Stalking Dick Tonks to learn secret of success

CLUTTERED RETREAT: Dick Tonks’ office is away from the main building, down the drive and behind the giant roller doors.
CLUTTERED RETREAT: Dick Tonks’ office is away from the main building, down the drive and behind the giant roller doors.

Dick Tonks has been coaching at Rowing New Zealand for 20 years and his rowers have won more medals than any other coach in the sport's history. He has won coach of the year at the Halberg Awards five times, world rowing coach of the year three times and is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. The Waikato Times trails the man who's notorious for his reluctance to be in the spotlight and learns a thing or two about persistence. 

A $4.3 million high performance sport centre sits on the edge of Lake Karapiro. It boasts a gymnasium with all kinds of machines, sports science and sports medicine facilities, and a large open plan office with a view to the water. 

Rowing New Zealand staff work on the top floor, where it's quiet as the lake on rest-day. But to find Dick Tonks, follow the sound of talkback radio. Down the drive and to the left, a boatshed with three large roller doors stand ready as the royal guards. If they're up, chances are you'll find Tonks in a room at  the back, where it looks like the caretaker's HQ and it's cold as hell and the stereo rattles with the sound of old men talking sport. If he's not there, he'll be out on the water and you'll wait on an orange plastic chair outside his office, where it's colder still and that radio persists through the closed door. 

He doesn't smile when he approaches his office and finds you there. He sort of squints. He replies to a hello, he doesn't offer it. He mutters. Something. He returns a handshake with a mighty squeeze, he doesn't offer it.

He's 63, a slightly wilted rower. Six foot something, his skin licked by the sun, no poorly hidden potbelly exposing a decline into middle age, but there's a lag when he stands that shows he's stiffening. He wears a funny orange beanie made of polar fleece and sporty clothes, and sporty sunnies on a cord around his neck.

''I've come to interview you for a story.'' 

He returns a laugh, like ho ho ho, ''Oh no, no, no.'' He unlocks the door to his modest dwellings and doesn't invite me in.

If there's any human being in the vicinity of the boatshed, Tonks will pitch him as the real story that's been grossly overlooked by every media outlet: ''He's the one you wanna talk to!'' It's like he's a child trying to wiggle out of a hug, but I'm not letting go. 

In 2012, Tonks told Tony Veitch on Radio Sport: ''If you manage to catch me and ask to do an interview, I'll say no ... but if you persist, then I'm quite happy to do it.'' 

I remind him of this on the sixth attempt. After trips to the shed to plead for an interview - ''Please! I'll bring you coffee! I've come all this way!'' - trips to the lake to find the unfriendly doors down for the day, phone calls to his cronies, dealings with Rowing New Zealand communications staff (''the executive assistant mentioned you were going to just turn up and talk to Dick Tonks,'' wrote the media manager in her first email, ''that won't really work.'') and at last he looked at me from across the desk.

''You're persistent, I'll give you that.'' 

His office is full of stuff. A long desk covered in newspaper a week old - ''As usual, I'm up to date.'' - shelves full of rowing equipment, a mini fridge, an ancient TV, a more ancient stereo system, a mug full of pens that says Rowing is about the human spirit, a ruler proclaiming DICK TONKS as its owner in black permanent marker. There's no computer or phone -  though apparently he has a tablet and a cellphone he never uses - and there's nowhere obvious to sit, so leaning on a massage table is as close as visitors get to comfy, but you get the impression they don't visit much and they don't stay long. 

''I've been in the shed four years, I suppose. I was up there for a little while,'' he nods to the sports centre, ''and then I came down here ...''

''Why's that?''

''Oh, I dunno. I'll tell you after the Olympics, perhaps, depending how I go ... whether I'm in a good mood.'' On media day last month, TV crews and reporters loaded up on to a barge to watch our darling rowers chase each other up and down the lake and report on progress or lack thereof. I asked Tonks for a spot on his boat and on this occasion, caught him in one of the good moods, though I'm sure he instantly regretted saying yes.

I sat next to a nice Australian coach who lent me his raincoat and he, Tonks and I shivered our way alongside the athletes as weather turned to rain, Tonks and the Aussie with complicated stopwatches under their thumbs. 

''There's only one condition,'' he said as we were taking off. ''You can't report on anything we say to each other.''

 I can report they said very little. That the lake started out still and Tonks started out chatty and my surprise at his congeniality rendered me silent. 

''Best time of year, innit, Autumn? Not too hot, not too cold.''

I'm sure the Australian was as surprised as I was, but Tonks soon settled into silence. When we hopped off the boat, I asked the Aussie if he knew Tonks before today. Yeah, he said, he'd known him for years.

''Dick's Dick, y'know?''

