Tokyo Olympics

We knew Japan was going to be hot, extremely hot, and humid as well. We had prepared as such for this climate with heat acclimation training sessions back in NZ. But holy smokes, going from a crisp New Zealand winter to a literal oven is a shock to the system. Before we left, we were torturing ourselves twice a week in a makeshift heat chamber at Rowing NZ. In this chamber of misery, we would grind away on rowing machines and bikes, in a futile attempt to get our bodies adapted to the heat we would experience in Tokyo. The heat chamber was 32 degrees, 80% humidity and no breeze… It was our necessary purgatory. Seeing the numbers you can produce in an extreme environment like this was becoming slightly demoralising, struggling to hold measly watts less than what a novice rower would hold, while my heart rate is smacking 180 beats per minute and I’m feeling close to passing out. During these heat acclimation sessions, we would play a not so fun game of who lost the most weight. Bear in mind, we were in the chamber for 45mins - 1 hour, and most of us were consistently losing 5kgs of sweat. I am not exaggerating. We would replace the floor of the erg room with a lake of sweat, and then hilariously fumble around trying to mop it up after a session whilst trying to stay conscious.

But these sessions were serving a purpose, they were a necessary evil that might just give us an edge when we got to Tokyo, so every athlete was on board with the torture. We leave no stone unturned. Basically, ANY action in training/preparation that has the potential to make you even 0.1% better, you can bet your bottom dollar - we’ll do it. We take it to the absolute extremes (with careful supervision) in all areas to give ourselves the best chance possible. It’s an accumulative process over many years, but doing all those little things gives you tiny improvements which add up over time. 

Even with this extreme preparation, I was still shocked at the wall of heat and humidity we faced when I stepped outside of the air conditioned airport terminal in Japan. Arriving 2 weeks early gave us a chance to get settled and sneak in an all important final Olympic training camp. Travelling overseas during a pandemic is an understandably painstaking process, with many hoops to jump through and forms to sign. With Japan being no exception. We were separated from the general public, and shuttled off to our training venue for the next 2 weeks, in a city named Ostu, 500 kms from Tokyo.

1 day off the plane, and we were already back on the water blowing out the lingering jet-lag on a rather rough and windy lake in the city of Otsu. At this point in our preparation, I can safely say we all felt like crap. Jet-lagged, overheating, humid, and rowing on rough water compounded. But we are all experienced enough to know this is normal at this part of the journey and just needed to get some more KMs under the belt and get fully comfortable in the heat and humidity (take the words ‘fully comfortable’ with a grain of salt!). It’s amazing how quickly the body can adapt to pretty severe conditions though. One day you feel like a boiled potato wondering how you could ever race an Olympic final, and the next you feel somewhat normal. We needed at least a week to get to the latter, and our second week training on lake Otsu was a hell of a lot better. One tactic we employed for beating the heat was aggressive pre-cooling strategies to lower our internal body temperature before a race or training piece. Basically we would jump in an ice bath for 10-15mins, a few hours before a race, followed by ice towels, ice wrist straps and ice vests in a desperate attempt to prevent overheating. The idea is that when you get on the water for your race, your body temperature start point is a degree or so lower then if you hadn't done the pre-cooling. And one degree makes a hell of a difference!

With our 2 weeks in Ostu concluded, we waved goodbye to the fantastic and friendly locals and boarded a bullet train bound for the Olympic village. Again, more hoops to jump through with vaccination cards, accreditation, forms to fill in etc. But finally we were in the Olympic village. It’s an absolute privilege just to be at the Olympic village - completely overwhelming! 9000 of the best athletes in the world in one place. I’m generally considered a pretty big guy at 191cm and 96kgs, but being in this village, I have never felt so average. Everyone walking around was the main character in their own story. Everyone was a big timer in their own right and here we were, a group of misfits from NZ, scuffing around in jandals, replacing our vowels with ‘o’s, but very ready to throw down on the race course.

The Olympic course was not what I expected. Right beside a shipping lane, walled end to end with concrete - this was a very industrial 2km race course. We proceeded with a few more days of preparation and training getting used to the course and the water we would race on before our first big hit out, the heats.

I was sick with nerves, sick to my stomach. I desperately tried to cover it up with fake confidence, I mean deep down I was confident, but right now on the eve of our first Olympic race, I was shitting my pants. I kept on reminding myself that this is just another race and I have a job to do.

Heat 1: Great Britain vs The Netherlands vs New Zealand. Round one. FIGHT!

