Smoke on the water

Nathan Cohen of Southern competes in the Mens Premier IX semi final during day 3 of the New Zealand Rowing Championships at Lake Ruataniwha in February in Wellington.
Nathan Cohen of Southern competes in the Mens Premier IX semi final during day 3 of the New Zealand Rowing Championships at Lake Ruataniwha in February in Wellington.

Refocused and re-energised, super sculler Nathan Cohen tells Marc Hinton he's ready to leave the golden hue of London in his wake. 

IT WAS in Africa, sashaying between game parks and rugby stadiums, that the fog cleared for Nathan Cohen. Suddenly, he could see the future as clear as a bell, and in it, there very much remained an oar clasped firmly in each of his calloused mitts.

Cohen had sort of figured that, post-London, and his epic gold medal in rowing's double sculls with Joe Sullivan, that he would take a year away from the sport, before returning to make a tilt at a third straight Olympic appearance.

Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen win New Zealand's favorite sporting moment at the 2013 Halberg Awards.
Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen win New Zealand's favorite sporting moment at the 2013 Halberg Awards.

But in Africa late last year, where he took a leisurely post-Games trip with fiancée Jackie Hughson, Cohen felt the passion and the purpose come flooding back. When he returned home and made his way back on to the tranquil summer waters of Lake Karapiro, he found himself even more re-energised.

"Sport's ruled my life for 15 years and it was nice to get away and have a normal holiday and get out of that bubble for a little bit," says Cohen, as we catch up at Karapiro, shortly before this week's national trials. "I came back and had a think about it, and went out training with the younger generation we've got coming through. They're all there trying to take our spots, and seeing that enthusiasm in the younger ones, I really started enjoying it just for what it was again. Then I realised, why take a year off when I still want to be out there and part of it."

So here he is, by default the senior member of Calvin Ferguson's crack New Zealand sculling squadron. The significantly more senior Mahe Drysdale is taking a sabbatical, indulging in a sort of fantasy sporting splurge. And it's a position that sits pretty comfortably with this 27-year-old, who has cemented himself as an intrinsic part of the golden generation of Kiwi rowing.

"I know I can be a far better athlete," declares Cohen, the rolled R's in his lilt evidence of his Southland upbringing. "If I didn't think I could be faster I'd struggle to go to Rio. But it's easier to commit to another four years knowing at the end, hopefully, you're going to be better than you are today."

Cohen and his fellow mainlander Sullivan became instant icons with their fabulous victory in London, the first of three golds and two bronzes that Kiwi rowers would win at Eton Dorney. It was the quintessential Kiwi moment, the undersized, underdog competitors coming from deep in the field with a withering smoke-on-the-water finish to take gold.

Not surprisingly, it bolted in as New Zealand sporting moment of the year. Murray and Bond in the pair may have been more dominant and Drysdale's gold was a tremendous tale of redemption, but there was no beating the double for pure excitement, exhilaration and X-factor.

Remarkably, Cohen has never sat down and analysed the race, as he's done so many others. Maybe that's because it remains so indelibly etched in his psyche.

"It was one of those races we'd trained so much for, when it happened it felt like we had been there before," he recalls. So Cohen had a sense of serenity, even when fifth at the halfway mark and fourth, nearly 2.5 seconds off the pace, with just 500m remaining. "It was close to what we expected, and probably looked worse on TV. We stuck to our guns, and coming into that last 500 it's what you've trained for. We hadn't been outsprinted in a big race before and we managed to get the one that mattered."

Cohen describes the public acclaim since as "humbling and overwhelming". Our rowers all talk about living in that "bubble" in Cambridge, and often it's only post-Olympics they get to inhale the public's acclaim and awe.

"The only thing I've ever tried to do is race as hard as I possibly can and represent New Zealand as best as I possibly can," says Cohen. "I guess our style of racing makes what can be a less-than-spectator friendly sport sometimes a bit more exciting."

He's adamant the gold has changed neither him nor his life, and maintains a nice perspective on it: "The only difference between this goal and any other goal I've had is this one's been watched by a few more people on TV."

One thing everybody did see on the dais in London was how much smaller the Kiwis were than their rivals. That's intrigued people.

Cohen uses a cycling analogy to explain it. "Two cyclists can go the same speed, and one guy can be pumping a big gear peddling slowly, and the other can be pumping a lighter gear peddling faster. Guys like Mahe or Hamish and Eric, they're long and strong. We take slightly shorter strokes with a bit more force in them. And we just take more of them."

It makes sense that Cohen and Sullivan defend their title in Rio. But, shorter term, Cohen is keen for a "different" year to keep things fresh. He wants to row the quad in the Sydney World Cup regatta next month, and clearly the fact his younger brother, Hayden, a world under-23 champion, is now part of the national mix, holds appeal.

The Cohen brothers were in the national title-winning quad scull, while Nathan also claimed his second single sculls title in the absence of Drysdale. The freshness and potential of the younger brigade clearly excites the old hand.

He talks about going "back to basics" and building himself into an even more effective sculler. "I feel mentally refreshed and it's almost a challenge in itself getting your body back in shape. I've enjoyed getting through each session, one day at a time.

"Every day these young guys attack me as hard as they can. It's been great for me, and it brings my training speed back up. It's a win-win situation - I benefit from their enthusiasm and drive, and it keeps me honest trying to keep ahead of them." All told, Cohen is in a good head space. He says it feels like "the first day at school again" out at Cambridge, and reckons that's bringing the best out in him. "I've always said the day I stop enjoying the sport is the day I finish".

That looks a long way off yet.


Height: 181cm

Born: 2/1/1986, Christchurch

Started rowing: 1998 Club: Invercargill Rowing Club

Major achievements 2012 Olympics: gold in double sculls with Joseph Sullivan. 2011 world champs: gold in double sculls with Sullivan. 2010 world champs: gold in double sculls with Sullivan. 2009 world champs: 4th in double sculls, with Matthew Trott. 2008 Olympics: 4th in double sculls with Rob Waddell.

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