At one point, Tonks stopped the boat to remove a pile of weeds from one of the racing lanes. It was like pulling hair from a plughole - it just kept coming. His hands worked their way into the water without the smallest splash and he garnished our boat till it became a green, soggy wreath. He moved gently, the water appeared to slow him down, from staccato to adagio, and later, back in his office, I noticed the slowing again when he talked about his sport, in the way people become comfortable when they talk about what they love. 

''You've just gotta keep training, eh. You never know what the rowers are capable of. You're trying to get them to somewhere they've never been. They're training away and they never know, they might be doing seven minutes here and you might improve them down to six minutes thirty, but it's still the same hard work to them, so they don't feel as though they've changed. It's just hard work for them no matter how fast they're going and you're just tryna get them better and better. You've just gotta go training on the water, that's all.''

 It's a philosophy that hasn't changed much in the more than 20 years he's been a coach: Miles on the lake. It's such common knowledge that Tonks subscribes to the Arthur Lydiard MILES MAKE CHAMPIONS approach that the slogan can't just belong to Lydiard anymore.

''You've just gotta spend time on the boat to get the motion of your muscles moving in the right order. The feel of the boat, y'know, there's no shortcut to that. Going out there and tapping along, tapping along, until the boat becomes a part of you, and then you can do whatever you like.''  

The last day I interview him, I ask why he loves rowing.

''Oh, I dunno. Why does anybody enjoy anything? It's just something you enjoy doing, so you do it.''

Then I ask why he loves coaching. ''Well, you can't call it work, can ya.'' 

But his rowers can call it work. On the lake at 8am, six days a week, heaving through water till they're bone-tired and demented looking, Tonks riding beside them giving notes through a loud speaker. Off the water, he says very little at all.

Mahe Drysdale has worked with Tonks for 14 years, but didn't invite his coach to his wedding last year.  ''And that's something I respect,'' Drysdale says. ''He doesn't want to be my friend, y'know? We're partners, we work together and we're trying to achieve a common goal.

"Dick's happy doing his job on the water, that's where he's happiest, out there. And when we're overseas, he'll be in his room when he's not on the water and you don't see too much of him - that's just the way he works.''

Women's double sculler Fiona Bourke made the under-23 team in 2010 and remembers Tonks ''was the one you wanted to impress''. He now coaches her (and  Zoe Stevenson) in the women's double sculls.  

''Dick believes you come here to do a job,'' Bourke says, ''and your job is to get on the water, to work hard, to try to make a few changes and go home and recover. There's no hanging around and no chitchat. He's not here to be your best friend, he's here to be your coach. Sometimes you need that distance, because when the going gets tough, you want to know that he's not going to back down for you, that he's gonna push you to places that you don't wanna go, and having that distance gives you the respect.  What he says goes and you do it, there's no questioning it, there's no, Oh, I'm tired. You put your head down and you do it.'' 

Calvin Ferguson, lead men's sculling coach, says Tonks has transformed Rowing New Zealand and describes him as ''the most successful coach we've had in New Zealand, by far''. Seems strange, then, that Tonks operates out of a shed under the main building?

''He prefers it there,'' says Ferguson, ''he likes to spread out and have his space.'' When I ask Tonks about it a third time, he's circumspect as ever: ''We won't go there.''

There are a few other things he won't discuss. His family life is one. So are his views on modern technology and whether it's advancing the sport.

''We won't go there. I'll tell you after the Olympics.'' 

You might be able to slide the odd question through and he won't notice he's answered till it's done. Kind of like the interview itself:  You have as long as it takes before he feels like he's being interviewed.

''Are we done?'' you say when he stands up and starts walking towards the door. ''Ha! Yes, yes. We're done.'' 

In my hunting and gathering, I found out that Tonks has a five-month-old son, Leo. That the day Leo was born, Tonks didn't turn up to practice. It's the one time in 14 years that Mahe Drysdale remembers not knowing where his coach was when he arrived at the lake at 8am. During an interview, I ask how Leo is. Tonks looks straight at me, frowns, mutters, ''He's quite good, quite healthy and strong.''

He has two sons - and I failed to ferret out their names, just that the eldest is 36 - from his first marriage. Then Archie, Libby and Leo from his second marriage to former rower Florence Matthews. 

''But we won't go there.'' 

Tonks met Matthews in Wanganui, his hometown. He'd been a rower himself from the age of 13 and his dad was a winning rower before that. As a kid, he wanted to be ...  ''God, I don't know, I didn't think about that stuff.'' But he thought about rowing enough to go to the Wanganui Public Library and borrow  the only two books about rowing it had. At 21, he rowed in the coxless four at the Olympics in Munich and won silver. He was the young buck on the boat. 

''There were a whole lot of experienced guys and I learnt from them, tracked them in training, tried to keep up. You've got to prove yourself when you're the young person, you've gotta train harder than they do, you've gotta push yourself. I came from being a maiden, I had nothing. I had to make sure I was pushing, pushing, all the time.''

Former teammate Dudley Storey says Tonks hasn't changed a bit since the '70s, when they first met. 

