When New Zealand crews line up in Paris for the Olympic Games next year, they won’t be the only Kiwis on the water.
Simon Walker will be there too as part of the twenty umpires selected by World Rowing to officiate at the regatta.
“We’ll be pretty busy,” he says. “As well as umpiring the races on the water, we’ll take turns starting the races, judging the finishes, scrutineering boats for safety and weights, and confirming athlete identities.
“I’ll be there for a week or so before the regatta starts to acclimatise to the weather and different time zone, and to go through the final arrangements for the regatta, but hopefully I’ll have some time once racing has finished to see some other Kiwis in action. It’d be great to see Lisa Carrington in the kayaking, and the son of a good friend and former crewmate of mine will be running in the men’s steeplechase.”
Simon describes being selected to umpire at the Olympic Games as “the icing on the cake” for an international umpiring career that began back in 2009, when an exam was held in New Zealand in advance of the World Championships, which were held at Karapiro the following year.
“World Rowing (then FISA) were keen to see more umpires from Australasia, and I managed to pass with two Kiwi and two Aussie colleagues.”
Umpiring was a way for Simon to get involved with rowing again after a long hiatus.
Simon congratulates the men's four after they won bronze at this year's World Championships in Belgrade.
“After seeing New Zealand win gold in 1972, I took up rowing at Wanganui Collegiate and was lucky enough to win the Maadi Cup in 1974; we’re holding a 50-year-on reunion for that crew in Twizel next year. Then I rowed a bit at uni – mainly as a way of getting to Easter Tourney for the parties – but then family and farming got in the way.
Simon (far left) with his Maadi Cup winning crew from 1974.
“It was only when my son started rowing also at Wanganui Collegiate that I got involved again. The school asked if anyone could drive a boat and keep an eye on some of the crews, so I did that and then progressed to my domestic umpiring licence.”
Simon has officiated at more than twenty international regattas, most recently the Senior World Championships in Serbia and the World Masters Championships in South Africa in September.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to do so many regattas. It’s taken me all round the world to places I’d never have seen otherwise, and added a new dimension to my life.
“It’s a pretty privileged position to see the athletes up close. You witness the sheer joy and elation when they do well but also the total devastation when they don’t perform. It makes you realise that you’re not just there to weigh boats or keep people in their lanes or whatever – it’s really about ensuring everyone is safe and competing on a level playing field. And when you see those emotions after the race, you realise just how much they’ve sacrificed to be there, and how important it is to ensure everyone is judged fairly.
“It’s something I never get sick of doing. You’re surrounded by all these happy, healthy people, and you’re playing your part in making sure they have a fair chance at achieving goals that they’ve been working towards for years.
Simon says the chance to officiate at the Olympics is as good as it gets for a rowing umpire – but he’s also keen to emphasise that he hasn’t got there alone.
“I’m really excited about heading to the Olympics but I also realise that part of the reason why I’m there is because of the standing of the New Zealand rowing community on the international scene.
“I need to meet certain requirements and be qualified and perform in my own way. But I think it also makes a difference being an official from a country like New Zealand, which has a lot of respect in World Rowing circles.
“So in a way, I’m there as much due to the efforts of our athletes and my umpiring peers who have earned that respect over the years.”
Andrew Smith is a keen Masters rower based in Wellington. A member of Wellington Rowing Club off and on since 2000, he spends more time on the erg than the water, trying to convince himself he's still young.