Andy Hay talks to some of the people behind a very special day in our rowing history

 

Fred Strachan’s famous for having a memory like an elephant.

This is a man who at 99 years old still takes a huge interest in the rowing community he’s been part of since he was a 20-year-old just out of the Army during the Second World War.

So remind him of the date Aug 4, 1973, and he’s quick to pick up on the significance.

“I pushed for the Juniors to go in ‘73. Rusty Robertson was the coach. They finished fifth. The important thing wasn't so much a matter of winning, it was going through the system, learning the style, learning the competition...and be ready to go into the [Elite] national crew.”

By then Fred had been convenor of selectors for many years and developed a clear pathway for our athletes.

“My [thought] at the time was pick any oarsman, the best oarsman in the country from any school, any club, any province. Put him in one boat with the best coach and the best care and focus on the top. And the eight was our focus because it was the premier event in the world.”

Stroke of that eight, David Rodger, remembers the 1500m race vividly. It was the first world championship regatta hosted at the Holme Pierrepont course in Nottingham, England.

“We got about 150 metres out and caught a bit of dirty water, which slowed us up a little bit. So we went like hell for a thousand metres and got ourselves back in contention, but by the time we got to about 250 metres to go we’d run out of gas.”

David would go on to to represent New Zealand in a lot of iconic Kiwi eights.

He was six seat in the gold-medal boats at the 1982 and ‘83 World Championships, same seat for the bronze-medal winning boat at the 1976 Olympics and 1978 World Championships held at Lake Karapiro.

Graeme Hamilton’s inclusion in the crew came by way of another legend in the sport.

“Noel Lynch was my English teacher at Onslow College, and he came up to me and saw the size of my feet, and said, ‘Hamilton, you're rowing in October in the Onslow squad. I said, ‘Oh, am I? That might be a bit of an issue, because I'm going to Tawa College.”

Noel might not have bagged Hamilton for Onslow but he made sure he was introduced to the sport at Tawa and the Porirua Rowing Club. That was in 1971.

Less than two years later he was sitting in a New Zealand Junior Eight, being coached by Rusty Robinson, the man that had only just taken the Kiwi Eight to gold at the Munich Olympics.

“We were very, very much in awe of him, he just had such a manner in bringing people together.

“And the one thing he was really good at was motivation and getting a combination, a crew looking good on the water. When we first started, he looked at me from Porirua and we had this sort of lift your shoulders and arms up at the catch and stay up there until you get to the end of the slide.

“And the first thing he said to me was ‘You taking off are you, are you about to fly?’ He did a fantastic job in the short time together with young guys, of bringing the crew together.”

Kerrs Reach 1973a
Holme Pierrepont NZU19Eight 1973

The first ever New Zealand Junior Eight training at Kerrs Reach in Christchurch. Graeme Hamilton (5 seat) says coach Rusty Robertson made some dramatic improvements to combine them as a crew so that by the time they got to the World Championships, they were rowing a lot more together.

Like David Rodger, the Juniors experience left Graeme only wanting more.

He returned to Nottingham for the World Championships in 1975, finishing 2nd in the B Final of the Men’s Coxed Four.

He missed selection for the 1976 Olympics, but that only sharpened his focus.

“I was quite determined after that to get back in so I built myself a rowing machine and rowed at home, because I couldn't row a lot in Wellington on the water, because it's generally quite choppy. And got myself into a position where I got a trial and along with my sister Christine we both got a call into the 1978 team.”

Testing Erg 1976

Graeme on his home-built rowing machine he and sister Christine used to prepare for trials for the 1978 World Championships at Lake Karapiro.

If the Hamilton name is starting to ring a bell, you’re on the money. Graeme and Christine’s little sister is Judith, who now calls Karapiro home as part of Rowing New Zealand’s High-Performance programme.

It’s a funny thing talking to these former athletes and seeing how many of the challenges they faced still ring true today with our current junior crews.

The four Wellington athletes in the Women’s Eight (Emma Bagrie, Nico Daly, Kate Barham and Zola Kemp) and Maxim Ericson in the Men’s Quad ‘fondly’ talk of the year-round rowing they do on an erg because of the lack of decent training water.

Neither is it unusual to hear of young athletes, or coaches, talking about the task of trying to blend rowing styles together in a boat in a short time.

And even back in 1973, David Rodger remembers heading off to Denmark after their campaign to compete in an early form of coastal rowing.

So much has changed and yet much is familiar, so similar.

It’s 50 years to the day, nine young men put their best foot forward on the world stage.

Just like they did on the 4th of August 2023, with a the Men’s Eight winning its heat in 5min 40.77sec.

But this time there was a Women’s Eight that went 6:27.21 to finish 2nd in its heat, a Men’s Quad also 2nd in the heat, Milly Farrell coming 5th in her heat of the Single Sculls and our Men’s Pair coming 4th.

The 1973 Junior Men’s Eight

David Rodger (Cambridge) 

The late Peter Dignan (Auckland)

Greg Ball (Waikato)

Graeme Hamilton (Porirua)

Ross Lindstrom (Avon)

Frank Sheehan (Waikato)

Graeme Hill (Wanganui) 

Peter Rowbotham (Tauranga)

Cox: David Simmonds (Avon)

Coach: Rusty Robertson

Manager: Darien Boswell

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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.