The boat isn't heavy, regardless of what Bondy says. I help shift the load off Bondy's delicate old man back. “Above heads”, the boat touches the water with a satisfying sound. We push out and before I have time to sit down Sam’s already calling bow four to touch away, cracks me up every time. We number off quickly with a slight delay waiting for the old man in 2 seat, then we are away. We all know the drill, a quick spin around the course and a couple of pieces to get the body moving. I always feel sluggish on pre-rows, but let out a few “yeps” in an attempt to drag the lethargy out of my body, and give the crew energy. I'm in the 3 seat (was later moved to 7), not an important seat in terms of rhythm, but an important seat in terms of supporting my team mates - I assign my own importance to the traditional gumboot seat in the role I play in the boat. Bring solid power within the rhythm, work with Mike and Bondy around me. Get the boat out of the start quick! Time passes faaaast now, I almost want to reach out and grab it to slow it down, I want more time, I ask myself again “am I ready?” I quickly shut down those thoughts and bring it back to my crew. I believe in the team. As we park the boat at the dock after our 4km lap, I glance again at our competition and I think “f*#k them, I want this more then you”.

A quick ride back to the hotel and now we are relaxing. Mike eggs me on to play Runescape, but I can’t, that's too much effort, I resort back to my book. I let that world consume me, and let my mind drift, eventually to a very light sleep. Waking up 30minutes later, I gag down food, followed by sodium bicarbonate pills (bicarb), which serves as a slight lactate buffer. Bicarb pills have this weird taste and smell that reminds me of pain, 2km ergs, trials, World Champs races, Olympic races. With huge effort I manage to keep down the pills without vomiting. Glad that's over. Time passes even quicker than before, what the heck. Again the thought intrudes my brain “am I ready?”. Another van ride down to the lake, this one notably quieter then the previous. The boys are focused, Mike’s bobbing his head likely to the beat of some Marvel soundtrack. Some quiet banter between Tmack, Matt and Dan ensues (the young-ins) -  a few 6/10 jokes being told, more to ease nerves than to be funny at this point.

We step out of the vans and into the regatta course. The moment I see the lake I realise I am in fact ready for this. We’ve trained hard, we’ve performed consistently. “Just another race” I tell myself as I rest my bag on one of these less muddy patches of the lucerne boat park grass. I catch a glance from Tom Murray, He gives a little smirk. Good signs, Tom’s excited. The erg warm up comes and goes quickly as I breath through a soggy face mask. We gather close to the boat for the usual pre race chat. “Feeling good?” I ask Phil, and before I've even finished the sentence he’s responded with “hell yea”. If Phil was a sound, he’d be ‘thud, thud, thud’, I find that description of Phil hilarious, but also complementary - he’s consistent, predictable, reliable.

I find myself again in the boat, staring at the backs of my crew mates. We roll around the warm up lanes doing the best we can to fit in our Lucerne specific warmup. I can hear the Italian 8 yelling and arguing, classic. Mid warm up piece I yell “that's it stern pair!” as they set their customary long rhythm. I can't actually see them or Phil in the boat - I can't see past the expanse that is Dan's back - I idly think that Dan would’ve made more money playing basketball. The warm up is so second nature that without even thinking I am waiting at the front stops in the starting block as the umpire calls the crews. I whisper to Mike and Tom “bow three filth” - a throw back to our original 8. The race umpire calls the crews, then “Attention”, the buzzer goes, the gates drop, and the race begins in a kaleidoscope of noise, power, speed and hope.”

The racing in Switzerland at the Regatta of Death goes our way, we win, and we finally gain our Olympic Qualification. Another job done, more of a relief than anything else, we knew we were fast enough to qualify. From here we travel back to NZ and straight into managed isolation for 2 weeks. Only 6 weeks until we leave for Tokyo, and 2 weeks of that all important training time being spent in a hotel room on a rowing machine, not ideal, but necessary.


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