Taking her young family around the world as she rows is a key factor in Emma Twigg's decision to defend her Olympic single sculls title at next year's Paris Olympics.

And while Emma has made this decision to defend her Olympic title, the next Emma Twigg could be waiting in the wings at the Maadi Regatta which is on this week

She might be standing knee-deep amid the splashing and cheering at the finish line of the 2000m rowing course at Lake Karapiro, watching crewmates flash by on finals day.

Maybe that's her, picking up the vibrations of that churned-up water and the roar of her own school friends as she hits top gear in the race of her life so far.

The idea might have only just seeded or maybe it’s just waiting for its moment.

MAS06915

The rowing team from Waikato Diocesan splash and cheer for their school mates racing at the Maadi Cup. Photo: Art of Rowing.

But somewhere at the Maadi Cup regatta on the last day of finals next Saturday, she will be there.

The next Emma Twigg. World champion single sculler. Olympic gold medallist.

***

Just over a week out from the promise of that Maadi magic, the only people down by the finish line are two men, one of them holding a baby. That guy's yelling, “Let’s go Twiggy, wind it up.”

Thirty-five-year-old Twigg is into the final 100 metres of a time trial, which also happens to be her first official row after announcing she’ll defend her Olympic title in Paris next year.

The boys by the lakefront have been Twigg’s teammates over the years. And the baby? Well, he’s now a central and critical part to one of high-performance sport’s toughest gigs.

Twigg is one of our greatest women’s rowers. A champion on the water who’s been championing a more progressive policy around female athletes and their families.

The arrival of her and wife Charlotte’s first child, Tommy, last year only sharpened her resolve to push for change. And the change is gathering momentum.

Emma Twigg Jackie Kiddle Brooke Francis women's prem single (2) (002)

Jackie Kiddle, Emma Twigg and Brooke Francis (with babies) after the national premier women's singles final. Photo: Picture Show Ltd.

In the past month, Tokyo teammates Brooke Francis (nee Donoghue) and Lucy Spoors returned to full-time training after starting families of their own.

Women athletes like these are gold. They've invested years into building a bank of physical and mental endurance plus the high technical capacity to race boats at top level. They are entering peak potential in their early 30s.

As we're walking off the boat ramp on this prime early autumn day on Karapiro, Twigg wonders how much longer athletes like double Olympic champions Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell could have stayed in the sport if they'd had the opportunity to take a break, and then the space to combine the demands of full-time training with becoming parents.

"Obviously, I don't know their motivations, but it probably wasn't seen as an option for them. It was motherhood or stay rowing," says Twigg.

"Brooke and Lucy are pretty quickly proving that you can have nine months away, keep training through that period and within three or four months [of giving birth] be back to where you were when you left."

One of the key factors in Twigg's decision is the support Rowing New Zealand is offering around life balance.

"We spend up to three months in Europe every year," she says. "So it's a pretty big call to say I'm leaving my family for that time. The support Rowing New Zealand has given myself and some of the other mums in allowing us to take our families was a really big piece of that puzzle."

WAK01259

Emma Twigg is put through her paces by coach Mike Rodger on Lake Karapiro. Photo: Picture Show Ltd.

No woman has ever rowed the single scull faster at an Olympics than Twigg.

She was part of the greatest hour New Zealand Rowing has had at the Games, which started with Twigg setting a new Olympic best time of 7m 13.97s, the women's eight winning silver, then the men's eight upending everyone's expectations with gold.

Fewer than half the people who excelled on that day are back for the truncated run to Paris.

So Twigg staying in the programme is a big deal.

***

Mike Rodger first got in a rowing boat as a five-year-old, coxing a crew for his older brother.

Fifty-two years on, he's still in a boat, coaching Twigg on the long, lonely rows up and down Lake Karapiro.

Now that she's figured out 'why' she's doing this all over again, Rodger's there to make sure that word stays front of mind when times get tough, as they inevitably will, over the next 16 months.

"We talk a lot. Around days like today when things are good and really identifying the things she enjoys," Rodger says.

"I know how hard it is to keep pushing yourself in a single, how the grind is on some of those long, boring sessions that just are relentless."

And that's why Rodger will still be keeping Twigg company down the end of Karapiro after some of his other Kiwi crews have finished their sessions.

"You know, being a single sculler is tough, they are by nature individuals," he says. "[But] I don't think Emma is, she enjoys the company of others, she enjoys talking to people. I feel guilty if I'm not beside [her] because I know how lonely it is."

This will almost certainly be Twigg's last Olympic campaign; her fifth. She must first qualify the boat at the world championships in August then reset for the Paris Games next July.

"There's a lot of privilege that comes with being able to call yourself the defending champion," says Twigg.

"I'm still improving, technically. I'm still loving what I do and have a desire to be here. And part of that is having my family there as well."

She's no apologist for using her status within the sport to push for more women athletes to be able to do the same.

"I went through a phase where I was a world champion, but still not given the luxury of some security within the programme. And that was because we had such depth.

“But I think now that there has been a shift [there's] this proactiveness to look after those that you do have, which I think should be there regardless."

Maybe that young woman at Maadi Cup this week is reading this and the idea of becoming the next Emma Twigg... the next world and Olympic champion... just got a whole lot more believable.

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He coxed New Zealand's world champion eight in 1982 and '83. 

This article was written for LockerRoom and shared with their permission.