It’s been a drama-filled build-up for our Under 23s as they prepare to race in cultural crossroads.

 

The staff roster at Rowing NZ shows a few people away over June, July and August.

That makes perfect sense. It’s a High Performance Sports Organisation and the international rowing season is about to hit its peak.

Some have been to World Cup III in Lucerne before they head to the World Champs in Belgrade. Both beautiful and historic cities.

Some will soon be travelling to the World Under 19 Championships in Paris, a city that needs no introduction.

And some, according to the roster, are in the ‘Paris of the Balkans.’

Where’s that?

It’s thought people have occupied Plovdiv, Bulgaria since the sixth millennium BC. It’s been ruled by Persians, Macedonians, Celts, Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Huns, Bulgarians, Crusaders and Ottomans. It’s come under the umbrella of the old Soviet Union and right now the rowing course is home to some of Ukraine’s World Championship squad.

But the host city of the Under 23 World Championships is more than a geo-political hotspot.

It’s barely gone 6.30 in the morning and the temperature’s already climbed past 30 degrees.

The Kiwi crews are making the most of the morning by wedging in two training rows to avoid being seared in afternoon heat nearing the 40s.

Just getting to Plovdiv, also called ‘The City of Seven Hills’, has been an uphill climb: The Women’s and Men’s Coxed Fours have come from challenging trial and training blocks in California, the New Zealand-based crews have encountered injury, illness and daunting travel.

“Our guys had 45 hours of travel getting here,” says Coach Lead Mark Stallard. “You're under the pump for a week before you even get going.”

One person who’s been putting in a decent shift is late call-up Oscar Ruston. He’ll be the first on the water rowing the single in the spares race.

Oscar has been covering for Ben Olifiers in the Men’s Quad in the lead-up and as soon as the regatta’s done he’ll head back to New Zealand for the Under 21 Pacific Series. His ability to sweep or scull has made him invaluable over the winter.

“He’s a good kid,” says Mark. “Huge amount of potential, he's a weapon for the future you know. He killed it in the pair back in New Zealand so he's actually a very handy guy to have around.”

Then the Women’s Coxed Four (Rebecca Leigh, Lucy Burrell, Alice Fahey, Shakira Mirfin, cox Ella Greenslade) will kick off the official programme.

The boat is historic in that it’s the first time a New Zealand crew made up from US-based athletes selected from trials in the States will row Under 23s.

Rowing NZ Pathway Lead Fiona Bourke has been in the States overseeing the whole process since April and has drawn on her experience of rowing and coaching in the US to prepare the crew.

Mark’s excited about seeing them race.

“They would be the strongest crew there on paper without a doubt. They've come together well, all the coaches have done really good jobs bringing their boats together.”

With just four other entries, USA, Italy, Germany and defending champions Australia, they’ll row a preliminary race 11pm NZT Wednesday to seed lanes for the final.

Then the other US-selected crew, the Men’s Coxed Four of Harry Fitzpatrick, Sean McHugh, Ben Shortt, Matthew Waddell and cox Harry Molloy hit the water.

The Men’s Coxed Four of Harry Fitzpatrick, Sean McHugh, Ben Shortt, Matthew Waddell and cox Harry Molloy shot from the 1000 metre mark - Plovdiv, Bulgaria,

Mark’s had some time with them after coach Nick Barton had to return home to New Zealand for a few days during the lead-up in San Francisco.

None of them have raced at this level before so the message from he and Nick has been to be ready for what’s about to hit them when the gun goes. They have the ability.

“We did a prog piece [the other day], they were the top crew, so really good. Nick’s done a great job,” says Mark.

Sean McHugh’s one of three former St Peter’s College boys in the boat. He’s certain the friendships they fostered at school have been an advantage.

“100 per cent. Although we [Harry Fitzpatrick and Harry Molloy] were all different years at St Peter’s there was a period where we all rowed at the same time and it was a period where St Peter’s did really well, so we had heaps of respect for each other. The school is all about brotherhood so the rowing programme was as well.”

But it’s a brotherhood of five right now, with former Auckland Grammar man Ben Shortt and St Paul’s Collegiate bowman Matt Waddell.

“Me, Matt, and Ben, were in the juniors together back in 2021 so there’s a bond there,” says Harry Fitzpatrick. “Everyone’s just easy to get along with and I think that's really helped us in finding speed so quickly.”

Mark’s loving the look of the Men’s Pair of Oliver Welch and Josh Vodanovich. They’ve had injury ups and downs but things have come good in Bulgaria.

“They’re tracking well, come together really well. It looks easy on the eye. Josh was out of the boat for quite a bit in New Zealand but I'm liking what they're doing. The movement's really nice and they're just a great boat to be involved with.”

Mark reckons it would be an “exceptional” achievement to make the A Final considering Josh’s injury and their relative youth in this age group.

“They could actually do it again next year. Josh has got one more year, and Oliver's got two. We’re pretty happy with what we’re seeing from them.”

First up on Thursday is the Men’s Quad of Kobe Miller, Evan Williams, Ben Olifiers and Ed Lopas.

“They’ve been affected by Ben being sick,” says Mark. “They're still sculling really well and look like a complete crew. The boat’s going nice so I'm expecting them to do pretty well.”

The last to race heats will be Finn Hamill in the Lightweight Single Scull and Olivia Hay in the Women’s Single.

Finn’s only just arrived into camp after being at World Cup III in Lucerne, where he won the C Final of the Senior Lightweight event so his debut at Under 23 holds huge promise.

Olivia has impressed as well.

“Liv’s gone well,” says Mark. “She had a good training block in America and since we’ve been here in Plovdiv, she’s come on really well. Quite exciting actually.”

Plovdiv’s been centre-stage to so much European history and culture. A few nights ago, the coaches did something a bit different. They went to the Opera. Drama, art, entertainment, sub-plots and twists.

Plovdiv. Centre-stage for what’s been an intriguing season for our Under 23s.

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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.