Hamish Bond is one of New Zealand's most decorated sportsmen. Just don't call him a freak, writes Michael Burgess.
Ask Hamish Bond about the hardest physical experience of his career, and the answer takes a while. It's partly because he is naturally self-effacing, but also because there are so many episodes to choose from.
Bond, who hopes to write a new Olympic chapter in 2020 as part of the New Zealand men's eight, after a two-year hiatus in cycling, is one of the toughest athletes this country has produced.
Two Olympic gold medals. Eight rowing world championships. A 69-race unbeaten streak as one half of the Kiwi pair. A Commonwealth Games road cycling bronze medal. A national record in the 4000m individual pursuit, beating legends like Gary Anderson and Hayden Roulston.
Bond has been pushing his mental, physical and emotional limits for more than half his life, ever since as a 15-year-old he persuaded his parents to buy him a rowing machine for Christmas so he could train during the school holidays.
That's not normal, but neither is Bond.
He has spent more than a decade in the renowned New Zealand rowing programme, before the remarkable switch to cycling, where he turned heads on the road, before focusing on the track.
But back to the pain. Is there one moment, one race, one training session that stands out?
Bond talks about endurance-based suffering like most people might discuss their favourite TV show. He's an expert, in a casual way.
"You have the capacity to hurt more in rowing, because it is more of a whole body exercise," explains Bond. "It's high intensity, but generally a rowing race is 2 km, about seven minutes. It's structured suffering. Whereas the scope for unstructured suffering in a cycling race is almost infinite."
That's why he eventually focused on time trials during his cycling stint.
"That was structured suffering, a known distance, parameters," said Bond. "I wasn't really a smart road cyclist. I had some success, but I would turn myself inside out in stupid, pointless ways that other people would be looking at me saying, 'What are you doing?'"
After sorting through the hundreds of races and thousands of training sessions — on the water, on the road, on the track — Bond says the toughest physical test of his life came during the 2009 Tour of Southland, which he entered on a whim.
"I did more riding during the tour than I did in preparation," says Bond. "So not ideal. I have never suffered like I suffered that week. I was right on the limit of what is possible."
With rowing, the notorious ergometer tests stick in the mind.
"Testing is really hard mentally," says Bond. "In the boat, you have the adrenalin of the race, you don't want to let your crewmates down, the extra competition. With the erg… it's just you and the machine. Your body is screaming at you to stop, and it's about whose head can say 'no' the longest. You're on the limit and watching metres tick down slowly, just holding on."
Bond doesn't have natural advantages with the erg, which favours bigger, more powerful athletes, but he mastered it, to the point where few in New Zealand have bettered his times.
"It was surprising and a little frustrating," says former teammate Carl Meyer. "Because he was smaller than me, and beating me in the end."
What makes Bond so special? In terms of endurance capacity, he ranks among our greatest athletes. But is he a freak?
That's not easy to answer. He doesn't have extreme genetic advantages, like swimmer Ian Thorpe and his 'flipper' feet. He also isn't the stereotypical ideal rowing build; the height of Rob Waddell, the long levers of Mahe Drysdale or the natural horsepower of Eric Murray, who could pass for a blindside flanker.
At 1.90m and 88kg, he's relatively lean and light, but was invincible alongside Murray for eight years, regularly beating crews with bigger athletes and giving away 10kg or more.
Meyer sums it up well.
"Other rowers have been physically bigger, taller, stronger, maybe technically better as well ... but none of them that have fronted up against [Murray and Bond] in the pair have been as hungry, as fit and as determined."
Noel Donaldson took over coaching Bond and Murray after the 2012 Olympics. The veteran Australian mentor had heard all kinds of stories about Bond's physical capacities.
"The stories went that he had the greatest engine that has ever been known to rowing," says Donaldson. "The reality was he had a bloody good motor, but not one that is absolutely off the charts. But you realise there is all these other things that make up such a competitive person."
VO2 tests — which measure aerobic capacity, or how efficient lungs are at taking in and delivering oxygen to working muscles — are a common measure.
An average person might sit at 3.5 to four litres, while most male elite rowers hover around six. Sir Matthew Pinsent was an outlier (around 7.5 litres), Rob Waddell had one of the highest tested while urban legends abound about former British strongman Pete Reed, who some said topped eight.
In 2014, Bond was tested at 6.5 litres.
"As a rower that's world class … in the top 10 per cent, but he's not a freak," says Donaldson. "But he's a freak in everything else, in terms of getting everything out of himself."
Three-time Olympic gold medallist Reed (1.97m, 100kg) was sometimes painted as superhuman with his physical capacities, but tried in vain to beat Bond and Murray for three years before giving up, and switching back to the coxless four ahead of the 2012 Olympics.
"Hamish would have his high-powered six cylinder, going past the guys driving their eight cylinders," says Donaldson. "Because he would have his foot to the floor, and not taking any shortcuts."
So, what's the recipe? Rowing New Zealand sports scientist Justin Evans explains.
"A high VO2 mark is important, but it's only one aspect," says Evans. "You might be able to breathe in a lot of oxygen, but it's how your body uses it. From the lungs, into your blood, then into the muscles. His aerobic capacity is really impressive; how he utilises oxygen, and how he is able to produce force through the muscle using it. He's very efficient at it and he's good at it.
