Rowing: Make or break time looms

By Kelly Exelby

Athenree's Curtis Rapley will have a decent idea by this weekend whether his Olympic dream has legs or is dead on the water.

So small nine years ago when he took up rowing at Katikati College that he was shoved in the back of the boat as coxswain, Rapley is part of a New Zealand men's lightweight four that left for Europe last weekend to make a last-ditch bid for Olympic qualification in what is known as the Regatta of Death.

The NZ men's eight and lightweight four will compete from May 20-23 in Lucerne ahead of the Swiss city's annual World Cup. This weekend they will contest a warm-up regatta, the World Cup in Belgrade, before the big race.

Rapley's four, together just three months, must finish in the top two in Lucerne. New Zealand has never qualified a lightweight four to an Olympics.

The formula for the eight is even tougher. They have to win to get New Zealand an Olympic entry in that class for the first time since 1984.

Rapley, in between sessions on Lake Karapiro last week, said while daunting, the prospect of one race and no second chance was what had driven the crew through several months of gruelling training that peaked at 200km a week.

"It's a huge trip, do-or-die stuff, but at the same time it's an exciting opportunity. In a way it's good to go away and know the scenario.

"Times are irrelevant. We need to make sure we first get to the final and then finish first or second. Everyone else goes home."

New Zealand already has 11 crews heading for London and the Games, the biggest ever rowing contingent to an Olympics.

Rapley's four includes three-time world lightweight single sculling champion Duncan Grant (his specialist event is not on the Olympic programme) and former lightweight pair world championship silver medallists James Lassche and Graham Oberlin-Brown.

Rapley was second at last year's world under-23 championships and was one of eight who trialled in February for the four. He impressed and ended up in the stroke seat.

Apart from the workload, watching his weight in order to hit the 70kg-per-rower average in the four has been a big test. He's aiming to get down to 69.5kg to give the 1.91m Lassche and Oberlin-Brown some leeway.

"Over the last month I've slowly been bringing my weight down, pretty much by stopping eating ice-cream," the 21-year-old said. "An average weight stops a boat having an 80kg rower and a 60kg rower, so a no ice-cream diet has helped, as well as monitoring my portion sizes for every meal and not overeating."

This weekend's regatta at Belgrade will be vital for the four to assess how they compare to their rivals. The top 11 crews have already qualified for the Olympics and would be in Serbia, but not Lucerne. Indicative times have been good but Rapley said it was hard to tell how they stacked up on the other side of the world.

"Belgrade will give us an idea of where we're tracking but it all still comes down to one regatta. There's 11 boats pushing for a six-boat final and from there's it's whoever goes fastest on the day."

Rapley won his first elite national title last year with Oberlin-Brown in a lightweight double and his second in March with former Tauranga Boys' College rower Toby Cunliffe-Steel in a pair. Getting in a lightweight four with three experienced international campaigners had been a brutal baptism.

"We've been hammering training and being thrown together at short notice in the same boat has meant long days on the water. We'll go to Europe with only three months' training under our belts, which is not a lot, but that's the situation that's been handed to us.

"We decided collectively that that's what we'd been given so we might as well put our heads down and make the most of it. All of us want to get to the Olympics so that means giving 100 per cent every day."

Pint-sized Rapley was an obvious choice as coxswain when he signed up to row for Katikati College as a 12-year-old, finally getting the chance to grab a blade a few years later when he enrolled at Bethlehem College.

"I've never been a giant but as soon as I outgrew cox I started rowing. I stopped growing about then, too, so I've done lightweight rowing ever since. Not everyone's built like Mahe [Drysdale] and because everyone in the lightweight class is the same weight, and the blades and boats are the same weight, it makes for some tight racing."

Dave Thompson, Rapley's coach, predicts they'll need to power down the 2000m course in sub-6 minutes to have a realistic shot at making it to London.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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