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Sydney – the most vibrant and joyful Games

 Remembering Sydney 2000 Olympic Games with Jaime Fernandez

This month has been a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the staging of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The Games, the first to be held in Australia since the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, saw unprecedented crowds and support from across Australia.

Australia’s silver medal winning Men’s Eight, stroked by Jaime Fernandez

The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games was the first time international racing had taken place at the Sydney International Regatta Centre and Australia’s top rowers had the opportunity to compete at what is considered one of the best international courses in the world.

Rowing Australia’s Deputy Performance Director, and three-time Olympian, Jaime ‘Hamma’ Fernandez was the stroke of Australia’s Men’s Eight that went on to win a silver medal at the event, in one of the tightest races of the regatta.

We caught up with Hamma about his memories of Sydney 2000 and the lead-up to the Games.

 Do you remember the moment you found out Sydney was to host the 2000 Olympic Games? Did you think to yourself – that’s my goal for closing out my Olympic career, racing in Sydney?

 Absolutely. It was 1993 and I had recently returned to Canberra from the World Championships and was getting back into my studies. I was staying at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and they put on an event in what is now called the Combat Centre or function area. It was announced in the early hours of the morning and I was with a great friend Jason McFadyen (who has sadly passed away six weeks before the Games) – he and I had rowed together in our very first year at the AIS.

In terms of the announcement, I do remember the jubilation and excitement. But perhaps I didn’t really understand what it all meant, other than to say it lit a spark in me to want to be there, even if at the time it seemed a long way away. I never thought of it as an end point – it was still seven years away and I really didn’t think too much further than what might be on the more immediate horizon. It was probably more prominent as an event the closer we got to it.

 What do you remember of your lead up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics? Where did you race/train? What was the team atmosphere like?

 We purposefully trained at several different locations: Canberra as the main base before heading overseas for the World Cup season – Vienna, Lucerne and Henley for our crew. Upon our return, we headed to Murwillumbah, then Penrith and finally Bundaberg for the final stretch into the Games.

It meant that we were never in one place for all that long. It kept it interesting and fresh; I think the idea was also to not get too caught up in the hype of the Games, although upon reflection, I didn’t ever really feel like it was too much or getting over the top. It was almost like Australia were playing down the Games. That was until the Olympic Flame reached Sydney itself, then it seemed like this who might have had doubt quickly abated and had no choice but to get on board and really embrace and celebrate what was to come – the rest, of course, is history.

It was such an amazing Games. Vibrant, fun and full of good cheer and excitement and the volunteers were just so incredible. It didn’t hurt that Australia did so well.

In the lead up to the Games, were you able to train at the Sydney International Regatta Centre? What are your memories of the venue and the atmosphere when it came to racing?

Yes, we did train, or more to the point, had all our trials there, including Nationals. We had been racing there since 1995, when Nationals was first held there. We were very familiar with the course and had watched it develop over several years. Interestingly enough, it was not always seen as the most preferred venue because in the early part of its life the trees where so young – certainly not what they are now – so the course actually had a reputation of being unfair due to the prevailing side wind. However, come Games time, it was incredible – picture perfect conditions all week.

The atmosphere was electric! There so many more people there – more than what I was expecting. We had done some visualisation work to prepare for things like the venue, the sounds, the crowd, the noise, the smells and sights that would be waiting for us. However, it was nothing when compared to stepping off the bus for the first time and heading through the check point on race day.

Hamma’s Olympic silver medal

The crowds were huge – they extend up the course well beyond what we had expected. So much so that when we came out of the warm-up lake at the 750m mark, where we had to paddle across the course to the far side and head up to the start, I was momentarily caught off guard by the number of people present in the area. As you might expect, they roared as we came across. I still can picture that moment and just how special it was. Likewise, when the roll call was done at the start, you could hear and feel the wave or wall of noise wash over you when the crowd roared upon hearing ‘Australia’ announced. Amazing how sound can travel two kilometres and still feel so close to you at the time.

On the Finals day, the crowd was bursting at the seams. It was a gloriously sunny, warm day and they were all in great spirits and having fun. Although, I felt a long way removed from that; I could have been on another planet, such was the focus on what was about to occur and what I would have to do to myself to get the outcome we so desired.

 Do you remember some of the conversations you had with the crew and your coach, Brian Richardson, in the lead up to racing? What are some of your reflections on that?

 I can remember most, if not all, of the chats we had. They were never overly lengthy – we preferred that; we had done an extraordinary amount of work on getting set up for the campaign in the early stages, immediately post-selection. You could say that all the talking and work had been done; everyone understood their role. Understanding the concepts or roles had been a major focus of the crew from the outset – know you role, do your job, take care of your 12.5% – as we would refer to it.

Before the final, we had all undertaken whatever form of preparation we needed to get in the right space. Me, I would read a book and would find a quiet place to be by myself. I was never a big fan of long and protracted land-based warm-ups. I didn’t see the point of going for a run that is unless it involved having a footy in my hands! I didn’t need much encouragement to be ready to race and the on-water component of our prep, as I learnt from the heat, would be more than enough to ensure that I was ready to race. Although, I do remember just before getting ready to suit up, having a quick chat with Simon Burgess from the Lightweight Men’s Four. I think he could sense what I was thinking and simply said, ‘Do what you have always done. Give them hell, big fella’. It was a nice nerve settler.