"You will hear him referred to as a diesel. He will just keep going; keep doing the same thing for hours and hours. His huge training history allows him to do it. He's at a level where what most people can do for 10 minutes, he can do for an hour."
Using the analogy of a car, Evans says Bond has great fuel economy, as well as power and torque - a rare combination.
"He also has really good boat feel and utilises his body in a way that optimises timing with the boat," says Evans. "He uses his muscles in a good sequence, that optimises his rowing stroke."
Maybe Bond was destined for endurance sports. One of his first sporting memories is winning the cross-country races at primary school and finding success in regional contests throughout Mid Canterbury.
He also stayed active on the family farm in Chertsey, a tiny town near Ashburton.
"We used to feed out the animals, put hay in a trailer behind the motorbike, but instead of riding on the motorbike we would run and hold on to the back of the trailer," says Bond. "We ended up going way faster than what we could take ourselves under our own speed. It was an early version of speed training."
Bond was a sporting all-rounder, but got hooked on rowing after being introduced to it in third form at Otago Boys' High School. His dedication soon went way beyond the norm, best exemplified by the Yuletide request for a rowing machine.
"I'm 100 per cent sure I was the only one who did that," says Bond. "It's fair to say that wasn't normal. I don't know why I did it. I guess I understood pretty early that rowing was a sport that rewards hard work."
A few years later, Bond took a single sculling boat home for the school holidays, despite living 30 kilometres from the nearest body of water.
"I put it on the roof of my car and drove it home with me," says Bond. "I went to lengths that most others wouldn't. It would have been easy to put it in the too-hard basket - 'I don't have a boat, the water is 30 kilometres away, going to have to drive there and back each day'."
Sam Morrison rowed with Bond in 2003, just after the future Olympian had left school. Their time together included a particularly spartan training camp in Twizel, under the watch of long-time Bond mentor Fred Strachan.
"It was pretty up there in terms of kilometres on the water," says Morrison of their sessions on Lake Ruataniwha. "Twenty km in the morning, maybe 10km after lunch in the single, and another 15km in the afternoon. We didn't do much else."
Morrison also remembers Bond going out on solo rows on their rare days off.
"He would go out in a single, go forever, and then come back and tell me how far he went."
Scratch the surface in the rowing fraternity and most have a story about Bond, usually relating to the most remarkable work ethic they have ever encountered.
Meyer, who himself was renowned as an intensely tough trainer (Bond described him as "militaristic" in his approach), was taken aback by Bond.
"He was young and raw but didn't put people on a pedestal, he was keen to challenge them," says Meyer. "He probably always wanted to prove something; prove that this kid, just out of Ashburton, who wasn't the biggest, or the most technically sound, could do it."
During their time in the New Zealand squad, the wider group would have regular 40km cycling time trial races around Cambridge.
"The time to beat every year got lower and lower and in the end he owned that one," said Meyer. "He always thought, 'I can lower that number.' He never settled for, 'Oh, that's a good time'."
Former coach Chris Nilsson, who took Bond, Meyer, Eric Murray and James Dallinger to gold at the 2007 World Championships, also has a cycling anecdote, after encouraging his crew to enter the Round Taupo race one year.
"Hamish led all the pros around the last corner on the main street in Taupo, before they all passed him on the home straight, and he finished seventh or eighth," Nilsson explains. "Who else could do that?"
Nilsson thinks Cycling New Zealand may regret their handling of Bond, after they appeared to let bureaucracy and regulations get in the way of sending him to this year's track cycling world championships.
"They don't know what they have lost. It's just ridiculous," Nilsson says. "You saw what he put into the cycling... took himself to England for the best coaches and advice and was just on the make. How stupid are they?"
A candid Bond admits it hasn't been an easy adjustment to get back on the oars after more than two years away.
"I'm just focused on getting myself back up to speed," says Bond. "I guess it was easier in my head ... and I forgot how much I was held together by tape and physios in the lead up to Rio [in 2016]. There's been a few niggles. The fitness just needs the top scraped off it and it will be there."
Just ahead of selection in the elite men's sweep squad last month, Bond admitted he was relying on the selectors' goodwill as he got back up to speed.
"I'm probably cashing in some historical performance cards, saying, 'Trust me, I just need a couple of months.' The reality is I haven't given myself time to get back."
It feels like the New Zealand men's eight needed the tonic of Bond and Drysdale. As a young crew, they finished sixth at the 2016 Olympics, the first time the eight black singlets had been seen in an Olympic final since 1984. But they have since regressed slightly – the blue riband event is brutal and could only make the 'B' final at last year's world championships in Bulgaria.
"I wasn't surprised he has gone back to rowing, just maybe surprised that he went back so late," says Meyer.
"I hope he shifts the guys along and they do well. He will help them understand what level they need to be training and racing at, and pick up the morale in the crew.
"They'll raise their game, just by being in the boat beside him."
The first test will come at the World Cup regatta in Poland in mid-June, ahead of the world championships in Austria in August.
Then there will be another year of work, before the Olympic rowing regatta gets underway in late July, 2020, in the shadows of the Tokyo Gate Bridge.
If Bond does help get this relatively inexperienced crew across the line in a medal position in Tokyo, it might be time to acknowledge once and for all that despite his supposed physical limitations, he is truly superhuman.