The Aon Maadi Regatta has sprung many great stories over the years, but few can rival the grim day on Ruataniwha that sparked something great.

 

“He was pretty happy. Happiest I think I've seen anybody winning medals at Maadi, and I've seen a few. Especially when he's such a little fella and wasn't expected to do that well.”

That’s Fred Gaudin remembering what has become Aon Maadi legend.

Fred loves this story even more, because he was there from the start when his sons got their mate from Queen Charlotte High School along to the Picton Rowing Club.

“It's a pretty well-known fact that when Ryan and Kieran took him down to rowing for the very first time [their coach] Dave Bugler said, ‘He'll be no bloody good, he's too small.”

Fred’s talking about a young Joe Sullivan just ahead of the 20th anniversary of an incredible 45-minute performance at Lake Ruataniwha.

It all came about because of a weather system that blasted through the Mackenzie Basin that week of Maadi. It’s a scenario that will sound depressingly similar for the current generation of rowers, coaches and volunteers who’ve endured some horrid conditions this summer.

But this weather bomb had such an ominous tone from the get-go that organisers started working out ways to trim the programme early in the week and with time fast running out decided to cram a full day’s racing into the space of a few hours on the Saturday.

A day in which Joe had qualified for three A Finals.

The Friday was light by comparison. That day Joe went out in an Under 17 Quad with Daniel Karena, Scott Robertson (not the current All Blacks coach) and Shae and Hayden Gaudin (the other two of Fred’s four sons) and won the gold medal.

But the next day, he had the U19 Single, U17 Single and U18 Double all lined up.

“I remember getting told three races are going to be back-to-back so you can only pick one", says Joe.

“And I was like, ‘shit, I've trained all this time how can I do more?"

Fred didn’t want to see Joe scratched from any of the races either.

“I went to the main umpire and said, ‘Joe's in each of these races, you know what he's like, he won't want to do that. How about I drive him down to the start line after each race?"

After a bit of umming and ahing they got the green light.

Joe was Go.

What happened will probably never be repeated.

First up was the U19 Single.

Dave Bugler, the coach who’d once thought Joe was too small to row, was in his ear.

“He was helping me get on the water before the start of the race and he's like, ‘You're probably not going to win any of these races, the other guys are much better than you’.  And I remember it just firing me up and getting me real angry and I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going to prove him wrong’.

“I'm pretty sure looking back at it, that was his aim.  He just knew that would piss me off and get me fired up.”

Joe led all the way to win by 6 seconds. By this time it was bitterly cold and snow was falling on the hills around Ruataniwha and dusting the boat park.

He rowed his boat in and legged it up the bank to where Fred had his 4-wheel drive revving.

“I had the heater on blast because it was about 2 degrees,” says Fred. “And it was just, ‘Congratulations, do you need anything?’ you know.

“He had a blanket in there but he didn't need it, the car was hot and he was just on a high, he wasn't really talking about a hell of a lot. He was just rapt he was going to be able to get his three races in.”

Joe Sullivan racing at 2004 Maadi Regatta in the single sculls.

By this time his partner for the U17 Double, Daniel Karena, had rowed the boat up to the start by himself with Joe’s sculls on board.

Fred dropped Joe right off behind the start, he sprinted down to the starting pontoons, got in the boat and off they went.

Same result.

Joe and Daniel winning in 7.19.40, more than five seconds up on the two boys from Burnside High.

Straight to the landing, sprint back to the 4WD where Fred was waiting once again for the third leg of the trifecta and a clean sweep now a possibility.

“I don't think it dawned on him at the time, he was on cloud nine and if you know what he's like, he's like a hungry shark when he gets his teeth into something and he wasn't going to let go of anything.”

By that time Scott Robertson had rowed Joe’s single back to the start.

Same drill. Jump out of the car, down to the start and fix up for the U17 Single asap.

“I was definitely tired from racing but I was warm from jumping in the car and getting driven to the start," says Joe. “I felt sorry for the guys that had had to row their boats down in those conditions. They were freezing.”

This time it wasn’t Dave’s words, but actions, that spoke loudest to Joe.

“The conditions were horrible, but I guess having a pretty hard trainer like Dave back in the day you go training and you do four or five 2k pieces back to back to back to back.”

“The 17 single was almost harder than the Under 19 single, which was kind of a tribute to how good the competition was back then, and how we were kind of coming through together with John Storey, Jade Uru, Adam Milne and guys like that.”

No accurate times are recorded for this race, maybe the stop clock froze.

But there’s no dispute about the winner. Joe claiming his third gold in the space of 45 minutes. Four titles for the regatta.

The medals were presented in the freezing dark with car headlights lighting the ceremony.

It was all a bit different to the London Olympics in 2012, when Joe and Nathan Cohen famously rowed through the Italians to win the Men’s Double Sculls Gold Medal.

A day when coping with tough and miserable conditions in that brutal end to Aon Maadi in 2004 paid big dividends.

“I have a feeling the Italians didn't train in choppy conditions and I remember the last 500 in London being quite a solid side breeze and they packed up a little bit. They were kind of lucky to go right up against the boulder bank, but I remember them kind of saying, ‘If we hadn't been there, we would have really struggled’.

“I think every little bit of adversity or any kind of thing that teaches you that you're stronger than you think you are  really has an outcome later on in life when you're maybe sitting on the start line and you're doubting yourself and you look back at the things you've done  to get to where you are.”

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Ceremonial being held in the freezing dark with car headlights for lighting at the 2004 Maadi Regatta at Lake Ruataniwha. 

Joe was back at Queen Charlotte HS for a Monday assembly. By that time the legend of the guy once considered too small to be an oarsman was taking off in the rowing community.

“I remember talking to people about [it], but they didn't actually think it was me, because they said the guy who won that race was over 6 foot and was a monster.”

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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. Got a story? andygohay1@gmail.com