Scotty Stevenson: Curious George takes a punt on Olympic gold

New Zealand Rowing Men's Quadruple Sculls, (L-R) Nathan Flannery, Jade Uru, George Bridgewater and John Storey. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand Rowing Men's Quadruple Sculls, (L-R) Nathan Flannery, Jade Uru, George Bridgewater and John Storey. Photo / Brett Phibbs

George Bridgewater walked into the International Media Centre in Rio today and folded himself into a seat. Standing 2m tall, Bridgewater has become well versed at folding himself into seats. He's spent most of his adult life in one, going backwards.

He's in Rio for his third Olympics. He rowed for New Zealand in Athens with Nathan Twaddle, finishing fourth in the pair. Four years later the same two men took bronze in Beijing, although that result was overshadowed by the Evers-Swindell twins' double sculls gold and Mahe Drysdale's pain. Only once between Athens and Beijing did Twaddle and Bridgewater finish outside the top two at a World Cup or world championships regatta. Their bronze was probably a disappointment.

Bridgewater finished up after Beijing, packed his bags and headed for Oxford, an MBA, and a career in Hong Kong and Singapore. There are only so many years a person can give to a sport that takes everything and offers so little back.

He never received much by way of recognition but a world championship, five World Cup victories and an Olympic bronze medal could be considered a decent return on the investment. Unless you're a finance expert.

Last year, Bridgewater came back. He chucked in the desk job and moved home. Quite why he came back is beyond me. Quite why any rower would ever want to come back is beyond me. This is not a sport, it's self-harm. When I ask him what possessed him to return to Karapiro, he says he had an itch that needed scratching, which is a rower's way of saying he had a soul that needed destroying. Worse, not only did he come back, he came back to two oars instead of one. He must be mad.

He doesn't seem mad. He's kinda goofy, in a really charming way. He smiles a lot, stoops to talk, shakes hands with everyone he meets. He walked in today after finishing training on the Lagoa course, his hair dishevelled and his belly rumbling on account of missing his dinner, and, without complaint, chatted about the last two months of his life during which he first failed to qualify for the Olympics, then experienced the lowest type of low a rower can experience, then received a call back from New Zealand rowing, and then qualified for the Olympics on account of the disqualification of the Russian boat.

He smiles a lot talking about it, which is not what most people would be doing. Most people would be brimming with residual resentment and be angry at the world. Cheating Russians robbed Bridgewater and his crew - Jade Uru, John Storey and Nathan Flannery are the others - of weeks of important training. He shrugs his shoulders and says they have simply adjusted their expectations and now have to get on with the job. Then he makes a joke about towering over his crew-mates.

He doesn't do jokes about his age, though. He's 33 now, with four years on Uru and Storey and nine years on Flannery. Flannery was 12 when Bridgewater rowed in his first Olympics. I ask him if he feels all right about being the granddad of the crew, to which he responds by pointing out he's not the eldest in the team. Another sculler takes that honour. One who is a lot more famous than Bridgewater.

That's the thing about Bridgewater, though. He's not here for the fame. And he isn't here for the money, because there's very little of that in rowing. He's here to scratch that itch; to scull for New Zealand; to grab one last shot at an Olympic medal. And what a story that would be if somehow the Kiwi quad could do it with a veteran rower who took seven years out of the elite system and returned to one of the most technically demanding classes of them all.

The New Zealand quad won't be a medal favourite in Rio, but Bridgewater won't mind the underdog tag one bit. He's the finance whizz who's made the biggest trade of his life and, when he folds himself into that seat, he'll be expecting to collect.

- NZ Herald

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