Andrew Alderson

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

Rowing: Scullers join NZ's top tier

Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen. Photo / Christine Cornege
Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen. Photo / Christine Cornege

New Zealanders better get used to the names Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan featuring prominently at the London Olympics.

Just look for a men's double sculls crew near the apex of the field with Sullivan's five o'clock shadow-covered jaw in the stroke seat and a 1980s-style sun visor shading Cohen's face in the bow.

Cohen (25) and Sullivan (24) defended their world championship title on Lake Bled in Slovenia on Friday, pipping Germany by 0.06 of a second. The first time they had hit the front was on the line, reminding fans of the Evers-Swindell twins' second Olympic gold medal at Beijing three years ago, when they won by 0.01s on the final stroke.

Much like the twins, Cohen and Sullivan say 'yes' to modesty and 'no' to fuss when faced with the limelight. Their profile is relatively low among their current or former world champion peers like Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Juliette Haigh or Rebecca Scown, yet they are fast reaching a similar pedestal.

New Zealand had never been the best in the world at the men's double sculls before these two came together. Cohen's previous partners had included Matthew Trott (2007, 2009) and Rob Waddell (2008). Curiously, when Trott needed urgent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome on his wrist in 2007, a then-20-year-old Sullivan was called into the boat with Cohen at short notice for the World Cup in Amsterdam. They still cruised into the final against Olympic-medal winning opposition; so the signs were there for the selectors even if it would be three years before a plan was fully hatched.

Their combination has not always been smooth. When they missed the final at the World Cup regatta in Munich last year, their world championship aspirations looked grim. They swapped boat positions for the next World Cup three weeks later in Lucerne. That resulted in bronze followed by the triumph on Lake Karapiro. Sullivan found he was better keeping a rhythm in the stroke seat, while Cohen could read the race and call the moves from the bow.

Friday night showcased their maturity as a crew determined to work to a race plan. It's by no means a perfect scenario winning the race on the final stroke but their willingness to start at a more steady pace to be fourth after the first 500m and then gradually increasing their intensity to work through the field requires rare composure.

"With 200m to go, we knew we had to motor," Cohen says. "We try to start fast but we're not the strongest. The Germans took it to us but Joe kept stepping up our stroke rate over the final 500m and eventually matched them. It was a hell of a wait for that photo finish. It was surreal sitting in the boat before the result flashed on the screen. Most of those crews were capable of winning. The benefit of such close races is that it instils the belief you can win from anywhere."

When Cohen makes the "anyone could win" claim, it is not the usual cliché - one or both members of every crew in their race had a past double sculls world championship or Olympic medal. Two crews - Australia (2008) and Slovenia (2000) - had won Olympic gold.

For Sullivan, the reaction was mainly relief: "It'll take a while to sink in but we had a race plan and expected the Germans to jump out. I didn't see much of what was happening; I just took Nathan's calls and put them into action. I had no idea initially who had won. I'll need a few beers to recuperate."

Even the normally unflappable high performance manager - and former New Zealand eight coxswain of the late 1970s - Alan Cotter says he felt signs of strain.

"My heart was racing. Gee, those guys have got some fight in them. It was just like the women's pair [who won by 0.08s] the day before. Joe and Nathan have always been top athletes, coming through the junior and under-23 ranks. It's a case of reaping the rewards after the hard work done."

With the Olympics a year away, Cohen has no plans to up the fashion stakes and ditch the sun-visor.

"It's not superstitious," Cohen chuckles. "It's just there to keep the sweat out of my eyes. Our main goal was to qualify the boat for London. Now we can step it up. We have time to reassess things with two-and-a-half weeks off. This will soon be a distant memory when London training comes around so we've got to enjoy it."

- Herald on Sunday

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