Our rowers hit boiling point on the finals days of the World Championships in Bulgaria.

 

The haze hung over the course at Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and obscured some of the seven hills the city is famous for.

The livestream had kicked off and the only thing you could hear was what sounded like a tractor chugging away in the background.

As the camera focused for what seemed like a very long time on a small bird paddling on the water I used the moment to wonder about our athletes getting ready to compete in probably the biggest race of their lives.

For many it was their first experience of genuine international competition, others had been here before at Under 19 level. But even that is a big step up.

The tractor was still chugging and suddenly I was picturing this Billy Bragg record cover.

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It occurred to me our U23s were waiting to see if they could make that Great Leap Forwards in their rowing careers.

The six crews came away with two silvers, two more made A finals.

When Finn Hamill stopped the clock at 6:48.76 he took a moment to catch his breath, absorb the moment of winning a silver medal in the Men’s Lightweight Single Scull and then splashed his face with some cooling water.

He’d just cooked himself in the final 1000m to challenge for gold, finishing just 0.72s behind Italy’s Giovanni Borgonovo.

But that shock of cool water also produced a deeper reaction.  Finn was just 16 when his parents Rob and Rachel took him and his two brothers on the adventure of a lifetime, to sail the world on an oceangoing catamaran.

There’s an affinity with the water that will always be with him.

“I'm definitely a water person,” says Finn. “It's been an interesting journey from living on the boat to then going and leaving my family to row. To be here now, it's pretty special. It's been something I've been wanting to do for a long time.”

Of course, Rob Hamill has an affinity with the water and rowing too. He went to nine world championships as a lightweight sculler.

“It kind of stemmed from my dad a lot because he did fairly well rowing for New Zealand back in the day,” says Finn. “And it’s something I've always wanted to do as well.”

“The dream is to be at the Olympics next year in that lightweight double, which my dad actually represented New Zealand in, in 1996 at the Olympics. So yeah, it [would] be pretty special to be able to be in Paris 2024 in that boat.”

These were giant strides from a kid who’s just turned 21 and just two weeks ago was rowing his first international regatta at World Cup III in Lucerne.

This could just be the beginning of Finn Hamill’s Great Leap Forwards.

“I did really want that gold, but it's good. It makes you hungry. And you know, I've got another year of eligibility for Under 23, so you never know, I might be back next year to get after that gold.”

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FINN HAMILL celebrating after coming second in the Lightweight Men's Single Sculls A Final at the World Rowing U23 Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing.

Rowing NZ decided to take a Great Leap Forwards when it committed to its first US-based trial for US-based athletes in June.

The Women’s Coxed Four (Lucy Burrell, Beckie Leigh, Alice Fahey, Shakira Mirfin, cox Ella Greenslade) also came away with silver after chasing Australia down the course to finish just 1.30 seconds behind the defending world champions.

Three-seat Beckie Leigh says the trip into unchartered waters with the US athletes was a huge success.

“Honestly, I was really impressed with how it went. There was a lot of open communication from December last year and it was put on the table that there needed to be monthly updates of what we were doing in the boat, technically what everyone was improving on just so that Rowing New Zealand had a good understanding of what we were doing.”

After peaking in the NCAAs in New Jersey at the end of May, the eight invited athletes had to fly themselves to California for training and trials. They were 24/7 in each other’s company competing for seats.

“I think, it turned out really well,” says Beckie. “There weren’t any clashes between anyone. Being in the US programmes we’re used to being seat raced all day, everyday, and you just kind of deal with it and whatever happens on the water happens on the water. If you're a little bit disappointed, you take your own space and do what you need to do. But, we're all very good friends.”

The medal ceremony proved just how influential the US college system is at this age group, with Beckie saying nearly all the athletes on the podium (NZ, Australia and the US) row in the States.

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THE WOMEN"S COXED FOUR (Shakira Mirfin, Beckie Leigh, Alice Fahey, Lucy Burrell, cox Ella Greenslade) after being presented with their silver medal at the World Rowing U23 Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

The Men’s Coxed Four (Matt Waddell, Ben Shortt, Sean McHugh, Harry Fitzpatrick, cox Harry Molloy) was also selected from US-based athletes apart from Harry Molloy.

Their evolution in just over five weeks to finish 5th in the A final was definitely a leap forward.

They had a few bumps along the way including a last-minute hitch, says coach Nick Barton.

“We had one guy pull out of trials a couple of days beforehand. So that made it a bit tougher,” he says.

It was their “their first exposure to a world championship environment. It’s a pretty good outcome.”

Nick’s stoked with the way they got better each race and loved their attitude in the final.

“I think we probably had our race of the regatta to win the repechage. When we came to the final, we were like, ‘Well we're going to go for the win and see if we can hang in there’.’’

But after putting themselves right in the race, Nick says they couldn’t “find the efficiency they needed to be able to carry them through that third 500 and just lost their legs a bit and popped. But much rather have it that way than not even get into the race and end up dribbling along to the line. So, in terms of a quick development of a boat, to pick up fifth place - I'd call it a success.”

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The men's coxed four (Harry Fitzpatrick, Sean McHugh, Ben Shortt, Matt Waddell, cox Harry Molloy) racing at World Rowing U23 Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

There’s a line in ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’ about ‘one leap forward, two leaps back’ and that partly tells the story of the Men’s Pair.

Oliver Welch and Josh Vodanovich have had a tough 12 weeks together. Josh developed a stress reaction in a rib and had to sit out of the boat for four weeks before they left for worlds.

That made gelling their combination challenging although it did come with a silver lining for Oliver.

“It was a bit annoying for him having to hop into the single, but also, it was pretty cool for him, in terms of getting some opportunities to go with some of the elite fellas in a pair...he hopped out in a pair with Matt Macdonald and stuff a few times, and he definitely learnt a lot off that.”

“When I got back in, we changed around the rigging, put him in stroke seat. He was able to show me a few things that he learnt from Matt, so that was cool.”

Oliver was sick during their time overseas so their result in the A final also qualifies for a Great Leap Forwards.

“In terms of the time we spent in the boat and that combination,” says Josh, “I think it's a really good result to end up in fourth place on the world stage, especially being a young crew as well - being able to do it next year. I think it's pretty cool and sets us up well for whatever we want to do next year.”

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The Men's Pair (Oliver Welch and Josh Vodanovich) racing at the World Rowing U23 Championships. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

Injury had an impact on the Men’s Quad which won the C final and Olivia Hay also won the C final of the Women’s Single Scull.

For now, most of the squad are easing off the pace. Like a few of the athletes, Beckie Leigh’s staying in Europe.

“Two months off, [starting] exactly today. So it'll be good to get out of the boat. Honestly, it might be a good couple of weeks of not much activity other than walking around old towns, drinking a lot of coffee.”

You could say that’s ‘Workers Playtime’, the title of Billy Bragg’s fourth album.

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Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.