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Rupert GuinnessMay 9, 2024 11:45:00 AM7 min read


By Rupert Guinness who will tour with the Australian Rowing Team in Europe


Some things never change in sport. The laboured faces of Australian Rowing Team (ART) crews last week as they walked their boats up the hill from the waters of the Nepean River in Penrith provided a telling reminder of that.


The hill, a steep 100m ‘kicker’ of 12 to 15 per cent gradient to the Hancock Prospecting National Training Centre and Nepean Rowing Club, is infamous for the pain it inflicts in the legs on rowers still burning from their effort on the water.


Everyone who has rowed there feels it. From Australian team rowers to those in school, club and state crews…. always have, always will.


I felt it throughout nine ‘modest’ years of rowing in the 70s and early 80s; from The King’s School to Sydney Rowing Club as a lightweight rower. The memories returned during the ART’s final camp in Australia that wound up on Saturday before flying to Europe.


In turn, they triggered a deeper reflection of a sport that is one of the most beautiful to watch, yet most painful to practice.


Yes, rowing does require discipline, sacrifice, technique and teamwork. But it also requires incredible endurance and fortitude of mind to endure and suffer.


Rowers sprint out of the start to get an advantage and look back on their opponents. This effort builds lactic acid in the first minute of the race to extreme levels which they will hold for the next five minutes while deep into oxygen debt.


Then they will dig deeper and deeper until there is nothing left to feel but the excruciating pain of more building lactate acid as they sprint for the finish line, all the while knowing every crew is doing the same, and that the outcome may well hinge on a difference of as low as 5000th of a second.


Rowing is special. It has long been in my life; as a competitor, a journalist covering it with alongside rugby, cycling and sailing for NewsCorp and Fairfax Media (now NINE) at the World Championships and four Olympic Games, to now as the ART’s Touring Media Manager, and later this year as the Australian Olympic Rowing Team Media Liaison Officer at the 2024 Paris Olympics.


My introduction to rowing was not with any grand design. Sure, one of my ancestors, Rupert Guinness, twice won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta (1895, 1896). But I only learned of that through the welcomed eye for history of former Australian rowing coach, the late Nick Garrett, and long after I racked the blades to turn from rowing to triathlon, and then cycling.


I only took up rowing at school because I was no good at the ‘cool’ ball sports of cricket or basketball. I was not made for athletics. I played rugby, but as tight head prop my teammates were always told: Don’t pass the ball to the tight head prop.” Lacking self-esteem, I looked for a sport that might give me an edge, a sport deemed too hard by most. I found rowing.


The journey since has been exciting, insightful and privileged and I believe it will continue to be so with the ART that is facing an international campaign that includes the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta, World Cups II and III and the Olympics, where rowing may be one of Australia’s best-performing sports.


Rowing may not be a high-profile sport in Australia, despite its success in recent Olympics. We are working hard to shift the needle, highlight our incredible athletes and tell their stories better than ever before.


Between Games, the pitch of a great yarn by the rowing writer at a newspaper can be a difficult one against the likes of AFL, NRL, football, rugby union, cricket, horse racing, motor racing, and even netball, swimming and athletics to name a few. But it’s always worth trying and they are always well received.


For there is much to love about rowing. I love writing about the racing, from the dominance of the mightiest of crews or Single Scullers, to the tightness of competition. I love writing about the people and their tales of toil, from the sweat, pain, tears shed to the blood.


I love writing about the beauty of a lightning-fast shell as its cuts so gracefully through the water, fuelled on the cohesive power and desire of its crew with their quick catch, explosive leg drive and draw and silky-smooth release for 200-plus strokes in a 2000m race.


I love writing about the rivalry, on and off the water, as well as the emotion; from the joy of success to agony of the narrowest of defeats. I love writing about the sport’s traditions and history, especially when performance requires new chapters to be written.


All of the above will be in plentiful supply through the ART’s journey in coming months. It is a team laden not just with talent, but self-belief off the back of years of hard work by its athletes, coaches and staff.


And it is from a raft of on and off water results and times that selectors have been able to pick Australian crews for the Final Qualifying Regatta (FOQR) and last two World Cup regattas of 2024 before final crews for the Olympic in Paris are named on June 30.


The ART is the product of a thorough and exhaustive selection process. It is based on the 2022 and 2023 World Championships selection trials and results and, over the past five months, from results of Single Scull time trials, ergometer tests and small and big boat racing camps where crews were rotated for three to five races a day to find combinations that made boats move the fastest.


It is a punishing process testing the physical and mental acumen of all.


Rowing Australia Performance Director Paul Thompson said the ART was ready after a simulated regatta at its final three-day camp in Penrith that finished last Saturday.


“Your most specific training is racing,” Thompson said. “This was an opportunity for them to get on the water, have a few good hit outs, try different things, see what works, improve their rhythm and really set themselves up for the race and what happens later this month.”


For some in the team, what awaits first is arguably the toughest challenge of all – the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta at Lucerne, Switzerland from May 19-21.


Also known as the ‘Regatta of Death,’ it is the last chance for nations to qualify boats for the Olympics. Australia has already qualified in nine of the 14 boat classes. At FOQR, Australia will race in four boat classes: the Men’s Double Scull, Quad Scull and Single Scull, and the Women’s Lightweight Double Scull. The FOQR crews for those four boats left Australia on Sunday to fine tune preparations at the European Training Centre (ETC) at Gavirate in Italy.


“They know what they've got themselves in store for,” Thompson said of the FOQR crews. “There's never any predictions about that regatta. It often called the ‘regatta of death’ for a reason.


“You've got a full field and only the first two boats are happy. There's a lot of emotion, a lot of tears in the boat park.”


The rest of the ART leaves for the ETC this Sunday to sharpen up for World Cup II from May 24-26. Also held at Lucerne, Australia will race there in the nine Olympic boat classes it has qualified for: the Men’s Coxed Eight, Coxless Four and Coxless Pair; and the Women’s Coxed Eight, Coxless Four, Coxless Pair, Quad Scull, Double Scull and Singe Scull.


Every crew of every team will throw their all into this regatta – they always do. Outside the Olympics and World Championships, the World Cup at Lucerne is the biggest regatta of all. After Lucerne, the ART will race World Cup III at Poznan, Poland from June 14-16.


Thompson said Lucerne was “an opportunity to see how we're shaping, whether we've made the progress we think we've made. There's no mortgage on improvement. We’re going better. We just don't know if that's enough”.


What we do know though is that it’s all there to go for, and that up until now the ART has done all that they can do to be ready for the challenge of 2024.


Get on board. The journey will be worth it. In the meantime, if you get a chance, head to the Nepean River. There’s a hill there that’s waiting for you.