‘Holy shit we are racing, it’s begun’ I remember thinking this as we roared off the starting line. The speed felt intense with the Dutch taking an early lead. I remember hearing our strokes per minute and vaguely thinking ‘hmm that’s a bit high’. We hung onto the Dutch the entire race, but in the moment, I realised we were frantic. It was like we were a high powered car, that couldn’t quite get traction. We were just spinning the wheels and the rhythm felt a little desperate. Finishing in a close second I remembered instantly thinking, that was ‘ok’ but we can do so much more. 

This was quite an interesting moment, as from the outside, there would have been the assumption ‘oh it looks like the New Zealanders will be fighting for 3rd or 4th in the final’, but from within the boat it was a completely different story. There was an air of giddy excitement amongst the lads as we all instantly realised what we had done wrong, and if we can be that close to the pace doing it wrong, where would we be if we got it right?

In the Heat we let the occasion get to us a little. The adrenaline and pressure of the moment pushed our rating a little too high, we never settled into our aptly named ‘Big Boy Rhythm’ and never quite got traction on the end of our blades. This was a universal realisation amongst the crew. We made the commitment to, in Hamish’s words, - “live or die by the Big Boy Rhythm”. We were starting to nail this rhythm in training rows back in New Zealand before we left. It was beyond aggressive, it was violent and angry but all directed by good technique that had been worked on all season. Basically we had to trust that rowing this rhythm, our natural technique and synchronicity would hold together and we would go fast. The catches were immensely fast and aggressive, we talked about picking the boat up before it had a chance to slow down, and once we had that… JUST SWING ON THE THING LIKE DERANGED ANIMALS! 

We had 4 days to recoup and prepare for the repercharge, where 4 places in the Olympic final would be up for grabs. Our goal was to row the Big Boy Rhythm no matter what - “we live or die by this rhythm”. I cannot express how excited I was to race in the repercharge, our new found commitment to this rhythm that we knew worked, coupled with how incredibly explosive and exciting the boat was now feeling in training rows, fuelled anticipation and completely eliminated the nerves I previously had. The boat felt like it was bursting with speed.

The Repercharge: Australia vs Romania vs Great Britain vs USA vs New Zealand. Round two. FIGHT!

We exploded off the start in our usual manner. Our plan in the first 300 meters was to just do everything we could to stay in touch. There are some strong guys in these other boats and we would generally be considered a smaller crew, so getting off the start line isn’t our strength. 300 meters in, our coxswain Sam screams “STRIDE! BIG BOY RHYTHM, NOW!” 42 strokes per minute, down to 40, “STRIDE AGAIN, NOW!” 40 strokes per minute, down to 38, “STRIDE TO 37, NOW!!” boom, we hit 37 and our Big Boy Rhythm. “FUCKING SWING!” and holy shit did this feel good. With a bumpy cross tail wind behind us we sent every stroke as hard as we could, even settling to 36 rate during the middle of the race, while our opposition were at 39-40. The boat felt like it was running endlessly and I remember thinking mid race ‘man this is comfortable’ even though I was working my ass off. We pushed out to a 1 second lead on the field and held it all the way to the line. We stayed at 36-37 rate, didn't sprint, didn’t empty the tank and did a time of 5.22, just 4 seconds outside the world record. Coming across the finish line, I clearly remembered a call from down the boat “heads up boys, straight into our warm down”. This felt like a statement to the other crews that this was just a training row for us. It felt good to play that mind game as our opposition crumpled with fatigue at the end of that race while we just rowed off. In the back of my mind I started to realise we could actually win.

Our plan had worked, our Big Boy Rhythm had worked, and now we were in the Olympic final. I never like to peacock around after a good performance but I think it’s important to strike that balance between confidence and arrogance. At this point, 2 days out from the Olympic final, we were striking that perfect balance. We had a day between the repercharge and final, and on that day we went for our final training row in this glorious crew. I remember feeling quite emotional in this last training row, knowing that we would likely never again put together this same crew.

As good as the Olympic final was, and we’ll certainly get to that, this last training row gave me absolute chills. I have never been in a boat that felt so violently fast, dynamic, and technically proficient. We did a 12km roll around the lake, with a few race pace bursts thrown in to keep us sharp. I could feel the energy resonating through the boat. Like caged animals we wanted to explode and attack anything that got in our way. Doing some race pace bursts I was shocked at how easy it felt, and remembered thinking ‘well it’s going to take a damn good crew to beat us if we row like this’. 

