Big boats still hold major appeal

Last updated 05:00 10/12/2013
Warren Cole
DIFFERENT ERA: Warren Cole won Olympic medals when the rowers used to have to work fulltime and fit their training around it.

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As a dual Olympian, Warren Cole used to get paid $3 a day to row for New Zealand.

But the former gold medallist doesn't know if he would have enjoyed being a well-compensated full-time athlete with Rowing New Zealand in the modern era.

"I'm not sure," said the 73-year-old Cole from his Hamilton home.

"Some of the mindless training they do now, I don't know if I could cope with it."

Cole went to Hamilton Boys' High School and lived in Whakatane during the era when he emerged as a pre-eminent strong man of New Zealand rowing in the late 1960s and early 70s.

He was part of the New Zealand four that trained ahead of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, at Kerr's Reach in Christchurch, that had to fit their programme around work hours.

"While in Christchurch we all had to work," Cole said.

"I had a job, I had to get up at seven in the morning and cycle seven ks to work and then be available at 3 o'clock in the afternoon for training every day.

"We needed to work or there was no other way of living - there were no other financial benefits. I think we got US$3 a day whilst we were overseas during the Olympics.

"All the guys worked - they worked hard -they had to support either themselves or their families."

Cole has remained a big fan of New Zealand rowing - he was at the 2012 London Olympics when Kiwi boats won three gold and two bronze medals at the Eton Dorney venue - and admits "there's no substitute for working hard and being tough".

"The development of technique is pretty good now, as we see in the results of our small boat crews."

But he feels the Kiwi rowers that won gold in Mexico and in Munich in 1972 had more input into their programmes.

"The crews in my era had a lot more say in what happened, what they were doing, how they were training. It's now all pretty much pre-determined.

"We were very specific in what we did in the time available. We did a lot more cross-training by necessity, but when it came down to the fitness required at that time, we were well prepared."

Cole wanted to be in the men's eight to compete in Mexico but missed selection and instead trained as part of the four along with stroke Dick Joyce, Dudley Storey, Ross Collinge and coxswain Simon Dickie.

Yet their trip to Mexico was no guarantee.

"The eight had absolute priority - the four was there as a back-up originally," Cole said.

"The association, or the people involved, had to find the money to send us. We weren't really sure that we were actually going to go to Mexico until about two weeks before we left.

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"I guess we all had ambitions to be in the eight as it was always destined to go to the Games. Nevertheless, we got on with the training and we trained the best we could and developed into quite a formidable combination."

Once confirmed for Mexico, thoughts turned to the concerns over how troublesome competing in the thin air at altitude would be.

"There was a lot of publicity about the effect of altitude on endurance athletes," Cole said.

"Our management was very careful to sort of disguise the potential debilitating effects of it.

"But we arrived in Mexico five weeks before the Games started - we were the first team in the Olympic village that I can recall. We had those five weeks of acclimatisation and I believe that we needed every single day of it, but a lot of the other crews didn't comeuntil quite later on."

Cole and his crewmates won their heat and semifinal comfortably and went into the final with a very aggressive race plan.

"We took a risk and that was what you had to do if you wanted to achieve these goals, going out very hard over the first 1000 metres.

"We had a good lead and at the 1500m mark our lead was much reduced, and although we were very much in oxygen debt we had a big enough lead to be able to hold on."

They won gold by nearly three seconds from East Germany and Switzerland, while the much-vaunted eight could only manage fourth.

Cole was the stroke for the New Zealand eight that won bronze at the world champs in St Catharine's in Canada in 1970.

"But for various reasons, business and personal reasons, I couldn't go - I was selected but couldn't go - in '71," he said.

"The eight won that event and the selectors were very unlikely to change it - and they didn't. I missed an opportunity there maybe.

"Looking back on it now I should never have, for whatever reason, not gone on that tour."

He was part of a new-look four for the 1972 Munich Olympics with John Clark, Peter Lindsay, Dave Lindstrom and Chris Nilsson that finished sixth in their final, while an eight that included Joyce and Dickey wrote themselves into New Zealand sporting folklore by winning gold.

While Cole won gold at the national champs in 1973 as part of a Waikato eight, rowing gave way to work.

"I had to, I had a family," he explained.

He started off at Carter Holt Harvey, then was a big factor in the development of the Waikato Milking Systems brand, but did pick up an unusual line of work along the way.

"When I went on my OE to Europe, I ran out of money and so I had a friend in Scotland, who I subsequently married, and I got a job in Hunterston Nuclear Power Station [in Ayrshire] in a team that loaded all the uranium 235 into reactors.

"That was quiet a lucrative job - and quite dangerous as it turns out. We were right inside the core of the nuclear reactor 10 hours a day."

With Waikato Milking Systems, Cole had shares in the business and was also an export manager.

"So I spent a lot of time overseas promoting the business in a lot of faraway places with strange sounding names."

Cole has been retired for about three years, but still kept his allegiances with rowing after he finished competing.

"I coached at Waikato Rowing Club, and in 1977 managed New Zealand crews to the world champs in Amsterdam. At the 1978 world champs here [at Lake Karapiro] I managed the New Zealand rowing team, and was also on the volunteer team that built the facilities for the 1978 world champs.

"I was on the committee of Waikato Rowing Club for 20 years, and have been Karapiro Rowing Inc facilities convenor, which oversaw preparation of all the facilities for the 2010 world champs here."

Like many rowing fans, along with casual Kiwi sports followers, Cole would love to see Rowing NZ produce world-class eights again.

"It's a real shame they we haven't been able to produce a big boat for many years," he said.

"Since [coach] Harry Mahon produced those two gold-medal winning boats in Lucerne [1982 world champs] and Duisburg [1983 world champs].

"We probably could have had successful eights and fours had they been the priority, but they're not. In our day, the eight was absolute priority and the four was next.

"Any other boats were subsequent to that if we had enough talented rowers to fill them."

Now Rowing NZ aims to contest all classes at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, with the men's eight a realistic goal as a quality crew after the NZ eight won gold at this year's world under-23 champs.

That raises the prospect of the excitement again of Kiwis in what Cole still sees as "the glory event".

"It always was and it always will be."

- Waikato Times

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