Top coach accepts China role

JOHN ALEXANDER
Last updated 11:30 19/10/2012
John Robinson
John Alexander
Hi ho silver. Graham Oberlin-Brown, left and James Lassche, show off their silver medals with coach John Robinson in 2010

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New Zealand Rowing is losing one of its most experienced and successful coaches with confirmation this week that John Robinson is off to ply his trade in China.

He's New Zealand's second longest serving elite coach behind Richard Tonks and has been a key figure in this country's greatest-ever rowing era, culminating in the record five-medal haul at the London Olympics, results that placed New Zealand second on the rowing world ladder behind Britain.

He'll be based in the Jiansu province in the capital of Nanjing, a city of 15 million people. He's enthused about the potential of the Chinese athletes and the fact they are so well resourced. The only area they lack is his area of expertise, the technical side of the sport.

There's certainly plenty of room for improvement in that area from what he saw during his visit there earlier this year, equating many of the rowers at a big regatta to novice rowers in New Zealand as far as technique went. The Asian Games, he said, were a more important event for China to win in rowing than the Olympics, partly because winning crews are paid significant prize money and his job is to qualify a doubles crew in particular for that event.

Rowing has always been in Robinson's blood. He rowed for Blenheim during his competing days then began coaching Marlborough Girls' College crews out of the Wairau Club.

He almost immediately enjoyed success and throughout the next few years rose up the ladder, winning regular national titles, a highlight being a stunning national women's premier eights title at Lake Karapiro.

In 2001 he started working with national development rowers out of Wairau then in 2004 joined the elite programme fulltime.

John and his wife, Shirley, relocated to Cambridge, just a few kilometres down the road from the New Zealand team base at Lake Karapiro and they've lived there ever since.

Robinson has been a standout coach at international level. As well as numerous World Cup wins, he's coached crews to three World Championship titles, his first in Japan in 2005 with the men's pair of George Bridgewater and Nathan Twaddle. The other two were in 2010-11 with the women's pair of Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown and he only once finished without a medal - in 2008 when New Zealand rowing were trying to qualify a women's eight for the Olympics.

He rates the World Championships in 2005 when New Zealand won four world titles in successive races as one of the highlights of his career.

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At the London Olympics, Haigh and Scown overcame a significantly disrupted injury-plagued build-up to win bronze by a bow surge, the same margin Bridgewater and Twaddle missed a bronze at Athens in 2004 just a couple of months after coming together under Robinson's guidance.

His biggest disappointment came in 2008. He coached Bridgewater and Twaddle until two months before the Beijing Olympic Games when he was dumped.

Rather than walk away in disgust, he decided to stick with what he loved doing, and prove his detractors wrong, which he did in no uncertain terms with two world titles and an Olympic bronze.

He bears no malice towards those responsible for sacking him and said he just wanted a change.

"An offer came at Lucerne during a World Cup regatta last year. We've kept in touch since. I wasn't going to go but Shirley said you might as well. They paid me to go over and have a look. I spent eight days there and saw their national training centre which was massive."

Robinson knows it's a real challenge and that he would not be going without his wife's encouragement.

A deep thinker, an expert on the intricacies and dynamics involved in coaching young elite athletes and with an eye for detail, Robinson is tireless in his search for excellence and is extremely highly regarded by his peers at Rowing New Zealand headquarters.

He is a great believer in the need for a strong aerobic base, which has been the cornerstone of New Zealand crews' prolific success in recent years, but he's also an innovative thinker and with such a vast pool of both talent and resources in China, he will have a wonderful opportunity to stamp his own style on the job.

"I'm in charge of my own destiny. I'm not relying on anyone else to tell me what to do. If I was ever going to do it, now was the time. It's time for me to go and have another challenge."

Robinson will be paid well for his new job, which includes coaching coaches and having a group of elite rowers under his wing, but he said money was not the main clincher, he just wanted a change and a fresh challenge.

He said his time with New Zealand rowing was memorable and had included far more highs than lows. "I've enjoyed the experience. Met some great people, had some good results."

Having worked his way up from grass-roots level to be one of the world's best rowing coaches, Robinson's uncomplicated no-nonsense approach, strong work ethic and the good rapport he builds with his crews should hold him in good stead for his new job.

The good news for the rowing fraternity in Marlborough is that following the completion of his Chinese contract, the former builder said he and Shirley were almost certainly coming back home to Blenheim where most of their family live.

- The Marlborough Express

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