Eric Murray was a "roly-poly young fella" who lost his first race by 500m. Hamish Bond was so skinny, school rowing recruiters wondered if he wanted to be a coxswain.
The world's premier rowing combination - staggeringly unbeaten since 2009, winning every heat, every semifinal, every regatta they have entered - had humble beginnings, according to their first coaches Charles Haggie (Murray) and Fred Strachan (Bond).
According to Haggie, Murray turned up at the Mercer Rowing Club south of Auckland and lost his debut club race by "about 500m" (a rowing course is 2km). Bond was always a keen learner. Strachan describes him as having "a bit of latent talent" - but it took three years for it to blossom at Otago Boys' High School. Another noted New Zealand rower, Carl Meyer, was involved at that school, helping that to happen.
A hard taskmaster known by the nickname "Bootcamp", Meyer was in elite crews with Murray from 2004-08 and Bond from 2006-08. He was in seventh form when Bond entered third form at Otago Boys' High.
Another former coach, Chris Nilsson says Meyer was a great influence on the young Bond: "He was responsible for Hamish's introduction to rowing at the boarding house. His ability to provide discipline and take a young guy under his wing means Bondy owes a lot to him."
Strachan concurs. The 88-year-old, who won a 2005 Halberg lifetime achievement award for his contribution to the sport, was on hand to witness the occasion from the Dorney Lake grandstand.
"Carl was clearly a guiding light. But that's not to take away from Hamish. He's something special because at about 1.85m and maybe not even 90kg, he's not a big rower. When you see him taking it to these big guys it comes down to technique, balance and mental toughness.
"Even as a tall, skinny 13-year-old, he was capable. Quite often young people today query what you say but he never faltered."
"The big break came when Carl was looking for a crewmate," Strachan says. "He was on shaky ground in the New Zealand squad and was looking for a boost, so I got in touch with Hamish. They came to Twizel [where Strachan lives] and I coached them there. They didn't win in their first year together but went damned close. It put the selectors on notice."
Meyer deflects the suggestion he may have had an influence over their careers: "I gave Hamish a few pointers when I was in seventh form and then rowed a pair with him in 2006. I knew he had potential. As for Eric, he's always been a racer. We spent many years in crews that weren't successful before 2007. However his ability to take pain has never been in doubt.
"I can remember being in Canada in an under-21 development eight. We went out partying and were supposed to be back by a certain curfew. Eric didn't make it. To pay his dues the coaches made him and another guy row the rest of our eight up a lake for a couple of kilometres while we lay back relaxing. That dead weight would've been like pushing a car with its handbrake on. He never complained."
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Interestingly, for a duo so in sync, they see little of each other off the water. They rarely socialise away from the boat but Bond says that is not indicative of how they feel about each other.
"Eric's embraced fatherhood with his wife Jackie and [year old] son Zac so we live separate lives. We have a huge belief and respect in each other that got us through the last four years. When it's on the line, you need someone you know will try as hard as yourself. My biggest fear was not achieving what I knew I was capable of. To look back and say I could've done something more, that would be hard to take."
"It's about 450 grams of pure grit, determination, attitude and belief that we could do it," Murray said, pointing to his gold medal. "All the effort has culminated in this. I shed tears on the podium. How many New Zealanders have sat at home, watched the flag going up overseas, heard the national anthem and got choked up knowing another Olympic champion has been produced?
"We also apparently get a pallet of Moa [the New Zealand Olympic Committee beer sponsor]. That'll help too," Murray, ever the larrikin, noted with anticipation.
Murray had a bit of a reputation as a difficult rower even before current coach Dick Tonks took them over in 2009 as a pair. Before that, they were mentored by 1972 New Zealand Olympian Nilsson. Along with Meyer and James Dallinger, Bond and Murray won the 2007 world championships in the coxless four, a class New Zealand had not topped the world in since winning gold at the 1984 Olympics.
But they missed a place in the final at Beijing. Nilsson says he always suspected they could make it as a pair.
"In 2007 I used to train them in pairs quite a lot. They were in a class of their own. When they got together against Carl and James, they'd clean them out. They were the natural stern of the four. Bondy was a machine with an incredible head and Eric fitted in well behind him.
"When I took over the crew, I was told 'oh, you'll have trouble with that Eric Murray' but perhaps I struck him when he was more mature. There was only one occasion when we had to have a chat, after he and James cut corners on the Penrith [Sydney] course in the build-up to Beijing.
"I built an immense respect for him. I remember there was a time - at Lucerne in 2005, from memory - when Dick Tonks took to him over something he'd done. They were nose to nose but Eric stood his ground and didn't bat an eyelid. He just took whatever it was on the chin. I had immense respect for him after that."
Nilsson says under Tonks they have become fitter than anyone in the class and amongst the New Zealanders they are the new Evers-Swindell twins; the benchmark.
The pair reserve praise for coach Tonks: "He's a humble guy and there's mutual respect," Murray says. "He makes it quite open - you either do what he tells you or you bugger off. We knew he was probably the coach capable of pushing us beyond our perceived limits. His idiosyncrasy is hard work which can leave you questioning your sanity ... but this is the end result.
"His success [gold medal athletes at the last four Olympics] is unparalleled," Bond says. "He's prepared to push athletes harder than they know with little sentiment or empathy. We know turning up to regattas we'd be the best prepared of any crew. We've left no kilometre unrowed."By Andrew Alderson Email Andrew