NZ rowers ignore the medal hype in London

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2012
Olympic rowing teams
MARK TAYLOR/Fairfax NZ
FOCUS: Early morning Olympic rowing teams head out from the High Performance Centre on the Karapiro Domain.

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Consider this random rowing factoid: for every stroke the Kiwi squad take down the Olympic waters of Eton Dorney, they will have put in 10,000 in training.

This is a group that prefers to leave as little as possible to chance.

So it should come as no surprise to hear there's a sense of serenity hovering over what's been widely hailed as the finest collection of rowing talent ever to have left our shores. Never mind the hype; never mind the wild predictions of a medal haul that will leave all others in the shade. It's all background chatter for a supremely focused group of athletes.

The New Zealand squad, led by the majestic Mahe Drysdale and their rock star pair of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, understand they've put the work in, that the really difficult stuff is tucked away and that it's now time when the toil is rewarded.

So, as much as you want to hear them using buzzwords like "pumped" and "jazzed", the truth is this squad possesses an inner peace as the defining moment approaches.

At this late stage it's about the focus, not the fury. It's about keeping cool, staying calm and taking care of the controllables. It's definitely not about ratcheting themselves into a high state of anxiety for the Games regatta (July 28-August 4).

New Zealand has never won multiple rowing gold medals at an Olympics - their best being the gold and two bronzes of four years ago - yet the consensus is that this stacked squad, with nine past or present world champions, should achieve that without breaking a sweat.

Bond and Murray are a lock for gold, having gone undefeated over the four-year cycle, and Drysdale, if there's any justice in this world, will join them. Bookies have the single-sculler co-favourite alongside Czech Ondrej Synek but the big Kiwi will be hard to topple if he's anywhere near 100 per cent - which he clearly wasn't in Beijing when he had to settle for a gut-wrenching bronze.

But others are also in the mix. The lightweight double scull of Peter Taylor and Storm Uru have had an impressive buildup and are the bookies' favourites, ahead of British rivals Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase. The double scull of Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan are also picked to prevail after a silver in Munich confirmed they had addressed what needed to be following their Lucerne misstep.

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OTHERS in medal contention are the improving women's lightweight double of Louise Ayling and Julia Edward, the two-time world champion women's pair of Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown, and single-sculler Emma Twigg.

But they are united on the mindset they need to take in.

Cohen said the expectations of others simply did not enter his mind.

"I'm so focused on the day-to-day processes and on making ourselves better, I guess it's why I'm so relaxed going in. We know we have to get better, because if we're the same as last year, we probably won't even be in the final.

"Our sport is incredibly simple - it's getting from point A to point B as fast as you can. You can't control what anyone else does but if you get from A to B as fast as you can, that's all you can ask for. The old saying is the medals are earned in the off season and won on the day."

Haigh, who has overcome serious back problems to make her third Games appearance, described her pair's focus as something that has become an "obsession". "We're very focused on the small things, the technical aspects, getting another inch out of our length, or a few more seconds per 500 [metres]. At the 2010 world champs [where they won gold on their home water], we were so focused crossing the line, we didn't even have that feeling of emotion.

"It took a few seconds to sink in.

"It's a massive challenge but you need rise to that challenge. Some crumble under the pressure and some rise to it. It's the biggest challenge and the most satisfying one."

Murray takes an almost nonchalant approach to their dominance. "Everyone is trying to catch us because we've obviously set the benchmarks," he said. "Racing is so much easier when you're out in front." The aim for London is to race as "relaxed" as possible.

Adds Bond: "The biggest thing is belief that you can win. It's pretty hard for them to believe they can win if no-one's won over the last four years. There's pressure being in this situation but it puts more pressure on the opposition.

"You'd rather be in our position, than be wondering whether you have the speed. We know we've got the speed; we just have to turn up."

Even Drysdale, who so desperately needs gold to endorse his five world championships, feels comfortable in the big dog's spot. "It's a nice place to be. If you are the top dog, everyone else has got to find a way to beat you; I just go out and try to race as hard and as fast as I can. I know if I put it all together on the day it's going to be pretty tough to beat me."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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