Emma Twigg in the medal mix at Olympics
Unlike the other single sculler in New Zealand's Olympic rowing squad, Emma Twigg is working quietly away under the radar ahead of a London regatta where precious metal is very much on the agenda.
The 25-year-old Twigg has unobtrusively positioned herself firmly into the medal mix in the women's single scull. Her low profile is in stark contrast to the headlines that follow her male counterpart, Mahe Drysdale, who can't seem to stay out of the spotlight.
You'll remember Drysdale from four years ago in Beijing, of course. He was the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony; then the one doubled over with a crook tummy, depositing his breakfast into the artificial lake at Shunyi after the men's single scull final.
Drysdale, a triple world champion at the time, had to make do with a bronze. But he's back for another crack at gold, having shrugged off a serious back problem and won two more world titles.
But Mahe being Mahe, he was back in the news ahead of the final World Cup regatta of the buildup when he was bowled off his bike in Munich and had to sit out the event with a shoulder injury. He says he is all right, but New Zealand still feels nervous for him.
Twigg, on the other hand, just gets on with things. No accidents, no untimely sickness – touch wood – and a series of results that indicate she is on track to pick up a medal if things go her way at Eton Dorney.
She won silver in Munich – behind the five-time Olympic medallist Ekaterina Karsten of Belarus – after an off-colour fifth in Lucerne, fresh off a less than smooth journey over.
Twigg prides herself on consistency, especially now that her first Olympics is behind her. As a wide-eyed 21-year-old in Beijing, Twigg finished ninth overall. She missed the final by an agonising half a second, but now looks back on 2008 as a fabulous experience.
"It was a huge learning curve," she says. "That's why I'm excited about London, having been there, done that in Beijing.
"Last time it was about getting the experience; this time I'm going there to win a medal."
This is not pie-in-the-sky optimism from Twigg, a former hockey player who followed her brother into rowing under her father's coaching guidance.
Her results back up her lofty ambitions. Over the London cycle she has had five seconds and one win in the World Cups and back-to-back bronze medals at the last two world championships. On a dais that has been somewhat of a revolving door, the blonde Kiwi with the radiant smile has been pretty much a constant. She is proud of that.
"I feel like I'm progressing," she says. "I had my first World Cup win last year in Lucerne, I feel I'm now up among the top three or four consistently, and that's a bit of a mental advantage. It's a matter of keeping that consistency, and in London being the best I can be on the day."
Twigg, like everyone in this New Zealand squad, is a ferocious trainer. It's apparent upon meeting her on a sunny, autumnal day at Karapiro – a handshake reveals calluses career dockworkers would be proud of. "Occupational hazard," she shrugs.
Once a week she takes out her craft knife and trims them back. Yes, this ain't no place for a lady.
Twigg, of course, is coached by Richard Tonks who believes in a "miles makes champions" mantra.
"That's why every day we get smashed going up and down, up and down. We're workhorses, we're fitter than the rest of the world – 1500m into races often our crews come back on those ahead because we've got the gas in the tank."
Being from Hawke's Bay, Twigg was naturally inspired by the Evers-Swindell twins. When the chance came to join them in the New Zealand elite squad in 2006, it really was a no-brainer. She was university bound anyway, so just changed her course for Waikato and the ever-expanding Cambridge base.
She now has a bachelor of communications to go with all her rowing achievements and says: "I may have missed a few parties and a bit of the uni life, but I think what I've gained is even better."
The dynamic for Twigg, and Drysdale, is an interesting one. They are solo operators in a team environment. They thrive on the competition, and support, in the squad, but when push comes to shove there are no shoulders to lean on.
"When you're having a bad day, you're really having a bad day," says Twigg. "Whereas if you're in the double your partner can kind of drag you over the line. In a crew boat it's a challenge getting the combination right. In the single it's more a mental and physical battle."
The pain is something Twigg has long ago got used to. What is crucial, she says, is dealing with it and staying efficient through the various stages of a race.
"It's a matter of putting everything together, and I feel like I'm getting closer to that," she says. "I've learnt lots through my losses."
Despite the intimidating presence of the 40-year-old Karsten, Twigg firmly believes gold is within her reach in London. "The beauty of the Olympics is anything can happen. Karsten had been dominant going into Beijing, but only won bronze. There's four or five of us who could win it on the day.
"You have to feel confident. There's no question it's going to be difficult, but I have to think I can win this. Not being a world champion is beneficial for me in terms of there being no pressure. I can go under the radar."
And that's a place where Emma Twigg feels comfortable.
Twigg's rivals for single scull glory:
EKATERINA KARSTEN (Belarus): The 40-year-old legend has won a medal at every Olympics dating back to 1992 (two golds, a silver and two bronzes) and will once again be favourite in London.
ZHANG XIUYUN (China): Consistent performer who showed her form by winning the first two World Cup races of the year.
MIRKA KNAPOVA (Czech Republic): World champion in Bled last year, and has been there or thereabouts this season.
FRIDA SVENSSON (Sweden): Won world title at Karapiro in 2010. Off her best since, but can't be discounted.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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