Rowing legends reunite to relive past glories

IAN ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2014
LEGEND: Simon Dickie
LEGEND: Simon Dickie

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Rowing reunions are a common thing for Simon Dickie.

The legendary coxswain, who won Olympic medals in 1968, 1972 and 1976, said he and his former crewmates now make time to get together as often as possible to relive past glories and rejoice in an unshakeable camaraderie.

"I think we're probably going through a stage now where everybody realises the process of aging is unrelentless," the 63-year-old said.

"And with the passage of time, the opportunities of enjoying those past events and those past successes are becoming less frequent as a group. So we actually do make an effort to meet more frequently - we find an excuse most years to get together and relive the past, which is good."

Are they still a very tight bunch?

"No question about that, no question about that.

"The four from 1968, those team members are still alive and well - which is pretty unusual; 1968 to 2014 is a fair old while.

"And everyone's in pretty good shape and we meet on an annual basis, as does the Munich eight."

Dickie was just 17 when he coxed a four of Dick Joyce, Dudley Storey, Ross Collinge and Warren Cole to gold at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Four years later, Dickie was cox of an eight that again featured Joyce, along with Tony Hurt, Wybo Weldman, John Hunter, Lindsay Wilson, Athol Earl, Trevor Coker and Gary Robertson that headed home the United States and the fabled East German crew to win Olympic gold in Munich.

He retired from rowing soon after, but had his arm twisted for a third Olympic campaign and was rewarded with bronze with the eight in Montreal in 1976.

Since then, Dickie has become a well-known entrepreneur/businessman based in Taupo. He set up Simon Dickie Adventures, which initially ran fishing expeditions on Lake Taupo but has since expanded to include pheasant shooting.

"I take overseas people and corporates fishing and shooting - a lot of it is corporate entertainment.

"But my main business now is growing kiwifruit in Te Puke. It all keeps me pretty busy."

Dickie's successes came in an amateur era, but he said the eventual move to professionalism for rowing over the past decade at the elite level was always going to eventuate.

"It was apparent that to achieve the success that we were achieving, it was going to become unsustainable against much more well-funded opposition.

"And so, what New Zealand has done in elite sport is react to the requirements to be internationally competitive - and that means that you've got to ensure that athletes are given every opportunity to achieve their maximum potential.

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"Generally that means that they've got to be put in a position where they can train fulltime."

Dickie said that was something he was able to do without much consideration.

"Well it was easy for me because I didn't have a career then. When I first went away I was still at school. So I could indulge myself with rowing.

"But it probably shaped my career, as I couldn't go to university or anything. I couldn't train and compete at the level that we were as well as starting up a life or education on a career.

"So I put my life on hold I guess for that period of 68 to 72 - which I don't regret."

While the coxed four's win in Mexico was a remarkable achievement, the success of the 72 eight is the one that has become legendary.

The Kiwis exploded from the start, drew out to over a length lead against the likes of superpowers United States, East Germany, Russia and West Germany and never looked like being hauled in.

Back home, New Zealanders watched avidly on television as their hulking heroes received their medals and stood proudly at the playing of the national anthem.

Dickie knows why that crew has established a special place in New Zealand sporting folklore.

"I think it's been widely reported, and I think it's pretty much the dynamic of the individuals that were in that crew," he said.

"It was an extraordinary combination of minds that were singularly aimed at achieving a common goal, which was to win.

"I mean, if you asked me how did all that happen, I think a huge amount of credit has to go to the selectors - at that time, Fred Strachan, Don Rowlands, both of whom are still alive - and Rusty Robertson the coach.

"They were the guys that put the nine individuals together. They left it to Rusty to train that crew.

"It was an extraordinary dynamic of individuals.

"So it wasn't just having the physical skills to achieve success, but it was actually having the mental capacity to drive through that barrier of not only wanting it, but doing whatever it took to achieve it.

"There's a lot of mental factors that came into play to achieve that result."

The New Zealand eight had shown their mettle the previous year with victory over East Germany at the European championships in Copenhagen.

"Certainly they [East Germany] dominated world rowing at that time, and at Copenhagen we beat them by about a metre.

"Subsequently of course, we've learnt that there was a significant amount of enhancement to their performance by way of what we would now commonly call cheating.

"I guess that was the psychological breakthrough that we were looking for to be able to prove that not only were we competitive, but that we could actually beat the best - even if they were cheating.

"It was great motivation for the preparation in 72 when we were training for the Olympics." To repeat that victory in Munich meant plenty to Dickie and his crewmates. "It was a bit of a watershed Olympics, 1972," Dickie said.

"Avery Brundage was still head of the IOC - he was a great advocate of amateur sport as opposed to professional sport.

"I think he was certainly cognisant that there were things going on inside the Eastern countries that were tilting the playing field in their favour. They were using sport as a political tool, which he knew there was an inevitability about that - but he didn't agree with the way they were achieving their results.

"So when we won, we gave him cause to celebrate his viewpoints. You didn't actually need to be a professional, you didn't need to be a cheat - you could be just a wholesome bunch of guys.

"For godsakes, we rowed in a wooden boat! That was the last Olympic race that was ever won in a wooden boat.

"We upheld the principle of everything that was wholesome about sport in those days, by beating those that were using whatever influence they could to try to achieve a result. That to me is probably the single most satisfying feature of 1972 - that we beat the odds and won, and won convincingly.

"That's certainly in the minds of all of the crew when we meet now."

In the 21st century, New Zealand's rowing success has come in small boats - through the likes of Rob Waddell and Mahe Drysdale in the single scull, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell and Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan in a double scull, and Hamish Bond and Eric Murray in a pair.

"You've got to give Rowing New Zealand accolades for their success - it's been extraordinary," Dickie said.

"One shouldn't diminish the fact it's in small boats, and it's easier to get a group of single minds to have that mental capacity to win.

"It's probably easier to get two guys, then four guys - it's bloody difficult to get eight guys and a coxswain to have that same mental will.

"But New Zealand has got the capacity to do it.

"I think that probably what we've missed - the logistics to get a large boat together and to train together is quite hard, quite complicated.

"To be all on the same page, at the same place, at the same time, it's not easy. In the late 60s and early 70s, there weren't the same distractions - whether it be business or lifestyle, we had a different cultural approach to life.

"Now there's sort of social barriers to that sort of thing. What I'm saying is it's possibly not as easy now to get a crew of eight together as it is to get a pair or four together. You've got to be together for several years to be competitive."

Dickie will be closely following the progress of the current New Zealand men's eight, which consists of the crew that won last year's world under-23 title and will defend that gold medal this year with the same rowers.

They'll also compete at a senior World Cup event in Lucerne and may yet contest the senior world champs in Amsterdam in August after impressing with bronze in the opening World Cup regatta in Sydney in March.

"They've done well because, in a way, when I look at their success, they didn't have a lot of agendas when starting out," Dickie said.

"They may have thought about career paths but there was the opportunity to give it their all for a couple of years and they've got some results out of that.

"Whether they can keep that same crew dynamic through until the next Olympics and potentially after that . . . I guess time will tell."

ian.anderson@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

- Waikato

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