Friday, 3 August 2012

NZ's greatest sporting moment in over 50 years

Gold medalists from left: Eric Murray, Mahe Drysdale and Hamish Bond carry bronze medalist Juliette Haigh near Eton Dorney, London yesterday, 3 August 2012

I remember so clearly that golden day in 1960, huddled round an old Ultimate radio in Dunedin New Zealand, when we heard through patches of static that Peter Snell had won the men’s 800 metre in the Olimpico Stadium. We had just finished cheering when we listened to that remarkable NZ athlete Murray Halbery set a blister pace with 3 laps to go in the 5000 metres, to win our second gold in the space of an hour. Yesterday, was our finest sporting moment since 1960.

Peter Snell crosses the line to win the 800 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Snell, at this time a rank outsider, came in just ahead of world-record-holder Roger Moens of Belgium.

Hamish Bond and Eric Murray and Magnificent Mahe Drysdale have done New Zealand proud.

Watching a physically and emotionally shattered Drysdale cross the finish-line first ranks as our best moment since Murray Halberg brought in the second leg of the double to match Peter Snell in the Olimpico Stadium in Rome in 1960.

How could anyone not be moved by the sight of Drysdale choking back the tears at achieving his life's dream after sickness restricted him to bronze in Beijing.

"Mission accomplished and time to put the feet up."

That is the message from New Zealand's perfect men's pair of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray after bolting to a gold medal at the Olympic rowing regatta yesterday.

Neither is in a rush to make a decision on their next move, though Murray joked going under six minutes would be something to aim for.

"I think we will challenge ourselves but we need to step back and think what is going to motivate us," Bond said.

Bond and Murray crowned four years of domination with their predictably easy win, taking their tally of consecutive internationals wins to 37.

Little guys, big engines. And a golden outcome.

                    New Zealand's Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan celebrate their gold medal.

A day earlier Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan rowed the race of their life to win gold at the London Olympics - the first for New Zealand at the 2012 gamesv

On a memorable day at Dorney Lake yesterday, Kiwi double scullers Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan mowed the field down over the last 500m to deliver New Zealand' first gold medal of the Olympic Games.

It was a fabulous display by the gritty New Zealanders – both hailing from the Mainland – as they backed their finishing power and timed their late run to perfection to send the big contingent of Kiwi supporters at the purpose-built rowing venue into party mode. More golds may be to follow from their squadmates, but even Mahe Drysdale and the perfect pair may struggle to match this for drama.

As they stood, a short time later, on the podium at Eton Dorney, those gleaming gold medals having just been draped round their necks, a clear picture started to emerge. The Kiwis were dwarfed by the Italian and Slovenian crews either side of them, demonstrating vividly that it' not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but the size of the fight in the dog.

Later Cohen, Christchurch-born, but raised in Southland, and Sullivan, the pride of Picton, would reveal that it was their shorter stature that ended up being their competitive advantage. That, and the big engines that drove them both to a finish that exhausted every last ounce of energy they had to give.

“I think there' just that toughness within our boat of just wanting to be the best we possibly can be,” said Cohen when asked to define the qualities that enabled them to achieve their Olympic dream.

“There' some big guys out there and that' why we can’t keep up out of the start. We do try, and if anything our first 1000 [metres] is harder than our second.

“It' not so much worrying about the size aspect, but understanding what our strengths are, and our strengths are impulse speed and ability to really change it up in that last 500.

"So it' about just focusing on our first 1000 to get into a position to use our strengths.

“Our weakness has always been out start and we work a lot more on that than what we do our last 500. Today it all came together in the right way.”

Added Sullivan: “We’re not the biggest guys in the world and I think we’ve kinda shown today anyone can do big things, you don’t have to be built for it. You’ve just got to have the heart and the head to push hard and get through.”

Because they’re shorter, the Kiwi double are able to lift their stroke rating more effectively when Cohen yells his trademark “Go”, or as was the case yesterday, “Yip”, and the sprint to the line commences.

It's like they have another gear to go to – either that or a secret outboard hidden somewhere – because, just when their rivals are starting to feel the pinch, they have a closing speed no one can match.

Coach Calvin Ferguson said it' all been about turning a disadvantage into an advantage.

“You saw them on the podium, they’re not very big, they can’t row long and strong like the other guys. Their best quality is the sprint for them, but they’ve got to be in a position to do that.

“Some people might say they don’t work hard enough early in the race, but if they did they might not be at the line first.

"We’ve worked with how they are naturally and developed that natural rhythm, natural style.

“It' a bit rough round the edges, but hey, it works.”

The 26-year-old Cohen, who looked a cool customer, even while Sullivan was clambering around the shell congratulating his mate, admitted he was almost overwhelmed by what he’d achieved.

He’d tasted the Games in 2008, when he and his hero, the legendary Rob Waddell, finished outside the medals.

Now, thanks to a sizzling last quarter of 1.33 – four seconds faster than the next best finish – he' emulated the man who inspired him to row.

“Words can’t describe it. It' that deep feeling of knowing you’ve done something that can’t be taken away. It' something you’ve always wanted, always dreamed of and in the back of your mind always believed, at your absolute best, you might have had a chance. Then to have it happen, you know you can sleep easy and that' what its going to be like for me.”

And while we're still delirious, here's a question: What's the difference between the New Zealand Rowing team and the entire Australian Olympic squad?

The Kiwi oarspeople have more gold medals.

The Lake Dorney double - coupled with Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan's pairs triumph - means New Zealand has three gold medals to Australia's ONE.

Pass that big can of borax please. No, on second thoughts, give us the silo.

Savour the moment New Zealand. While we can. We've suffered enough Australian opprobrium over the years.

It won't be long before some wag from Woollongong dusts off the hoary old one-liner about Kiwis only being good at sports on their backsides.

All joking aside, how good is New Zealand rowing's London 2012 trifecta?

Are three Olympic Games rowing medals worth more than one Rugby World Cup title?

Will rowing replace rugby as our national sport?

That will never happen because rugby is so firmly entrenched in our sporting psyche. And, lest we forget, we're world champions again after a hiatus of 24 years.

But rowing is certainly our number one summer sport in terms of sustained excellence.

Cricket may have the player numbers but it can't compete with the achievements of Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, Cohen and Sullivan and the Evers-Swindell twins and Rob Waddell before them.

Rowing is a 21st-century success story.

Since Waddell's sensational victory at the Sydney 2000 Games, Kiwi rowers have won six Olympic gold medals and countless world championships titles.

But today was surely the sport's greatest day - more memorable even than the golden day at Gifu in 2005 when Kiwi crews won four world crowns.

Rowing is the Olympics' supreme test of strength and endurance. It's also a much under-rated spectacle.

Does sport get any more dramatic than the Kiwi pair's surge over the final 500m to win their gold medal?

The World Cup rugby final last October was tense and dramatic too but nothing like the suspense at Lake Dorney.

They haven't seen such unbridled excitement here since the students at Eton threw their boaters in the air at term's end.

Every New Zealand sporting organisation struggling for traction should beat a path to Rowing New Zealand's door.

(thanks to Stuff NZ for permission to take some excerpts from their article)


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