Thanks, Max, for legacy

Sometimes in life you come in touch with another group culture or activity which on first contact can seem like an alien world. Journalists probably see more of this phenomenon than civilians as we often parachute into situations where the rules and cultures are quite different to our usual experience.

I spent a few days at New Zealand Fashion Week in Auckland some years ago trying to make sense and make fun of this deadly serious and arcane industry. I once attended a romance writers' (think Mills and Boon) weekend, where I was soon immersed in a culture as divorced from my reality as a Buddhist convent in Kashmir. I also had a very scary afternoon encamped with the Moonies.

Last weekend when I went to the South Island rowing championships at Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel I chalked up another such experience. I went to support my youngest who is the raw cox of a talented four who race under the Canterbury Rowing Club.

The general feeling about rowing, unless it's our girls and boys in the Olympics, is it's an elitist sport and very much the domain of the country's private schools. An excursion to Ruataniwha confirms this is partly true.

The blue-blood schools like Rangi Ruru and Christ's College have their own tents, boats, sponsors, trailers, coaches and incredibly supportive parents, as do schools like Christchurch Boys High and Christchurch Girls High. They have sponsors like the Christchurch Colorectal Clinic, which has its name emblazoned on one of the boats.

But the sport is much more egalitarian than you would think and there are plenty of battlers represented among the offspring of wealthy farmers and medical specialists.

There was no hoity-toity behaviour that I could discern during the weekend, although I did park my battered Nissan Sentra with the blown gearbox and one of its wheel trims missing a long way down the road from the carpark.

The organisers seemed especially down to earth. We heard one of the head people giving female contestants a barrelling over the PA system for blocking the female toilets with feminine products. He went into detail about how much it would cost the organisation and how some "poor devil" would have to get in there to extract the mess.

A day sitting on the grass at the course soon makes it clear the sport requires a dedication from athletes, parents and volunteers that puts most sports to shame.

The real eye-opener for me, however, was the rowing facility at Lake Ruataniwha itself and its importance to the economy of Twizel. I know a little bit about the history of the course through doing a few stories on Max Smith, who some will recognise as the father of Twizel and who has his name on a Twizel street sign.

Smith, still alive and kicking, was the project engineer on the massive Waitaki River hydro- electric project and was in charge of carving up the Mackenzie landscape in a way that was almost god-like. For years he fought a lone battle with head office and the county, arguing Twizel was too well established to just "chuck away".

He was sacked in the early 80s over a minor scandal involving the building of the Ruataniwha course and the rowing club without authorisation from head office.

"I believed you gave a bit back to the community . . . and in the end I was prepared to buck the system to do it," he told me in 1991.

Looking at the stunning 2km course and scenic backdrop, I wondered how much credit people like Smith get when the sporting accolades are handed out.

Rowing would have to be one of our most successful Olympic sports, although outside the Olympics, one of the least covered by the media.

The winning rowers obviously deserve all the credit they get and I suppose coaches also get their fair share. The people who helped provide the facilities to make it all possible are, I suspect, soon forgotten.

The course Smith created in Twizel must have had a major influence on the strength of rowing in New Zealand.

From the ranks of those school boys and girls who strain at the oars at contests such as the South Island champs come the future champions who we laud and call our own at the Olympics.

And, sure, the rowers might well inhabit a contained and unusual world, perhaps elitist in part, which produces the goods. Probably in much the same way as elite secondary school rugby sets the foundation for world-beating All Black teams.

How far the track to rowing victory leads back to Max Smith and his Twizel days is hard to say. But in his own dam building, "get on with it way" he created not only a typical yet idiosyncratic New Zealand town but also the foundation which nurtured another highly successful and somewhat separate world. The realm of rowing.

The Press