Robbie Manson admitted he has surprised himself with his form this year - and that might be a surprise in itself considering what he's done so far.

Manson, no stranger to New Zealand teams, won the national single sculling role early this year, after Mahe Drysdale opted to take a break following his second Olympic gold medal victory in Rio last year. Any concerns Rowing New Zealand might have had about a falling away in strength in the discipline will have been eased by what Manson has done this season.

Now he's preparing for the world championships starting in Sarasota, Florida this weekend. His frame of mind is positive and he has made himself clearly the sculler to beat.

He went to the second cup regatta in Poznan (the first New Zealand attended) in June and blitzed the field so comprehensively that his time, 6m 30.740s, is the fastest ever recorded for the 2000m. As if to show that was no fluke, Manson manhandled the field at the Lucerne regatta a few weeks later, clocking a more sedate 6m 49.080s and still winning by three seconds.


Manson has been an Olympian twice, in London (fifth in the B final of the double scull with Chris Harris) and Rio (seventh in the quad). This time he stands alone, prospers or falls by his own deeds, which is the beauty in any sport of individual competition versus being part of a team.

Manson, Hamilton-born, Marlborough-educated and at 27 coming into his prime, set his sights on the single last year, and is just where he wants to be.

He's had to overcome a niggling rib injury which had him out of the boat for a time before the Lucerne regatta, but it's nothing he can't work around. A decent break will come, but not till after the worlds.

"I've definitely surprised myself," Manson said.

"I sat down at the beginning of it all and said I just want to see how I go at the world cups, make A finals and if I get a medal great, then the aim was to win a medal at the world champs. I've far exceeded anything I though possible already this year.

"I had a stage where I was wondering if I was going fast enough to be competitive. Then we had some racing in the [domestic] winter series and surprised myself. That gave me a lot of confidence."

And here's the clincher: "Now I feel like I'm training to win, whereas initially when I was selected I was training to see how well I could go with no real idea. It's been exciting."

Manson also knows there's history attached to the seat in New Zealand.

Rob Waddell won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, having won the previous two years' world titles; Drysdale pushed on to greater heights with bronze, gold and gold Olympic medals, plus five world championship gold and three silver medals from 2005-15.

"It's an honour to be in the single and be able to do it justice. I feel really privileged to be in that position."

There are whispers Drysdale, who took this year off, is pondering a return in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. He'll have to get past Manson first.

Manson's coach, the hugely experienced Australian Noel Donaldson, has big praise for Manson. He's worked with outstanding rowers, Olympic champions, most recently Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, but before that some of Australia's finest.

On Manson, Donaldson is adamant: "He is the most efficient boat moving rower I've ever coached. When he's right on song, right in the middle of a race, no one can move a boat as efficiently. That why he's done six minutes 30 seconds. Particularly the last five minutes, it was better than any man has done in history."

Waddell was a big, imposing rower; Drysdale's long levers helped him wear down opponents particularly over the second half of races.

Manson lacks a distinctive physical feature like those two, but the whole package works.

"His No1 strength, at race pace when he's really in form, technically he's 11 out of 10," Donaldson said.

When Manson determined single seat racing was his objective, Donaldson sat him down for a chat.

"I challenged him on that when I started. [I said] there's no backup plan to this. We're not thinking if this doesn't go fast you go back to the double."

Manson has been more than up to the challenge.

He could spearhead a strong New Zealand showing in Florida.

At each World Cup, New Zealand won six gold and one silver medal, winning the overall nations points table by a mile.

The year after an Olympics can be time for a break for many of the world's leading rowers. But New Zealand's foot is down. They have Tokyo 2020 in their minds.

As Manson put it: "It's always in the back of my mind. I am taking it one step at a time but I know Tokyo is the plan. I wouldn't have carried on after Rio if I didn't want to go all the way. And I wouldn't have said I want to do the single this year if I didn't want to be doing the single in Tokyo."

Going places

• Robbie Manson has won his two World Cup single sculling regatta titles this season, in Poland and Switzerland, the first in a world-best time.
• He is chasing gold when the world championships start in Florida this weekend.
• New Zealand have crews competing in 13 events, 12 of them in Olympic categories.