Water wizards at helm for New Zealand in 2013

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 31/12/2013
Polly Powrie and Jo Aleh

TWIN WINS: Polly Powrie, left, and Jo Aleh not only won the world 470 sailing title but were also awarded the international female sailors of the year crown last month.

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OPINION: Kiwis continue to be whizzes on the water as New Zealand celebrates another punch-above-our-weight sporting year.

New Zealanders won nine Olympic discipline world titles - to rank eighth on the global gold medals table in 2013.

That's some feat for a nation of four million at the rump-end of the world, far from the sporting incubators of Europe and North America.

New Zealand could claim to be top of the per capita medals table with only Russia and the United States (27), China (26), Germany (15), Great Britain (14), Japan (11) and France (10) garnering more gold.

Little wonder High Performance Sport New Zealand chief executive Alex Baumann thought all his Christmases had come at once when he played Santa on December 18 and distributed dollops of dough to deserving sporting codes.

Baumann and his board have set a goal of 14 medals - one more than London 2012 - at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

They can't be accused of over-confidence based on the derring-do deeds of 2013.

At the time of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a cruel joke did the rounds. "What's the difference between the New Zealand Olympic kayaking team and the entire Australian Olympics squad? A: "No difference, they both won four gold medals."

That wasn't an aberration. Most of our magical moments at Olympic tournaments since have been in the rowing, yachting, canoeing and equestrian arenas.

It was more of the same in 2013.

Six of New Zealand's nine Olympic discipline world champions in 2013 came from yachting (three), , canoeing (two) and rowing (one). Armchair admirals certainly need not fear where the next generation of champions is coming from once the current America's Cup generation hang up their deck shoes.

Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie backed up their London Olympics gold medal with the world title in the women's 470 class at La Rochelle in France.

Their male counterparts, Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - silver medallists at London - were on the top rung of the podium at the world championships, as were Alex Maloney and Molly Meech in the women's 49er FX class.

London Olympics champion Lisa Carrington retained her world K1 200 metre title and picked up a bronze medal in the K1 500m class. But the big bolter was 23-year-old Aucklander Teneale Hatton, who won the K1 5000m crown - albeit not an Olympic discipline.

By rowing's lofty standards, the 2013 world championships in South Korea were relatively barren with only one gold medal.

But that could be attributed to some luminaries from the London regatta, notably single sculls ace Mahe Drysdale, kicking back and cruising this year.

You could bet your house on Eric Murray and Hamish Bond delivering the goods in the men's pair. Their 2013 world title was their 16th consecutive title at Olympic, world championship and World Cup level. They haven't lost a race since 2009 - not even a change of coach from long-time hard taskmaster Dick Tonks to Australian import Noel Donaldson could slow Murray and Bond's momentum.

The Kiwi team also nailed three silver and one bronze medals at Chungiu. Three of the medals went to female crews.

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Cycling has real rock star status in Europe and New Zealand produced another world track champion in 2013 when Aaron Gate won the omnium title in Belarus to become the second Kiwi champion in the unique five-race event after Christchurch's Hayden Godfrey in 2008.

New Zealand's great Dane, Linda Villumsen, underscored her world-class status with a silver medal in the individual time trial at the world road championships in Italy in September after a fourth-place finish in London.

There were silver medals on the track for the New Zealand men's sprint team and Simon van Velthooven in the 1000m time trial.

Track and field star Valerie Adams also proved as enduringly successful in the shot put circle as Murray and Bond on the rowing lake. The 29-year-old won her fourth world title in Russia in August and has now 42 consecutive contests.

The new kids on the Olympic block, the New Zealand rugby sevens teams, did the double at the World Cup in Russia, winning the men's and women's titles.

Two other teams were to the fore in 2013. The All Blacks won 14 tests on the bounce, including epic encounters with South Africa and Ireland, to become the first nation to complete an unbeaten season since the game turned professional in 1996.

There are two ways of looking at this - the All Blacks are invincible (accepted wisdom in this part of the globe), or international rugby's at a pretty low ebb compared with 10 years ago when any of five teams would have won the 2003 World Cup.

The Black Sox bounced back from a 2009 towelling against Australia to win a record sixth world men's softball championship title in their own backyard at Albany, Auckland.

In a scene straight out of a Captain Courageous boy's own annual, Sox skipper Rhys Casley slugged a three-run homer to win the grand final.

Seventeenth-century poet John Milton wrote that "they also serve who only stand and wait". Evergreen New Zealand rider Andrew Nicholson lived up to that image in 2013.

After so long in the shadow of compatriots Mark Todd and Blyth Tait, Nicholson consolidated his ranking as the No 1 rider in the world. The 52-year-old scooped a couple of prestigious three-day eventing grand prix titles with a third to follow with fellow Kiwi Jock Paget set to lose his Burghley crown after his horse tested positive to a banned substance.

Lydia Ko's rise from teenage amateur ingenue beating the pros on the world women's golf circuit was one of the biggest sports stories of 2013. The 16-year-old is certainly a star in the making, but will her future feats capture Kiwis' imagination to the same degree now she's turned pro, been signed by some of the golfing world's big brands and dumped her lifelong coach?

The English premier football league and the United States' National Basketball Association are, arguably, two of the world's biggest sporting stages and there's a regular Kiwi presence in both arenas. All Whites captain Winston Reid has established himself at West Ham United and has been linked to a transfer to EPL high-fliers Arsenal. Big Steven Adams has also made a tremendous leap from college basketball rookie to NBA status with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Money can't buy the type of profile both athletes now have.

But there were sporting disappointments to swallow in 2013 too. Qualifying for a second successive football World Cup tournament was always going to be problematic once Oceania were given a playoffs pathway against opponents from the Caribbean, North and Central America regions. But few football fans expected the All Whites to capitulate so cravenly and to crash to a 9-3 playoff series defeat to Mexico.

Finishing second to Australia in a Rugby League World Cup tournament is not necessarily a disgrace. But the Kiwis were rightly criticised for running up the white flag so early in the contest at Old Trafford in November.
But the clear winner of the jilted bridesmaid booby prize was America's Cup skipper Dean Barker and his Team New Zealand crew.

There'll be rocks beneath their beach towels this summer as they scratch their sunburnt bonces and try to figure out how Oracle could overturn a 8-1 deficit to retain the Auld Mug off San Francisco.

But that's the beauty of sport, no matter how well a team or individual has performed, there's always next year.

- The Press

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