Ruth is the Rotorua Daily Post's sports reporter

Rotorua named as one of New Zealand's top Olympic towns

As part of our comprehensive build-up to Rio 2016, the Herald, in association with ANZ, is counting down New Zealand's top Olympic towns. Today, number eight - Rotorua. Find out how we compiled the list below.

Cyclist Sam Bewley vowed not to come off the track without an Olympic medal and he was as good as his word.

The 28-year-old helped pedal his team to bronze in the 4000-metre team pursuit at the 2008 Games in Beijing with victory over Australia at the Laoshan Velodrome.

Then he and team-mates Marc Ryan, Jesse Sergent, Hayden Roulston and Westley Gough repeated the feat in London four years later.

"The first time is always going to be the most special and it made it all the more sweeter as we were underdogs in the race," Bewley said.

"I had texted my parents the night before saying 'I'm not coming off the track without a medal' so I'm relieved I lived up to my own pressure."

Bewley's exploits have helped make Rotorua number eight on the list of New Zealand's 10 top Olympic towns.

It's one of only five towns and cities that can boast multiple athletes who won medals at more than one Games.

Shot putter Valerie Adams, viewed as Rotorua's Olympic diamond, is the other, winning gold in 2008 and 2012.

Rower Brett Hollister, who won bronze in the coxed four at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, completes the town's roll of honour.

"It's incredible for Rotorua but it doesn't surprise me," said Bewley. "The whole community really promotes sport from a young age and the area provides a special adventure environment.

"And looking at Rio, once again Rotorua will be sending a strong group forward that have real medal chances."

Bewley's rise to glory on the biggest stage in the world was meteoric. He took to the track aged 17 and appeared at his first Olympics four years later.

His father Ken played rugby and cricket and, with wife Sue, encouraged Bewley play many sports from a young age.

"Getting into competitive biking relatively late actually helped because I put everything into it and was able to hit my peak at the right time."

Bewley and his team-mates qualified to race for bronze in Beijing after clocking a time of 3m 57.536s in the semifinals.

But they had the second fastest time in qualification - a fact which still leaves a bittersweet taste for Bewley.

"In all honesty we thought we should have been riding for the gold medal," he said.

Great Britain beat Denmark in the gold medal race, winning in a world record time of 3m 53.314s.

"It wasn't meant to be for us but it just meant we were all the more hungry to make sure we came off with a medal."

The euphoria of winning bronze was followed by a sense of relief upon watching the New Zealand flag being raised.

"It was a very surreal moment on the podium - I remember immediately searching for my family in the crowd and giving them a fist pump," Bewley said.

Bewley will not be competing in Rio. His career entered a new phase when he quit the track after the 2012 London Olympics to focus on professional road racing with European-based team Orica-BikeExchange.

He is now based in Girona, Spain, where he has lived for seven years. Not much bigger than Rotorua, it's home to about 100 professional cyclists who socialise and train together in the nearby Pyrenees.

His new target is to compete in next year's Tour de France, likely as a support cyclist for Colombian rider Esteban Chaves.

Bewley's advice for any present or aspiring Olympian: "Don't let the occasion get the better of you."

"You will be surrounded by superstars and a media bubble. The hype and build-up is huge, but just stay level-headed and have a clear focus."

A breeding ground for medals

Valerie Adams is favoured to win another gold medal in the women's shot put. Photo / Greg Bowker
Valerie Adams is favoured to win another gold medal in the women's shot put. Photo / Greg Bowker

She's Rotorua's favourite sporting daughter - and another Val Adams medal might not be far away.

Lake City Athletic Club vice-president Pam Kenny said the double gold medal-winning Olympian is a "special and unique" sportswoman.

"Winning two gold medals is no mean feat and she has dominated her field for such a long period of time," she said.

"Athletics has a very solid base in the community and I don't doubt that a similar calibre of athlete will be produced again."

Sport Bay of Plenty talent and development coach Dave Clarke attributes Rotorua's proud Olympic record to several factors, the most influential a "first-class" rural environment.

"Rotorua is a natural playground and so the environment creates a community ethos for kids to have a go," he said.

"There is a huge diversity of sports to choose from at an early age not just here but across the Bay of Plenty, so kids can develop multiple and transferable skills across lots of sports, which I believe makes for better-prepared athletes in later life."

The immediate future looks bright.

Men's rugby sevens captain Scott Curry, from nearby Reporoa, former Rotorua footballer Paige Satchell and Rotorua-born long-distance swimmer Kane Radford will all compete in Rio.

"There is a really strong community vibe that wants athletes to do well," said Radford.

"Being from a small-town environment spurs you on to show the world what you've got."

Clarke said Rotorua's athletes were a product of their environment.

"It's almost like as kids they have an inbuilt fitness from the area because on weekends most families will do a lot of exercise.

"The natural geography of the region offers world-class lakes which rowers can thrive on.

"And The Redwoods are a number one mountain bike area in the world, so youngsters are encouraged to get on the bike - probably even before they can walk."

- Ruth Dacey

How we did it

We analysed information about every summer Games medallist to come up with the 10 towns that have made the biggest contribution to Olympic glory.

The final position is the result of combining two rankings. The gold rank is based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population.

The Olympic rank is based on the number of medal-winning Olympians born in each town and city, divided by current population. We averaged the rankings to come up with the final position.

Today's town, Rotorua, is eighth on the ladder. It's the birthplace of three Olympians who have won five medals, including two golds. It has a population of 68,400 according to 2015 figures from Statistics NZ. Rotorua's gold rank is 8 and Olympic rank 10, giving an average of 9.

The method isn't scientific and we expect it to prompt debate. We know some athletes might identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born.

But our ranking gives a strong indication of the places that have given us greatest cause to celebrate Olympic success since Harry Kerr won New Zealand's first medal - a bronze in the 3500m walk at the 1908 Games in London.

The series continues every Wednesday and Saturday in July.

- NZ Herald

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