“They’d been running past the rowing club a few times and I'd sit up in my office, which overlooks the track that comes past...I think I left it the first time [but] the second time I ran down the stairs and chased after them and asked if they were students and then I said, ‘Have you ever thought about rowing?”’ 

“And they said, ‘Yeah, actually, actually we have.’  I said, ‘Well, here's my card if you want to start, we'd love to have you.”

That’s Otago University Rowing head coach Glen Sinclair describing the day early last year his instinct for unearthing new talent set two young students on what’s been a short but remarkable rowing journey.

Last week, Glen was tracking the girls down again after learning they’d both been selected for the New Zealand University Women’s Eight that goes up against Australia in July.

Hannah Matehaere and Manaia Butler, both 20, met in their first year as medical students at Otago University. They quickly became best mates, could whakapapa back to a common ancestry and their similar experiences in high level school sport.

Hannah (Ngāti Raukawa) made the New Zealand U17 basketball team in Year 12 at Otago Girls’ High.  Manaia’s (Ngati Porou/Waikato Tainui) sporting stats come out of a pool, her PBs and national championship performances for St Andrew’s College all listed on the Swimcloud website (www.swimcloud.com). Nothing about the hard work required in rowing scared them: “Being in a previous high performance sport environment... all the trainings, being on time, the workload, the management, and then the attitude to training and the goals that you have, it all carries over and can be applied in all aspects of life,” says Hannah.

For Manaia, it’s understanding what you have in the tank that helps as well. “It’s just like knowing what you have to do to get where you want to go, knowing how hard you can push yourself. Like you just know that you've always got a little bit more than you think you have regardless of what the challenge is.”

That first rowing challenge came out on Otago Harbour in March last year when they went out in a boat for the first time. By April, Hannah and Manaia were sitting in the Otago Uni Women’s Eight racing Canterbury. By September they were off to Uni Champs at Whanganui where they won in the Women’s and Men’s Novice Eight, the Women’s Tournament Eight and the Novice Four. That led to a full summer with the club in a double and a pair with the goal of competing at nationals in February.

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Manaia Butler and Hannah Matehaere at 2023 New Zealand Rowing Championships in Twizel back in February.

Photo: Picture Show Ltd

Hannah Matehaere and Manaia Butler in the pair for the first time back in December 2022.

Footage captured by Coach Glen Sinclair

Like any great pair, the sum of the parts is what makes things go for these two. “It was quite funny because we had them both out in singles a few times and Manaia was ticking along and I didn't realize it was her,” says Glen. “I thought it was one of our girls who'd been rowing for several years. And the boat was just flowing nicely. And here's poor Hannah, trying to throw all the power into it and, and sort of going nowhere and being really frustrated, watching Manaia just flying along.”

And when Glen talks about their power, he’s not kidding, judging by their ergs. “Manaia’s got hers down to about 7.22. Every one she does, she knocks off about three or four seconds. Hannah, oh my God, she's a beast.

She's just done 6.51.” But it’s the challenge of improving how she can move a boat that has Hannah hooked.

“There's so much technique that you have to learn,” says Hannah. “Sometimes it'll be like, ‘We need to work on this’ and then normally [Manaia] would be thinking the exact same thing. If something's not feeling the way that it's supposed to and how we want the boat to be running, then we'll just say something.”

Their commitment to excellence took them to a bronze medal in the Club Pair at Nationals in February. By then they were already under the eye of staff at Rowing NZ, including International Pathway Lead Fiona Bourke and Pathway Coach Mark Stallard. Nationals taught Hannah and Manaia heaps, says Glen. And it wasn’t all about their successes either.

“Not everything went their way over the summer,” he says. “There're two Twizel girls who are fantastic [fellow novice rowers Sadie Mason and Kiara Thyne] and they had great battles against each other. “

They were virtually inseparable in the double sculls over the season, the margin between the two boats never more than .13 of a second at regattas until the Twizel girls went up another notch at Nationals.

The Otago squad only had a week off after nationals before they got stuck in to training for Uni Champs, with Hannah and Manaia keen to go again as well.

“They got seat raced for the for the Championship Eight,” says Glen. “Their ergs put them in the picture to try and make that eight and in fours seat racing they went really well...They knocked over people who we didn’t think they’d have a chance against, so they really earned their place.”

Some mornings Glen and the other coaches at Otago would have five Uni eights out on the water. It was a great learning environment for Hannah and Manaia. “[When] the Uni season started we had heaps of people come from all over the country and I know, especially the girl squad, we had some crazy good rowers,” says Manaia. “It motivated us more I think because me and Hannah knew we were novies but we saw how good these other girls were and we're like, ‘Wow, it's so crazy that we get to row with them.’ It just pushed us to be better.”

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Hannah and Manaia's championship winning Eight at the University Rowing Championships April 2023 in Twizel.

Photo: Sharron BennetT Photography

It was pretty clear Otago had a great women’s crew. They won the 3219m Championship Eight, Hannah and Manaia also part of the winning Varsity Eight and their division of the Varsity Coxed Four.  In just over 9 months Hannah and Manaia have won every Women’s Eight event in Uni Rowing. Now a black row suit awaits.

“I'm just so excited and feel so privileged to have been selected,” says Hannah. “And to do it with Manaia is so special.” Four of their Otago crewmates will also be in the boat, adding even more meaning to what’s been a barely believable first year in their new sport.

“I honestly don't have words,” says Manaia. “It's gonna be pretty special rowing with so many girls from Otago. I keep waiting to wake up and everyone's like, ‘It’s just a joke or it's just a dream.”

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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.