The Tokyo Olympics now seems like a dream to Rowing NZ chief executive Geoff Barry.

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A squad that managed to avoid most of the Covid curse in the final two-year build up went on to produce one of Rowing NZ’s greatest Olympic performances. But that virus-free zone, created by careful management at Karāpiro and stringent IOC bubbles in the Japanese capital, burst with a vengeance in 2022.

“Covid ripped through our programme. I think every athlete had it between Tokyo and the world champs,” says Barry. “The programme seemed to be continually disrupted. By the time of the world champs, it had compromised the build-up and time on the water for crews and combinations.”

For Barry, it only added to what was already a perfect storm. After Tokyo the squad lost 19 athletes through retirement, injury or – in the case of Lucy Spoors and Brooke Francis (née Donoghue) – taking time out to have babies. But losing that many experienced athletes wasn’t the only thing that left the Kiwi crews at a disadvantage. “I think the world has moved on faster from Covid than we have in Aotearoa. Perhaps the government-led management of Covid delayed the impact, and rowing – and possibly a number of other sports – is struggling in that catchup period.”

New Zealand returned from the World Championships with three medals, picked up by proven performers: gold for Kerri Williams (née Gowler) and Grace Prendergast in the pair, silver for Emma Twigg in the single and bronze for Jackie Kiddle in the lightweight single. If any event highlights the point about moving on from Covid, it was Twigg’s silver in just her third race of the year.

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The virus left her feeling at about 80 per cent for the regatta, while rising Dutch star Karolien Florijn won all of her 12 races through the international season. Jordan Parry’s 4th in the men’s single was a highlight for the whole squad after his 13th in Tokyo. “He reflected on that result and … I don’t think he went through too much self-doubt,” says Barry. “He prepared well, stayed healthy and well, and to see that result I think is pretty special. He’s an exceptional talent.”

With the Paris Olympics now just two years away and qualification for the Games less than 12 months away, it’s clear that small boats will remain Rowing NZ’s priority. For now, everyone is back on board with the exception of Grace Prendergast, who retired back in October, and Twigg, who is a yearby- year proposition. Covid has affected the U19, U21 and U23 programmes too, and building depth will be an ongoing challenge. “The disrupted domestic and international opportunities have compromised the development of our athletes – and the potential pool, should elite athletes get sick or injured. I think that was seen in the agegroup campaigns and for those who had an opportunity at the world champs. They’re still green,” says Barry.

A significant number of the U19 team are now on rowing scholarships at US colleges or have accepted offers for next year, but Barry is determined they won’t be lost to New Zealand rowing.

He prepared well, stayed healthy and well, and to see that result I think is pretty special. He’s an exceptional talent.

For him, closing the gap between our high-performance programme and the 80 or so Kiwi athletes rowing in the US college system is a “priority”. “Over the last six months we’ve made a much better commitment to connect with those young rowers . Rowing Australia has had a strategy in place for 10 years with their US-based rowers proving a great success. That’s providing a standard for us to drive towards,” he says.

Rowing NZ hopes to make an announcement this side of Christmas on how it can do more for the US-based athletes. Earlier this year National Pathway Coach Fiona Bourke visited key NZ athletes in their US Colleges and attended the IRA and NCAA championships as we continue to strengthen relationships with both athletes and coaches abroad. For now, that US–NZ integration is looking longer term towards producing athletes for Los Angeles (2028) and even Brisbane (2032) Olympics.

So, what about Paris? There’s the possibility more athletes studying in the States will be named in our summer squads. It started with Dan Williamson who was at Yale, and Ollie Maclean from University of California, Berkeley. Williamson made the eight for the last-chance qualifying regatta in May 2021 then went on to win in Tokyo. Former national selector Fred Strachan recently murmured an aside to a former world champion oarsman after the performance that finally repeated the 1972 victory in Munich: “Of course it was great they won,” Strachan said, “but it shouldn’t have taken 50 bloody years to do it!”

It sure has been a tough couple of years for everyone.

Geoff Barry doesn’t want Rowing NZ to be waiting anywhere near that long to drive the changes needed to keep our boats leading the way. Things are on the move. And change is coming for him too. He’ll be leaving his role around Christmas, a little earlier than expected. While he has loved working in the high-performance environment, Barry has seen the impact on our sport’s organisations first hand.

“At the moment, with the way we’re resourced, there’s not enough allocated to quality business sustainability to support the performance programmes. Lots of sports are stretched. Apart from a couple of big professional sports in New Zealand, they’re all doing it on a shoestring.” It sure has been a tough couple of years for everyone.

Shaun Hayward Andy Hay gs

Andy Hay

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