Andrew Alderson

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

Olympics: Scullers solve form mystery

Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen. Photo / Getty Images
Joseph Sullivan (left) and Nathan Cohen. Photo / Getty Images

The deepest mystery of the New Zealand Olympic rowing campaign has been solved - why world-class double scullers Joseph Sullivan and Nathan Cohen had such a puzzling collapse in form leading up to London.

Sullivan and Cohen came into this season as two-time defending world champions but finished last in the B final of the World Cup in Lucerne (12th) in May, behind such unfancied crews as Argentina and Egypt.

Trouble ensued. Cohen and Sullivan, two normally measured, loyal individuals, began to question themselves and each other as to how one of Rowing New Zealand's most promising campaigns could so badly lose its aura in the off-season.

It was the sort of setback that can ruin an Olympic campaign, especially in a ticklish sport like rowing where getting the boat to go fast can be such a subtle, delicate marriage of physical and mental application.

Then the scullers had a bit of an epiphany. Inadvertently they examined the right oar blades of their boat two days before the next World Cup in Munich.

They realised the blades were warped at the bottom, something initially not obvious to the human eye. It affected the catch in the rowing stroke and the subsequent passage of the boat through the water.

They adjusted the blades. They took silver medals behind Norway at Munich last month. Normal propulsion had been resumed.

The relieved smile on 25-year-old Joseph Sullivan's face said it all as he relaxed earlier this week at the bed-and-breakfast establishment the team is using during the day between training and races in Buckinghamshire, near the Dorney Lake course.

"Something had gone wrong in transit from New Zealand. The bottom part of the blade's curve - which we don't tend to measure - was at the wrong angle on both oars on the right-hand side. It was good news because that was a stressful time. We were getting angry at each other and blaming each other but it was actually the fault of the equipment," Sullivan laughs.

"It was a big relief. We only found out two days before Munich and it was only by chance. ... We're feeling a lot better now; we've got more confidence and feel amped."

The discovery pushes Cohen and Sullivan back into strong medal contention with the likes of the Norwegians and the Germans. The Australian crew of Scott Brennan and David Crawshay probably remain favourites. The defending Olympic champions had two years off after Beijing, came fourth last year and took silver at the 2012 World Cup in Lucerne.

However, a fully functioning boat means Sullivan and Cohen should be right near the apex of the field, particularly as they have proven composure to win close races. Last year's world championship final was an example. They pipped Germany by 0.06s. The first time they hit the front was on the line.

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).

Lucerne this year is also not the first time this combination has suffered the heebie-jeebies followed by success. When they missed the final at the 2010 World Cup regatta in Munich, their world championship aspirations looked shot. They swapped boat positions for the next World Cup three weeks later in Lucerne. That produced a bronze which was followed by their world championship triumph on Lake Karapiro.

Deja vu anyone?

- Herald on Sunday

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