Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rowing: Do or die at Regatta of Death

Sport has some brutal mechanisms to tell contestants: "you are the weakest link; goodbye".

Football has the penalty shootout, NRL league has the golden point, most tennis tournaments have the tie-break.

However, rowing takes some beating for outing The Weakest Link(s) when it comes to last chance Olympic qualification. It is known in the rowing fraternity as the 'Regatta of Death'.

That's what the New Zealand men's eight and lightweight four will contest from May 20-23 in Lucerne ahead of the Swiss city's annual World Cup. They are flying to the other side of the world to contest a warm-up regatta - the World Cup in Belgrade - next weekend. Then it's the big race. The eight must win to get New Zealand an Olympic entry in that class for the first time since 1984.

New Zealand has never qualified a lightweight four; they must finish in the top two on the Rotsee in Lucerne.

Former New Zealand rower Nicky Coles went to two Regattas of Death in her career. The first was in 2000, when she failed to qualify a women's eight which included the names Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell; the second was in 2004, when she and Juliette Haigh qualified the women's pair before going on to finish sixth in the Olympic final. They became world champions the following year.

Coles says her regatta of death experiences were the most tormenting of her sporting career.

"It was hideous. I had wanted to go to an Olympics from childhood and each time it came down to that final chance to achieve my sporting dream.

"The first time I was so green up against the mental pressure of sitting on the start line knowing my ambitions would be accomplished or smashed in less than seven minutes.

"The moment I will never forget is picking up the boat to go down for our race. We had to step over the German men's eight who had failed to qualify. They were a mess; just sobbing uncontrollably. Talk about a distraction."

Coles and the eight failed to qualify but she says the regatta changed her as a person.

"It totally galvanised me; made me realise I still had the Olympic dream. It made it harder when I was dropped from the team in 2003 but I got together with Juliette to get through the next qualification regatta at Athens. I knew what to expect and could remain clinical rather than emotional. We were the first New Zealand crew to qualify at a regatta of death [Storm Uru and Peter Taylor did it in the lightweight double sculls in 2008], which was something I'm proud of.

"People would sell their souls to qualify at that regatta. Those were the worst races of my life but certainly the most significant."

American muscle
Complicating matters is the nature of the New Zealand eight's competition. They meet one of their contenders - France - next weekend on Serbian water with the Czech Republic and China expected to front at the regatta of death. However, their toughest opponent is likely to be the United States. The US have a proud Olympic record, having been in every final since Los Angeles in 1984. Since Antwerp in 1920, the American eight has missed just two finals; the first in Montreal (1976) and the second in Moscow (1980), when the team boycotted.

USRowing chief executive Glenn Merry says a successful eight is part of their rowing culture. "This upcoming regatta is pretty important, otherwise we're verging on uncharted territory, at least in the modern era. We had a 40-year gap between gold medals [1964-2004] but came back at Athens. Missing out on a win in the B final to Ukraine last year stunned us. It was like 'holy crap, what's the next step?'

"Everyone's taken some of the blame."

Legends' support
The New Zealand men's eight have received support from legends of the past like 1972 Olympic gold-medal winning veterans Tony Hurt and Wybo Veldman who have spoken to crew members in the build-up.

The crew is coached by Ian Wright, a 1988 Olympic bronze medallist in the coxed four. He says getting a sense of the eight's legacy is vital, considering the 1976 crew won an Olympic bronze and the 1982 and 1983 crews were world champions. None of the current eight were born by 1983; the oldest is Fergus Fauvel, born in November 1986.

"It is pertinent to get the old fellas to talk to the boys, sometimes you can glean something looking back. These were guys who grew up in a rowing set up at Lake Karapiro which consisted of a simple green shed. Compare that to the current Rowing New Zealand programme which is second-to-none for resources. The eight has benefited too, with special attention from sponsors like Banklink and Aon to keep our programme afloat."

Wright says he doesn't want this campaign to be viewed as a talent building exercise.

"The average age of the crew is 23. Many of these guys will be around for Rio but age is no excuse. There is no reason why they shouldn't be as good as their counterparts. Yes, it's a demanding task [to win in Lucerne] but to us, it's a world championship, not a regatta of death."

The crews left for Europe on Friday. The confirmed Olympic crews depart on May 18.

- Herald on Sunday

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