Olympians kick-start new era in Japanese rowing, hoping to make more history on famous Tokyo raceway, writes Andy Hay.

In just a few days’ time Shaun Kirkham and Tom Mackintosh will be sitting in an eight on the starting line at the Sea Forest Waterway course in Tokyo.

Inevitably, there will be a few flashbacks to that July day in 2021 when the New Zealand men’s eight lined up in the Olympic final.

Tokyo 2021 July 30-

NEW ZEALAND’S GOLD WINNING TOYKO OLYMPIC ROWING EIGHT

That day two years ago Shaun was in seven seat, Tom in bow.

This time 'TMax’ and 'Shaan' have swapped ends of the boat.

That’s how they’re known in the Toyota-Boshoku crew trying to win the eights title at the All-Japan championships for the first time.

"We thought that Tom in seven seat, leading from the front and me in three seat sort of helping the guys in the back making a few big changes, that seems to work pretty well," says Shaun.

"Tom described it the other way, if I'm further down the boat, we've got a circuit breaker if that makes sense. If we're both up in the stern, then a lot of what we're trying to do can get lost down the boat."

The pair are on a two-month contract with the company as rower/coaches.

Their appearance at Japan's 101st national championships will probably be Shaun's final race in a career that has included rowing in the Kiwi eight since 2014.

For Tom, it’s been a re-invigorating and novel way to cap off the sabbatical he’s been taking since last year’s world championships in the Czech Republic.

“I was sort of on the fence of retiring from the sport," he says. "But then this opportunity came up and it sort of seemed like not a bad way to see Japan and sort of share some of the knowledge we learned with our Kiwi eight experience and also a good segway back into the high-performance rowing."

Tom and Shaun are pretty straight up about what they bring to the Toyota boys.

Swing. Big boy swing. The swing that took them to gold in Tokyo.

The Toyota-Boshoku crew Powering out of the start 

“One thing we noticed when we first came here is that they were sort of rip shit and bust...put the blade in and just rip it through with their arms. So, we've got them to really drive and swing and open up the body which is something that they've never experienced.”

The response had been amazing.

"They've made so many big changes in such a short amount of time," says Shaun. "They're so receptive to it. Sometimes I feel like we need to be more patient with getting the changes bedded in.

“Occasionally we do really crack the whip but we're here to make them go faster and they want that as well."

When the Toyota boys describe the changes through Google Translate it almost sounds mystical.

"I experienced a way of moving that I had never encountered before, making everything feel fresh and full of discoveries."

That’s stroke/six seat Yamao ‘Mao’ Keita talking about the impact of the Kiwis. Or there’s ‘Rio’, the club captain describing the experience after they won a pre-champs regatta.

"The power is nothing like I've seen before. A new wind of Japanese rowing is coming."

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The Toyota Boshoku crew after their win at the West Japan Champs

The Kiwi boys blew into town on the back of a special relationship the men’s eight made at the Olympics.

One of the locals on the ground was Hiroshi Sugito. He helped the squad settle into their training camp in Otsu, 500km south west of Tokyo.  The former Japanese international was in their Covid-enforced bubble for the duration of the camp and he and the men’s eight became “kind of family”.

A couple of months back Shaun was on a 10-day visit back to Japan and caught up with Hiroshi. He confirmed there was a financially attractive offer for two rowers to join Toyota.

Shaun made the call pretty much on the spot and then hit Tom up back in New Zealand to see if he could work it into his sabbatical.

“Sean and I worked very well together through the Kiwi eight experience and so we sort of saw that rapport and synergy would work over here and that's sort of why we decided to [go for it]," says Tom.

Kiwis will be familiar with the rugby club system in Japan, which is based out of big corporations.

And like those huge commercial entities, hierarchy is a fundamental part of the culture down on the rowing dock as well.

"So, for example, the newest member of the team has a rite of passage," says Tom. "He does a lot of admin for us, like no word of a lie. He does our laundry every day and things like at dinner, he always fills up our glasses. He's last out of the boat shed to lock up to make sure no one is left behind.

"And because we've come in off the back of this Olympic experience I get the feeling we're sort of at the top of the pyramid. You're not going to live your life like this forever, but it's nice for a couple of months."

There is no hierarchy in the boat though when it comes to hard work.

"Their work ethic is, ummmm...extreme," says Shaun. “It's embedded deeply in their culture about working hard. And so we never have to worry whether they're giving it 100."

At the moment Toyota are probably a couple of lengths behind the favourites, the crew out of telecom giants NTT.

But as you’d expect from an organisation like Toyota, no stone is left unturned.

The crew's been in a two-week camp ahead of All-Japan, staying in a quality hotel with everything laid on.

Hiroshi has been involved in this camp as well. He’s seeing similarities between the Kiwi eight in 2021 and Toyota now.

“Oh, [they’ve] made a big change, big progress, there are some room to improve but just like before the Tokyo Olympics I'm feeling the same thing,” he says.

And the flashbacks to that Kiwi eight win at Sea Forest will be there for Hiroshi too this week. He’ll be the on-course commentator just like he was on that July day in 2021 when the crew that had become like family won Olympic gold.

“That was unbelievable feeling,” he says. “Obviously I'm from Japan. I rowed for Japanese team and I coached Japanese team in the past. Japanese team never win the medal. It was like my crew won.”

And those flashbacks for Shaun and Tom will also be there at the race start this week, although they’ll come with a different vibe.

“We've competed at regattas where there's a lot more on the line,” says Tom. “So if we could get a win for the guys, I think it would mean the world for them and it would give us a lot more satisfaction than winning the race for our own personal gain.”

Tom has a word written on his rigger in the seven seat of the Toyota boat.

He’ll occasionally yell it out to his new crew.

“Odayaka.”

“Calm and tranquil like water.” On Sea Forest he knows anything is possible.

Keep track of Shaun, Tom and the Toyota  eight taking on NTT in the All Japan Championships here: https://jara.or.jp/

Racing will be streamed live on YouTube

And you can keep up to date with Shaun Kirkham’s SK Digital business here:

Sk Rowing & SK Digital

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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.

If you have any story ideas for RowingHub hit Andy up: andygohay1@gmail.com