Twelve hundred exhausted school rowers travel home from their national championships in Twizel today — a journey a thousand times shorter than the one to get there, writes Karen Holdom.

A couple of years back, I was sitting on the shores of Lake Karapiro next to a man who was trying very hard not to cry. I didn’t know his name yet. His kid was in the same rowing squad as mine.

If he and I had been paying more attention to the news coming out of Wuhan that weekend, we would have made more of the glory of that day. Hundreds of sun-splashed athletes at the peak of youth and fitness rowed and mooched and shared hugs and muesli bars and gossip — carefree, mask- free, pandemic-free — at what would turn out to be the last regatta of their season.

But we weren’t fortune-tellers, so we chatted about this man’s son, who was fighting for a place in the crew that was to travel to Twizel in a few weeks to compete in the most important school rowing race of the year: the under-18 boys’ coxed eight at the Aon New Zealand Secondary School Rowing Championships — known in the rowing world as Maadi.

I felt for the guy. I really did. His son had worked long and hard for this and was going through the harrowing selection process called seat racing. Two boats sprint a course. One rower from each boat swaps seats and the race repeats. Swap. Repeat. Swap. Repeat. This is how the combinations are tested. Still, there were no clear winners. The son was exhausted. The father was a wreck.

There was also a part of me that thought: Really? Tears? It’s kids playing sport, right?

I said to my son that night — he was thirteen, and nearing the end of his first rowing season: ‘If you ever catch me crying over rowing, remind me of this moment. It’s your sport, not my sport.’

And here we bloody are. Pass the tissues.

Funnily enough it’s not my own son I’m snivelling about — although he will be vying for his place in that under-18 Maadi crew next year so watch this space. No, it’s a photograph of someone else’s. A friend sent it through earlier this week, and it wouldn’t win a photography prize. It’s just three teenagers huddled around a laptop watching a rowing race. One boy wears a mask. One boy has ROWING printed on the back of his T-shirt. One is my friend’s son.

You can’t see their faces but you don’t need to. It’s all in the body language. These boys should not be self-isolating in a faux-timber cabin somewhere near Twizel watching their team-mates row without them in the first heat of the Maadi Cup race this week.

They should be out there skimming across Lake Ruataniwha, at the foot of mountains, under crazy big South Island skies.

They should be rowing

There is a particular magic that might happen once in a rower’s lifetime, perhaps a few times if he or she is lucky. The man who explained this to me did it so well that it feels as if I were there, that morning in Panmure maybe thirty years ago.

It’s just gone 5.30am and let’s say it’s five degrees Celsius, a Tuesday. The coach has gone off somewhere so it’s just boys and boat on a routine early spring training run. The water is black glass. The first streaks of gold are lifting the sky when the boat slips out into the Tamaki River. The coxswain doesn’t need to raise his voice. On a morning like this you’d hear him a kilometre away. Eight oars dip and pull. The boat surges. Listen to that sleeping city. Listen. No traffic. No sirens. Not even a barking dog. Just the dip of oars, the pause as they power through the water, and the drips as they pull clear again. Reach, pull, lift. The boat is a blade. The rowers are one — with each other, with the boat, with the water. No one speaks. The air tastes of rust. The sky is on fire. The oars beneath their calloused hands carry the power of the ages. Reach, pull, lift. Perfection.

An actual rowing race seldom offers moments like this — too much noise, too much stress, too much communication and adjustment going on trying to catch the boat in front, or lose the boat behind — but it can be like this.

Tony Hurt was the stroke for the New Zealand rowing eight at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He recalls a particular race that year as being that kind of row. The crew was relaxed, in perfect synchronicity. Reach, pull, lift. They flew. It would have been a great row any day of the week. It happened to be the Olympic final and it won them gold.

The sterling silver Maadi Cup trophy is mounted on a pyramid, a reference to its genesis in Egypt: a war-time regatta held on the Nile River between New Zealand soldiers and members of the Cairo Rowing Club by the leafy suburb of Maadi in 1943. The Kiwis won, and the Cairo club presented the cup to the soldiers of the Maadi Camp Rowing Club as a token of friendship. It was later donated to the New Zealand Amateur Rowing Association as an annual challenge cup aimed at fostering boys’ inter-school eight-oared rowing. Mt Albert Grammar was the first school to win the Maadi Cup in 1947.

It’s a hell of a fight, and for the crews striving to make it into this A final, a once-in-a-lifetime thing — the pinnacle of their school rowing career.

There are many national titles awarded at Maadi:
for boys, for girls, for single sculls, for crews of two, four and eight, coxed and un-coxed. A medal at any level in this competition is a serious accomplishment, but the A final of the under-18 boys’ coxed eight stands above all others. It’s the last race of the competition. It’s fast and fierce. Traditionally, thousands of rowers and supporters spread along the bank staging their own battle to drown out the neighbouring schools with the cheering and chanting.

