Rowing: Return of the fern

Once the euphoria has died and the gold medals have been put in the cupboard, New Zealand's elite rowers face some interesting decisions.

Their four titles won at last week's world championships in Gifu, Japan, have changed the landscape for the sport's finest practitioners.

Going into the Athens Olympics last year, privately some of the squad may have been eyeing medals, but publicly the call was making finals.

They got to five of them, but Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won the only medal, gold in the double scull.

What happened at Gifu has, in Nathan Twaddle's words, "moved the goalposts".

Twaddle and his stroke, George Bridgewater, dominated the coxless pair event, winning the final by a crushing 3.01s. Throw in golds for Mahe Drysdale in the single scull and Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles in the coxless pair plus the twins, all done back to back in 45 minutes, and there's a solid case of it being New Zealand sports' finest achievement. Period.

The challenge for the sport, as it looks towards the Beijing Olympics in 2008, is what to do with the next two years.

Twaddle admitted there are two ways of preparing for Beijing: take it easier next year, then mount a push from 2007 onwards, or put the foot to the floor in a bid to dominate their events for four straight years.

That's a tough call, but Twaddle reckons the latter is the way he'd favour approaching it.

"It removes the element of doubt if you're trying to win every race," he said. "Otherwise it allows too many mind games to come into play.

"If you go out to win every race and achieve it, no one can doubt what you're going to bring. No one is going to think they've got a chance to beat you."

Twaddle is a big believer in - to lift Drysdale's words from Gifu - bringing back the fear factor. Make their rivals glance across the start line and think, "We've got to beat the black singlets".

Gifu changed the dynamics within the squad. The bar has been significantly raised. More exacting standards have been set.

"The interesting thing in the next couple of years is expectations will continue to rise. It's going to be harder and harder to please ourselves, and the rowing administration and our supporters.

"Next year, say we got second and I knew we'd done as much as we could and raced well then I'd probably be satisfied with that.

"A loss can be a huge motivator. It's a bit cliched, but you almost learn more from losses than wins."

There have been a few of those for 29-year-old Whakatane-raised, Auckland-based - when he's not churning out the kilometres at Lake Karapiro - Twaddle.

Getting fourth at the Athens Olympics by .84s was tough. They were pipped for bronze by South Africans Donovan Cech and Ramon di Clemente - the same Cech and di Clemente who finished second in Gifu.

Payback? Maybe, but Twaddle's heard the talk that fourth is the worst placing of them all.

Yet he reckons they did everything they could at Athens, so there was no feeling of despair and no notion of packing it in.

At that point, Twaddle and Bridgewater, 22, had been together about a year. Twaddle believes they've made big strides since Athens and benefited from doing different disciplines over the summer months to freshen up.

"We are certainly not a natural pair. It did take a while to gel, but we've always made the most of the different strengths we bring to the boat.

"We only got back in the pair together in April. A lot of people were commenting that we looked really good, but we didn't believe it until we started winning races."

Ah, self-belief. Twaddle believes in being his own toughest critic.

"It's pretty easy for other people to talk about you in glowing terms, but you know what you look like when you get out of bed in the morning.

"Fear can be a big motivator. That will get a lot of people up to a certain level, but it's that next step, having the belief that can get you there in the end.

"If you'd told me in March 2004 that I'd be a world champion in 18 months, I'd have told you to take a jump."

As Twaddle and Bridgewater gathered their thoughts at the start line in Gifu, the strains of God Defend New Zealand echoed down the course. At that point, New Zealand were raced two, won two. Talk about setting a challenge.

Twaddle's immediate reaction on crossing the line was a mix of relief and elation.

"After all those years of trying, to finally achieve a world title, it was pretty amazing.

"You set that high goal, something you think is just out of your reach. I don't know if I ever fully trusted my ability to get up to that."

The gold medals have brought cash into the sport. Government funding agency Sparc will pump $2.5 million in over the next year.

That means the men's coach, John Robinson, will be at Lake Karapiro full time, rather than commuting from Blenheim. They will avoid staleness over the summer by cross-training, some single-seat and double-scull work.

So should the New Zealand squad innovate to keep at the head of the bunch or stick with what works, simply refine it and do it better? Twaddle, regarded as a model trainer, tells a story.

"The Canadian eight won the world champs in 2002 and 2003. In their heat in Athens, they lost by the width of a bow ball to the Americans and completely panicked.

"They changed everything and finished up getting fifth.

"I think we're on a pretty good wicket here. The programme [head coach] Richard Tonks has put together, and the support from Sparc and the rowing administration, is going in the right direction. Four golds show that."

Twaddle expects their opponents to come at them hard next year. In the post-Olympic year many countries tinker with crews, having a four-year plan in mind.

New Zealand don't need to. With the exception of 33-year-old Coles, the elite squad are all under 30. Plans are being put in place to add disciplines into the mix by 2008.

Success breeds success. New Zealand likes its winners. So the cheque books are open, and Rowing New Zealand is in clover.

That will last while the going is good, the returns coming in. The trick is making sure they continue to come for a long time.

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