Olympic gold medalist Eric Murray quit rowing to spend more time with his autistic son. The world champion felt right at home on Celebrity Treasure Island. He talks with Jennifer Dann about retiring, his marriage break-up and learning to fail.
1 Why did you decide to retire?
I was rehabbing from surgery in a pair with Michael Brake, trying to decide whether to get back into rowing or not when my son, Zac, started school. He's autistic, so I'd stay at school to help look after him, get him into routines, work with the teacher aides and speech therapists. One day at training I just thought, "I can't do this any more. Zac needs more attention than rowing. It's time to call it a day." A gold medal is cool but it's not the be all and end all. My son comes first for me right now.
2 How did you feel when Zac was first diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
At first you're a bit upset like, "Oh my God, what does this mean for his future? Is life going to be harder for him?" But when your child is born, you love them unconditionally. You'll do whatever's best for them. It just so happens that Zac is slightly different, but there's so many differences in this world. Autistic people change the world - people like Nikola Tesla, Einstein, Steve Jobs – they all had their little idiosyncrasies.
3 Can you describe Zac?
Everyone on the autism spectrum is different. Zac doesn't talk, so he uses visual communication. We've got a picture board so he can show us when he wants things. He's really smart. He has a photographic memory. You only need to go to a place once and the next time he'll go straight for the thing he liked. He loves going out and riding his scooter. We rock on down to the new local skate park two or three times a week. He just sees the world differently. He'll be sitting on the floor making a Lego structure and if you get down and look at it from the same angle as him, you'll see all the pieces line up.
4 Did your sporting career cost you your marriage?
I split from my wife, Jackie, earlier this year. Rowing probably did play a big part in that. We tried for years to keep things together but we just grew apart. There was nothing happening anywhere else - it was no-one's fault. We just stopped loving each other.
We've worked things out really amicably. We share custody. Jackie gave up her career while I was rowing. She's been able to get that back on track now that I can take more responsibility for Zac. She's on the road a lot for work, so I do most of the school pick-ups and drop-offs.
5 Did you find retiring hard?
No, some people thought I was depressed but I wasn't. I was bloody grateful to be gone. Often the hardest part of leaving sport is people think, "What am I going to do now?" I'd done a communications degree which fits in well with the relationship building I was doing with my sponsors. A rowing machine company called Concept 2 wanted me to be their business development manager. We set up the New Zealand Indoor Rowing Association and also run a national champs on the indoor rower. I also had the privilege of helping out our Invictus Games team last year.
6 Why are you fronting the Daffodil Day campaign?
I'm a brand ambassador for ANZ. At the moment we're promoting "Smart Daffodils" which you can use on your smart phone to donate to the Cancer Society. I try to give back whenever I can because high-performance sport in New Zealand is taxpayer funded. You're in a pretty privileged position being able to do a sport you love for a living. When you think what that money could do for someone living in a state house who can't clothe or feed their kids, it's pretty crazy. So if giving back means people want to hear my story, cool, I'll do it.
7 Growing up in Pukekohe, how did you get into rowing?
When I was about 13 some of my mates suggested we try rowing. I thought, "That looks like a bit of fun. I'll have a go." Then your coach goes, "You could actually do quite well at this if you just applied yourself." You start winning and that opens you up to national selectors and age group teams. You get hooked on the improvements and seeing where you can get to.
8 You were one of the first group of rowers to go through the Cambridge Rowing Academy. Did that environment propel you to success?
Oh yeah, 100 per cent - because competition breeds success. If you're just doing it by yourself, you can't push yourself to another level. Take Rob Waddell - he won a gold medal training all by himself. If he'd been in that environment, he'd have three or four gold medals.
9 When have you failed?
In our rowing training, we were trying to fail every day. You need to push yourself to failure so when the race comes you know exactly what your capability is. So if you're racing 2000 metres, you know that if you go as hard and as fast as possible, when you hit that line you've got absolutely nothing left. Not even one or two more strokes.
10 Have you ever had a moment in life when you've hit a wall and how did you push through?
Yeah, a couple of times. In 2006 we had a dead heat in a semi-final, so we had to re-race and missed out on the final. Then obviously Beijing - we went in as world champions and got seventh. You sit there going, "I don't know if I can do this again." Like George Gregan said, it's four more years. The first emotion is like "I'm out of here". It takes time to build yourself back up. A lot of rowers take a year off. Luckily Hamish Bond asked me to row in a pair with him. I was like, "Hell yeah".
11 Why did you agree to be on Celebrity Treasure Island?
When I got approached, I was like "Sign me up" straight away. The great thing about this show is you don't have to build alliances. You get tested by your mental aptitude, strength and physical capabilities. With my full-on competitive nature, it was right up my alley. When it's rained for three days and you can't light your fire and you're getting hungry and tired and you're wearing the same clothes and you're getting bitten by mozzies, you get to the uncomfortable zone. You have to find a way to sit with that, which is exactly what we do in rowing. Everyone else is in the same situation so it becomes an even playing field.
12 When are you most joyous?
Apart from being with Zac, it's when I'm out on the golf course. I got back into golf and I love it. In two years I've got my handicap down to 14, which is mid-range. I'm helping New Zealand Golf promote a scheme called Flexi-club which makes it cheaper and easier to play golf without having to belong to a club. I go to the driving range at St Peter's Golf Academy. I see kids hitting the ball 150 metres and it's landing within a 5-metre range. My range is more like 50 metres either way. They're doing what I did in rowing, but in golf.
Daffodil Day is Friday, August 30. www.daffodilday.org.nz Donations can be made at any ANZ branch during August.
Celebrity Treasure Island, Sunday 7pm and Mon and Tues 7:30pm on TVNZ 2