It’s a hell of a fight, and for the crews striving to make it into this A final, a once-in-a- lifetime thing — the pinnacle of their school rowing career.

And while every Maadi competition carries equal kudos, South Island Maadi has an added X-factor. It’s the setting, yes, but there is something in the water at Lake Ruataniwha. Seriously. Race times are slower in the South Island in general, so Ruataniwha is a tougher race than Karapiro. The reasons have been debated endlessly. Some say it’s the cold, some say it’s the sediment. Some say it’s the pair of taniwha hanging off the back of the boats. Okay, nobody says that, but I like the idea of a couple of lake monsters messing with the rowers.

The last South Island Maadi was cancelled when the pandemic first struck. Last year, in that surreal Covid-free Bubble New Zealand summer, North Island Maadi went ahead and it was perfect. As I write this, South Island Maadi is under way for the first time since 2018. For senior crews who missed out on 2020, this is their first and last chance to row at a South Island Maadi. This is their first and last chance to win the actual Maadi Cup trophy.

Once in a lifetime

At least they will have this, right? At least they will have Maadi 2022.

Are you starting to see?

Which brings me back to that photograph. They would have rowed hard, these boys, if they had not tested positive for Covid the day before their first race. They are right up there among the best in their age group, their squad, their motu and yes, their country. They would have rowed their hearts out.

I imagine them making it all the way through to that A final, passing through the thousand-metre mark, a taniwha on their tail. The spectators are roaring. They’re roughly three minutes into the race. Their heart rates are already reaching their maximum: 170, 180, even 190 beats a minute. Reach, pull, lift. It’s all in the breath. It’s all in the legs. It’s all in the back. It’s all in the mind. It’s all in the training, the diet, the sleep, the sacrifices. It’s all. It’s everything. It’s every bloody thing.

Rowing crews around New Zealand have been, and continue to be knocked around by Covid. But spare a thought for those with the misfortune to live in the Covid capital, as we have come to regard Auckland.

Last October, while most schools got into their training season, Auckland rowers were locked down. Winter training camp: cancelled. On-water training: cancelled. Christmas rowing camp: cancelled. Then regattas were cancelled and rowers far and wide were affected.

As restrictions eased with the new year, coaches, club volunteers and schools worked miracles to get training up and running, organise mini camps, friendly races that would somehow comply with complex, contradictory, shifting health guidelines.

And then, Omicron. Covid capital, remember? One by one, two by two, five by five, rowers started getting sick. Or someone in their family got sick, or a close contact got sick and they were self-isolating. Training sessions were decimated. The first regatta of the season for Auckland rowers was three months later than usual: a short course at Lake Pupuke. It was shut down early because of weather, then someone got Covid and a moron at the Ministry of Health declared this wind-blown, outdoor event, in which every school stuck to its own bubble, a ‘close contact event’ meaning every person present should self-isolate for ten days.

The traditional Maadi clothes swap is banned this year. Every other year, thousands of rowers jostle together swapping stinky rowing caps and rowing T-shirts and rowing singlets and training shorts they’ve brought with them for the occasion. I stood right in the middle of it at Karapiro last year. Was that weird? It was wonderful. It was nuts. It was smelly.

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That’s how it’s been this season

Forgive me, but I expected the rowers to lose heart, waited for the day my son would sleep through his alarm or fail to bother setting it. I waited for the day he would ask: what is the point of all this training if I never get to race? I had no answer to that. I’m not a rower. I’m not an athlete. I’m not young.

The day never came. He kept going. They all did. They just kept training.

I’ll walk you through a senior school rower’s peak training schedule.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday: rise by 4.30am to be at the club by 5.20am for two hours of on-water training before school. On Saturday, a sleep-in. Training starts at six. Be prepared for an extra on- water session on Sunday.

After-school training is most days. Monday is an erg — a stationary row of up to an hour. Easy to say, hard to do. Sometimes they faint. Tuesday is strength-training. Wednesday is sprint-training on the field — try that on a cloudless day when you’ve been up since 4.30am, done two hours on the water, a full day at school, and it’s 29 degrees and 95 per cent humidity. Thursday is rest day. Friday? Honestly, I forget. By that stage in the week I’ve lost focus. I’m an automaton. I choose to get up for those early starts to show solidarity, to mix up a 2000-calorie smoothie, to provide a taxi service, but I often go back to bed, and still I’m a zombie by the end of the week.

How do these kids do their school work? Our rowers have to do their school work or they risk losing their place in the squad.

At some point in March, an email arrives from the club. The school sick bay is overrun by rowers looking for somewhere to nap. Tell your kids to go to bed earlier and leave the sick bay alone, the message says. I find this endearing, the thought of a dozen or more young giants, sheepish and dozy, slouching all over the stairs and chairs and walls and reception desk, goofing around with the nurses, who are trying not to laugh while also blocking access to a very limited number of too-short single mattresses offering up a whole world of bliss.