 Had your family had the opportunity to see you race, in person, for Australia prior to the Games? What did it mean to them, and you, to be competing in a home Games with your friends and family in the crowd? You and your late wife, MJ, had been married for less than a year, was she able to come and watch you race?

 No, they had never seen me race. In fact, they had never really seen my race domestically either, be that as a schoolboy right through to the National Team. Sydney would be the first for many things.

It was a nice thing for them to be able to experience and participate in. From my perspective, it was something that weighed heavily on my mind – I could have been racing in a remote location, not a soul in sight and completely removed from any fanfare. That was not a motivator for me.

Hamma pictured with his father, Sergio, and late wife, MJ.

I just wanted to race, perform as I needed to for the crew and the guys in the boat – that was my greatest fear and biggest motivator. I didn’t want to let them down and not do what I had to do to contribute to the outcome. There were guys in the boat who were great friends and teammates; we had been through so, so much together over such a long time. I couldn’t bear the thought of not doing all that I could to get what we so hoped for and do what I believed our potential suggested we were capable of.

I know for my family, or those who could be there (I had not only lost Jason, but my mother had also died the Christmas before), it was very special. MJ had been such a wonderful supporter and had backed me and my ambitions without reservation. We had been married a year and were expecting Mig (our son) in January of 2001. There were some life realities that I had to prepare for, far beyond some sporting event!

I think the Games were put into perspective following the losses I had faced and, being a very pragmatic person, I had in some ways already started looking forward, for obvious reasons. I was teaching and had to take leave without pay for a good length of time which put us under significant financial strain and pressure. I knew that as soon as the Games finished, I had to get back to work and pay the bills that had been mounting up.

MJ had been so stoic throughout this period – she continued to work to ensure that I could train and compete. She worked throughout the lead up to the Games, to ensure bills were paid and that I could pursue my Olympic dream. What was really special and nice was that she was able to stay in Sydney for a few days post-racing which was lovely. Equally, having her experience, if only a little, what I had been afforded the opportunity to do through her, and others’, support and sacrifice was wonderful. One thing is for certain, you never do this alone.

 You had the opportunity to go to the opening and closing ceremonies. What do you remember of them – as rowers don’t normally get to go to the Opening Ceremony at least – is there one lasting memory of those days?

 I had been incredibly fortunate to attend two of the three opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games that I competed.

Barcelona was amazing as it was my first Games and in Spain where my father was from. The Sydney Opening Ceremony was close to an afterthought in some respects – it may have literally been on the day of the ceremony itself that we finally decided to attend. We had been considering if it was the right thing to do, being so close to racing and the fact that we had a very clear goal from a performance perspective. However, as mentioned earlier, we had done such a good job at removing ourselves form the excitement of the Games that it almost felt a little ‘ho hum’ and all too normal if that is possible. It was such a good decision to attend – what an experience and night! From waiting all together with the Australian team and the other nations in the gymnastics hall, to the songs and chants that reverberated around the hall to coming together as a team, and then as a nation, was incredible.

Australia’s Men’s Eight with former Australian PM, John Howard

As the host, we would enter the stadium last. We were led along the path to the main stadium; people lined the path the whole way. Likewise, as we descended underneath the stadium and through the main tunnel leading to the track, performers and volunteers lined the walls and the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ chant rang out over and over again. If there is something that I would love athletes, coaches and others to enjoy and experience, it would be walking into an Olympic stadium, particularly as a member of the host nation. The noise is deafening; the brightness of the cameras flashing, the smiles stretching from ear to ear and the emotion that goes with it, is palpable. You do feel, for the briefest of moments, like you are floating along, being carried by the energy of the crowd and the occasion.

It was a very important and critical decision to attend.  It took us to another level – it brought home the significance of what we were about to undertake and I am certain it carried us forward to a great result. Without reservation, it was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made and one that will forever be remembered and cherished.

 Finally, if you had to pick one highlight of your Sydney 2000 Olympic experience what would that be?

 \There are a couple. I have previously shared the moment post-racing where I found myself, along with Brett Hayman, Nick Porzig and Reinhold Batschi derigging and preparing our boat for transport back to the AIS. All four of us had been on a journey for some seven years – in fact Reiny and I had shared a 10-year partnership to that point.

We had all been through a great deal as a quartet and to find ourselves together for what was to be the last time under such circumstances was a poignant reminder of why you did what you did; the mateship and camaraderie we each felt for each other, those who had been through it all, as we struggled and toiled to have the briefest moments of success before the realities of life took over.

The other was the opportunity, after finishing the race, to be able to walk up to the stands and see MJ, for the first time in a long time, and just give her a hug and thank her for all that she had done in supporting me to be where I was at that very moment – thankful and feeling truly blessed. I never took a single stroke alone that day and, boy, did I need some assistance!

Finally, some 10 months later, I found myself back in the small remote Northern Territory town that I grew up in. It was so nice to go back to the place that I have always felt was home; to reconnect with old friends and pay tribute to a community that I felt had in so many ways shaped who I was and what I was able to do as a result of that upbringing.