''He was very, very quiet. I won't say insular, but he very much minded his own business. He was physically very strong and mentally strong, but you never saw it because he was so blimmin' quiet. He was single then, and we were all married, but we'd try to include him on a Saturday night if we were playing a game of cards or something. He always came and sat down, then he'd have a cup of tea and go again.'' 

The forty-plus years of his life based largely in Wanganui were split between family and rowing and full-time work. Work for the railways (''pushing paper, 8 to 5''), then work spinning wool on night shift at Cavalier Carpets, where he'd finish up and head straight to the rowing club, where he'd sleep till the rowers arrived around 5.30am and he worked as a volunteer coach.

In the late '80s he coached the women's four (Florence Matthews was on that boat) and Dudley Storey describes his old mate as the pied piper, leading them to Karapiro where they picked up a bunch of national medals and Rowing New Zealand took notice. 

''We had fun,'' says Tonks. ''They were club rowers and they trained hard and they got the results from it.'' 

Rowing has changed a lot since then. 

''It's the attitude these days,'' says Dudley Storey, ''there's a bit of rah-rah-rah.''

Flash buildings have been built with new equipment and new coaching techniques and systems. Tonks is the antithesis to it all, but he's also to blame: his success helped win the attention of high performance sport and with that came funding and facilities and a degree of accountability. Even so, he just wants to be left to do his thing.

''Dick's about the old style of coaching,'' says Dudley Storey. ''I'd be exactly the same - if some people want to sound the whistles and parade around in their black rowing singlets all the time, they can go ahead and do it. He just doesn't wanna get involved. 

''Down at Karapiro, there has been confrontation about his attitude ...'' and he recounts a story that's done the rounds in rowing circles, where Tonks is reported to have said: ''I'm going to tell you right now that good coaching is a dictatorship and I am a dictator.''

I read my notes to Tonks to get his take on the rumour. He laughs. ''Oh yes, I did say that.''

''Well,'' he says, ''that was a very bad year,'' but he won't say what year it was.

''There were a lot of rumours going round and somebody needed to say it ... it was very early on and we were trying to set a culture and change things around and the fact is, if they don't wanna do what I tell them, then they don't have to come. It's a simple fact. If they don't like the way I coach, they can go and get somebody else. I was just making it clear I was in charge.

''It didn't go down well with New Zealand Rowing, but I didn't care, I was proved right.''

He was proved right with 25 medals at the world champs and six at the Olympics. Enough to leave him alone, for the most part, doing his thing. 

I ask when he plans to retire, but he says not yet. 

''One day,'' says Dudley Storey, ''the door down at lower level Karapiro won't be open and Tonks will be home in front of the fire having a beer.''

''Yeah,'' says Tonks, ''one day I'll just stop turning up.''

I ask about the legacy he'll leave behind.

 ''Well, it'd be nice if there was one, but nah, there won't be.''

''Nothing at all?''

''Ahhh, well, training and style of rowing would be nice, but that's just a continuation of what's happened in New Zealand rowing for the last 150 years or so. If it wasn't me, it'd be someone else.''

''So there's no point to any of it?''

He laughs at his own melancholy. ''No, not really, things just move on, you just do what you do. I mean, this is pretty good, it's not like going to the railways, pushing paper ... you just do your bit along the way.''

I remembered a question from the day I rode along with Tonks in the boat, watching the young bucks row the way he once had.

''It must be hard,'' I say, ''to look at the young guys and to know you'll never row like them again.''

His voice goes gentle as the lake on rest day. He looks somewhere, not at me. 

''Oh yeah, it'd be nice to be back in the boat ... yeah ... to see the water nice and flat ... to be out there spinning along. If I knew then what I know now ... time goes quickly. When you look back, you don't realise.'' And up he stands and heads for the door.  


Dick Tonks' first gold medal winning crew was in the 1994 Commonwealth Championships in the Women's Double Sculls (Brenda Lawson and Philippa Baker). His first gold in the World Championships were also in 1994, with the Women's Double Sculls (Brenda Lawson and Philippa Baker).

Total No of World Championship Medals as coach: 25

Gold - 13

Silver - 7

Bronze - 5 

Total No of Olympic Medals as coach: 6 

5 - Olympic Gold

1 - Olympic Bronze 

Halberg Awards: Tonks won coach of the year in 2012, 2009, 2005, 2004 and 1999. He's been a finalist  12 times. 

World Rowing Awards: Tonks has won World Rowing coach of the year three times: in 2005, 2010 and 2012.

Tonks won silver as a rower in the men's coxless four at the summer Olympics in Munich, 1972.

Among rowers he has coached in his two decades at Rowing New Zealand are Mahe Drysdale, Rob Waddell, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles.

He is  coaching Mahe Drysdale and the women's double sculls (Fiona Bourke and Zoe Stevenson) for the championships in Europe this year.

Waikato Times