Now we had time to kill, it’s midday, the Olympic final is tomorrow morning. It was cripplingly anxiety producing if you thought about it too much. I had been training for a decade for this one race. Holy hell, I get nervous even now, writing about it after the fact! I feel you have to embrace those nerves and remind yourself that your opposition is feeling the same way. The only thing you can do is your job. Eat well, sleep as best you can, wake up the next morning, go through your pre race routine, try and hold some food down without vomiting, and prepare for the biggest race of your life while simultaneously telling yourself ‘it’s just another race’.

The Final: Australia vs The Netherlands vs USA vs Great Britain vs Germany vs New Zealand.
Round 3.

We hoisted the boat up off the racks and carried it down to the water clad in ice vests, ice towels, and ice wrist straps. Our pre cooling routine worked a treat and I always felt comfortable rather than blisteringly hot like I would have without it. We lowered the boat to the water and grabbed our oars. Not much is said here, we know the job and we’ve talked about it enough at this point. Tony O’connor, our coach, nervously patted us all on the back and shook our hands. He knew that no more words were required. Tony is one of those coaches that probably gets more nervous then his athletes! He will hilariously hide, or busy himself with some menial task while we are racing. And the Olympic final was no exception, as Tony described, he was hiding behind the grandstands trying not to listen to any of the commentary.

Now we were on the water, 25 minutes before the start of our race, going through our pre-race warm up. At this point we had all done at least 30 minutes of warm up on rowing machines and watt bikes, so the on-water warm up is more to get us comfortable and settled in the boat again. I kept on imagining I was on Lake Karapiro, on my home water, just going out for another row, nothing special here, nothing to be nervous about! But the big Olympic rings on literally every surface around me were shattering this fragile illusion.

Warm up completed, we positioned ourselves in the start block. Matt, our stroke man looks calm as ever, I have no idea how he’s only 22 and this bloody good, but the lad just has the knack for moving a boat. I remind Matt that it’s just another race on Karapiro, and all we have to do is our jobs - work as hard as we can, and set up a rhythm for the lads behind us. The Big Boy Rhythm. That’s all that matters at this point. Win, lose, or explode into a ball of fire - we will nail the Big Boy Rhythm today.

“Attention…… Beep!”  and the race begins.
This first bit goes by in an absolute frenzied blur. I’m so focussed and dare not peek outside the boat. Same as in the Repercharge, our coxswain Sam aggressively calls us down to rhythm, and the response is wild. I hear battle cries booming down the boat as we settle to the Big Boy Rhythm. I get the vague sense that we are right in the middle of the pack. We haven’t been dropped by the fast starting crews around us, but predictably, we aren’t in the lead. Sam is calling the race magnificently, letting us know where we are and calling our set moves, but at this point I'm finding it difficult to process. There’s so much noise and wild energy in a men’s 8 final, but I know the race plan like the back of my hand. Moving through the 1km mark I know that we have our rhythm, the boat feels electric and also like we have an absurd amount of time between strokes. I think it’s a similar phenomenon to when a race car driver sets a lap record - their fastest lap often feels weirdly sedate because of how in control they are. This is the sensation I was having at this point. Through the 1km I knew we were near the front of the field, but didn’t dare think that we might have been in front. Out of my peripheral vision, I could see the USA crew off to my left, and imagined pushing them as far away as possible and crushing their hopes and dreams under my footplate - I know, a bit aggressive, but hell, this is the Olympic final and we are all modern day gladiators fighting for our lives in an arena of water!

We kept on relentlessly driving our boat forward, this was something we were good at, we were fit as all hell and would not fade in the last part of the race. I kept on focussing on my job, and what I had to do and approaching the final moments, but then.. *SLAP* I made a disgusting mistake. My blade clipped a puddle of one of the lads behind me, over-rotated, and didn’t grip the water like it should have. I remember crucifying myself for the mistake and scrambling to recover and not upset the boat. A silly mistake, but also a mistake that happens in the sport of rowing and shit, it could have been a hell of a lot worse! In the scheme of things, this was minor and didn’t slow us down or unsettle the crew too much - what a relief. And while I was wrapped up in that near miss, I heard the buzzer sound signalling the first crew had crossed the finish line. I dare not stop rowing though, I have no idea where we had come? But weirdly the other lads stopped immediately and I panicked for a moment thinking we had stopped too early. I took my first peek out of the boat and knew we had crossed the finish line, but found myself wondering why our opposition were still rowing. I felt like I was in a state of shock. Was I dreaming? I spun around and asked Phil, our 6 seat, where had we come? He had to tell me 2 or 3 times before I truly believed it.

And then, I just cried.

Trying to put together what just happened

Trying to put together what just happened
Pre-cooling in full effect

Pre-cooling in full effect
Being a cry baby

Being a cry baby


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