Tokyo Olympics 2020: Eric Murray column – The cat and mouse game that could see New Zealand rowers dominate

OPINION:

In the first of a series of columns for the Herald during the Olympics, Kiwi rowing great Eric Murray assesses New Zealand’s rowing chances – and why women will dominate in Tokyo.

New Zealand’s female athletes are poised to dominate our medal hunt at the Tokyo Olympic Games, with the rowers a big part of that.

These Games in Japan present a chance for the rise of our female rowers to be truly recognised and celebrated.

They have produced outstanding results in this Olympic cycle including at the 2019 World Championships in Austria, something which I feel slipped under the radar. Then again, it was a few years ago.

The Olympics were dominated by male athletes for a long time, but not anymore.

Full NZ Olympic schedule below. Click on an athlete/team to see their bio, upcoming events, Games record and medal chance.

Female athletes won a tad over 60 per cent of our 18 medals at the 2016 Rio Games. A huge number of New Zealand women have been producing amazing things in recent times, proving to be trailblazers for their sports.

There’s the rowing, Lisa Carrington, cyclists, Val Adams, the sevens rugby team, shooters, sailors winning medals. I can’t wait to see who bolts out of the blue in Japan.

Because of the proven results, it seems to me that a lot of our best prospects in Tokyo are our female athletes and teams which is a really cool situation, fantastic for New Zealand and global sports in general, and for our next generation.

Our rowing team is definitely led by the women including the eight which won World Championship gold two years ago, a result which needs to be rated alongside the men’s victories in 1982 and 83.

There are some fantastic athletes with experience led by Kerry Gowler and Grace Prendergast, who were in that eight which ended the Americans’ long-held dominance, and also won the coxless pairs gold. Can double gold be in their destiny?

Four-time Olympian Emma Twigg won silver in a tough world championship single sculls field after a hiatus. The women’s double sculls claimed victory and we are about to find out if the crew change gamble this year was the right move. The quad sculls picked up a minor qualifying berth, and need to bridge the gap to the medals.

We have put our top scullers Jack Lopas and Chris Harris into the men’s double. The 2019 World Championship silver medallists Tom Murray and Michael Brake have bolstered the men’s eight, joining my old mate Hamish Bond in a crew which mixes youth, experience, massive determination and enthusiasm.

I’m picking the eight to slip into a medal position – I know how hard Bondy has trained and his example to the younger and inexperienced guys gives them a great shot (and let me tell you, Hamish hates to lose).

How good would it be to see both the New Zealand eights on the dais?

Internal racing and competition are the key aspects to New Zealand’s rowing success, and we are about to find out if this method will give us an edge in a pandemic disrupted build-up.

This training system was driven by former coach Dick Tonks and still produces amazing benefits, although it has been adapted for this day and age, being a little less brutal and more managed in terms of sports science and individuality.

Every crew has a buddy, a training partner shall we say.

Hamish and I trained against the men’s double and the women’s quad, because the training speeds in those boats are very similar. The women’s pair trained against the women’s double and single sculler Mahe Drysdale, and now Jordan Parry. You get the picture.

And with those training partners, racing became a game of cat and mouse where we could compare times as a percentage of world best pace. Get close to those bests and you were generally the ones to go overseas and win the medals.

It’s all about preparation, which means the lack of crowds in Japan shouldn’t be a factor in rowing.

Yes, rowers see the stadium and hear the cheers, and it does give you a buzz. But at the end of the day, it’s all about being the fastest.

If you think the Games are risky because of Covid, I can say from a rowing perspective that the world body has run events over the year under restrictions and they have gone well. Breaking the strict protocols will not be tolerated. The rowers know the bosses are not mucking around.

It is going to be a strange Olympics for obvious reasons. But we’ll still cheer our athletes on, shed a tear, yell at the TV, punch the air in celebration!

This could be the new norm for many years, until we have worldwide immunity or take the risk with open borders.

It is the new way that sport must be run. Otherwise, we won’t have sport at all.

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