It’s not just sleep deprivation that causes fatigue. It’s energy deficiency. A growing adolescent boy needs around 2500 calories a day. Young athletes training hard need at least 1000 calories more just to maintain their weight. More again to put on muscle or fat. A 1.9m rower weighing 75 kilos could eat ten cups of cooked pasta, a loaf of bread, four chicken breasts (skin on) and half a kilo of cheese and might break even on calories that day. Fruit and vegetables? Pfffft.

‘Whitify his diet,’ said the dietitian, after pronouncing that there was pretty much no fat between my son’s skin and his muscle and bone. ‘White bread, white pasta, white rice.’ Forget everything you ‘know’ about a healthy diet. Did I mention protein? Beware supplements that can overload a growing boy’s kidneys — better to get it through whole food, i.e. egg, milk, nuts, peanut butter, yoghurt, chicken, mince, bacon, cheese and ice cream. Litres and litres and litres of ice cream.

The North Island Championships limped ahead in early March, three weeks out from Maadi with a skeleton crew of overworked volunteer officials and supporters. Rowing crews were down to the bone. So many were unwell or required to self-isolate. Surely we had passed the peak? The selection process continued and the squad was announced two weeks out from the competition.

We had not passed the peak

Some rowers who should have, would have, could have been selected were not selected because they were sick or self-isolating. Others were selected then had to self-isolate and could not go.

And then there were those few who, having made it through this disappointing Omicron season of rowing without getting sick, having been selected, having travelled to Twizel and preparing for the biggest race of their school rowing career ... now they get Covid.

Do you see?

Back to the lake. Imagine that coxed eight as they approach the 1500 metre mark. The sweat is coming off them now and they’re travelling eighteen kilometres an hour with the sun on their backs. Their squad mates, the volunteers, their coaches are hoarse with the roaring. The temperature on the water is only fifteen degrees but it’s hotter than Cairo in their throats. This is the parching effect of the dry Mackenzie Basin air their coach has warned them about. Nothing they can do about it other than suck it up, suck it in. It’s a different story to the damp, sub-tropical air these rowers are used to in Auckland. They’re around four and a half minutes into the race and the finish line is a million miles away. The taniwha is fighting back.

This Maadi is a shadow of its usual self. It is the first national school sporting event to take place since Omicron broke out. Behind the scenes, I’m told, it’s been a nightmare to organise. The number of competitors is severely curtailed — around a third of the usual number — with priority given to senior rowers who won’t get the chance to return. Schools are not allowed to mingle. Strict ‘bubbles’ have been set up along the lakeside. Rowers who have had the virus share rooms with those who haven’t. Everyone wears masks indoors. Transport runs to the lake are puzzled out like the chicken/fox/bag of wheat conundrum to reduce transmission risks to critical combinations of rowers/ coxwains/coaches/support staff. Spectators were initially banned, but with the latest Ministry of Health changes, a small area has been set aside for them for the last two days of competition. They’re not allowed near their kids, can’t assist the support crews. All understandable.

The traditional Maadi clothes swap is banned this year. Every other year, thousands of rowers jostle together swapping stinky rowing caps and rowing T-shirts and rowing singlets and training shorts they’ve brought with them for the occasion. I stood right in the middle of it at Karapiro last year. Was that weird? It was wonderful. It was nuts. It was smelly.

I hope the rowers do it this year anyway after the rowing is done. To hell with the rules. It’s not like throwing rocks at the police. It’s a joyful thing. It’s saying: I’m young. I’m alive. I’m here.

Because, for all the precautions, Covid is in the room at Maadi 2022, slipping under doors, poking around curtains. And don’t tell me this event shouldn’t be happening, that it’s too risky. Omicron is spreading slower at Maadi than at your local gym, your local primary school, your dance class. Omicron is a fact of life.

Still, it’s enough to make you cry when you think of those kids — not just at Twizel, but all over the country, hunched over a laptop watching the races. They should be rowing.

But wait, you say. What happened to just kids playing sport? This is not the Olympics. And if we’re talking about the impact of Covid, what about death, grief, financial hardship and ruin, separation from dying family members? That is the true cost of Covid.

True. It’s true. And Ukrainians are being bombed in their homes and the icecaps are melting and the world is dying.

What is also true is that we only get one life. What do we expect our youth to do? Give up? Curl under a rock? I want to see them do what they really want to do. I want to see them live. In the case of these particular kids, I want to see them row.

Here they are now, coming through the finish line, these fine young men. These warriors. Nailed it. Their heads drop, their bodies slump and they gasp and gasp in huge breaths of air. Their windpipes are scorched. One or two might throw up. Most will be struck by intense but short-lived headaches brought on by extreme exertion. They have done it. They have rowed at Maadi.

How did they do? Where did they come? We will never know. That race will never happen.

What is also true is that we only get one life. What do we expect our youth to do? Give up? Curl under a rock? I want to see them do what they really want to do. I want to see them live. In the case of these particular kids, I want to see them row.