I played rugby league as a kid but had a fairly serious leg break early on at age 11, which rather ended that.
wasn’t particularly sport-oriented or athletic through school. At 20, I was working in a bank and one of the tellers who was about the same size as me, 6’6, said, “I’m going training tomorrow.” “What are you doing?” I asked. “Rowing,” was the answer, and I invited myself along.
I was then introduced to a bunch of guys my mate had been rowing with through school and out of Canberra Rowing Club, still rowing in the club scene. I decided I liked it and signed up. I was hooked from day one. It was around 1984 and three years later, after not doing any sport prior, I was rowing at the AIS. It filled a hole in my life at that stage and I was lucky with my physical abilities to be able to make progress. Like many young guys, I was looking for something to be fanatical about, and it happened to be rowing. I made the national team as a reserve in 1989.
I kept rowing for another year or two, but coming into the 1992 Olympics I had a choice. I could either complete my final year at university or defer to go row with someone in Melbourne. As an older, mature athlete, I was fairly independent and didn’t get an opportunity to go back into the AIS system which, arguably, is where you probably needed to be. So I made the choice to finish university and retire from competition.
COACHING: THE BEST WAY TO UNDERSTAND YOUR SPORT
At that time, I’d been asked to coach a young local girl, which started me on the coaching path as I found it really rewarding. All of my own coaching experiences feed into how I coach, and what I think is right for that person at that time. The vast majority is you finding your own coaching style around your personality. I’d been advised early on in my own rowing by Rusty Robertson (one of the leading coaches of the time) to get a coaching qualification. He said, “If you really want to learn about the sport and help your own rowing, get a coaching qualification and try coaching someone else.” It makes you go through the athlete thought processes when you’re trying to explain a concept to someone else.
I really enjoy coaching. For me, it comes down to having something of value to offer someone else. To be able to do that as a profession, I feel very lucky and privileged. I’m still a bit reluctant to call it a career because I’ve done so many other things, but that’s the reality, I guess. The local girl I started coaching ended up being nationally competitive in a lightweight single, and then in 1992 made the lightweight four for Australia, eventually winning the World Championship in that boat class. While I didn’t have direct involvement by that stage, it was great to feel that I’d actually helped someone find their way in the sport.
THE PARA-ROWING PROGRAM: SMALL BUT MIGHTY
I grew up in Canberra, and eventually found myself back there as Head Coach at the ACT Academy of Sport. I was there for nearly 12 years in that role, before the para-rowing opportunity presented itself through some discussions with Rowing Australia. I never hesitated about moving into that space because, for me, I don’t see rowers or people with impairments, I just see people who want to learn to row. I didn’t think about the distinction of para and non-para. You can apply stroke, pressure of stroke and stroke rate discussions to any crew.
We don’t rely on any one source of athletes. We try to cast our nets very widely over, for example, AustralianParalympic Committee talent transfer or talent search opportunities, club and State Association ‘come and try’ days, and various state and national support organisations like the “Limbs for Life” organisation based in Melbourne. A lot of it comes down to physical and mental capacity to tolerate high performance sport and competition. One of the main things is how accessible the sport is to them, whether they can allocate the time and what their work circumstances are. We do our best to welcome them and provide opportunities for people to progress in rowing.
We have 3 main classifications: arms-shoulder, trunk and arms, and leg-trunk-arms. They are a functional assessment of how they move which then dictates what class they fall into. The formal classification process is managed by Rowing Australia, and if they go on to compete internationally, they have to be classified again. It’s rare to change classifications unless you have a degenerative condition.
Para-rowing in Australia is quite a small sport, but growing. For our Paralympic team, we’ve got 8 athletes of a possible 9 going to Rio. Our leg-trunk-arms four that’s racing in Rio is a sign of our growth, given that in 2013 we had insufficient nominations to make a four, let alone be competitive. We’re still pushing for participation growth to make it a bigger sport overall. The US and Great Britain are super active with similar programs to us, and also tap into their military connections so it’s growing much faster there.
For Rio, we’ve one guy in a single, two in a double, and the cox four. We’re coming into the competition as strong favourites as the single and double are both multiple world champions. The cox four is a new boat and are performing above expectations, so they’re not just participating by any stretch. There’s possibly 3 medals on offer for us. While everyone wants a medal outcome, focusing on the process orientation is very important otherwise you can get too fixated on the outcome. If you can row long, row hard and put in more strokes per minute, you’re going to go all right. Even at a world championship, the absolute outstanding highlight for me is always my relationship with the athletes, not the outcome.
When coaches first start out, it’s all about the result, but after a while that becomes tempered and moderated, partly through age and experience. Good, bad or indifferent result, if the athlete has given it their best shot, I stand by them as a coach.
We travel as one team with the Australian rowing team, except in an Olympics/Paralympics year. It’s amazing to be able to do that and it certainly brings a clear understanding of the high performance environment for those coming into para-sport. It’s also a positive outcome for the team culture. We all intermingle, rowers and coaches, able-bodied and para, so it’s a great working environment.
There are some equipment differences: the arms-shoulder and truck and arms classes have boats that are slightly wider and shorter, but the cox four race in an identical boat to able-bodied rowing. The boats themselves went to Rio from Europe in a container. We’ve shipped the boats out from Australia over the last 3-4 years to Europe, and they wait there for use in international competition. We’ve also got an identical boat that we train with in Canberra. They aren’t something you can fit on a plane!
ONES TO WATCH
The British are our main rivals at the moment. France is also very strong in some boat classes. You can also rely on the Dutch to challenge us.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!