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Taylor-made for success in Sydney

Seven years to the day from hearing her dream of a home Olympics was happening, Rachael Taylor claimed a silver medal at Sydney 2000

Australia’s Women’s Pair of Rachael Taylor and Kate Allen (nee Slatter) won an Olympic silver medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Rachael, a highly successful athlete from the rowing pathway, made her Olympic debut at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, which this year celebrate their 20th anniversary.

We caught up with the Olympic medallist to hear about her memories of the lead up to the Games, the experience and why it’s one of the most special memories of her rowing career.

Rachael Taylor and Kate Allen celebrate with their silver medals

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

It was on September 23 1993 that Sydney was announced as the host of the 2000 Olympic Games.  Exactly seven years later, on September 23 2000 I was sitting on the start line of the Olympic final; finally with the opportunity at hand to realise my dream.  In 1993, I was in Year 12, finishing my final year of schooling in Ballarat. I already had the goal of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games well and truly embedded in my mind when Sydney was announced as host in 2000.

In 1993, my bedroom wall was covered in posters of the Oarsome Foursome racing to gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and of Peter Antonie and Stephen Hawkins also winning gold at the 1992 Games. I was determined to do the same, to follow in the footsteps of my idols (soon to be mentors). By 1993, I’d already calculated that the 2000 Olympics would be my first chance to peak and it was clear in my mind that this would be the Games for me to target.  To hear the Games would be held in front of a home crowd in Sydney was just an unbelievable dream come true. The dream was cemented that day; I’ve never been so determined to do anything.

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

The lead up to Sydney 2000 was an incredibly tough and challenging time, but also an exceptionally fun, rewarding and positive time in my life.  Both Kate and I lived in Canberra for most of the years leading into Sydney, and we trained extremely hard and with unwavering focus on winning an Olympic Gold Medal.

The domestic and international racing in the years preceding the Sydney 2000 Games was relentlessly tight. The competition was also fierce in our own squad here in Australia each day, we were so lucky to be training in such a dynamic high performance environment as Australia prepared for the Sydney Olympics.

The atmosphere in the lead up to Sydney was like nothing I’ve experienced since, it was an electrifying and intense build up. As we neared closer to the 2000 Games, performing as favourites in our event, in front of a home crowd, and with Kate having won Gold at the previous Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 – the pressure grew immensely. We did a lot of work to manage this pressure effectively; to learn to master it and thrive under the pressure, to turn it into a positive. It was just such a unique time to be rowing for Australia.

We all went up to Bundaberg in Queensland for our Australian team pre-Olympic training camp, the local Bundaberg community was just so excited to have us there that every day we’d be out training there would be big groups of school kids yelling and cheering us on from the banks of the river. We had the whole local Bundaberg community rallying behind us and there was always containers of fresh country-style home baked goods left in the kitchen at the rowing shed where we’d come in after training. That is the sort of thing you just don’t get to experience unless you’re at a home Games; it was epic.

Why did you and Kate decide to name your boat after Megan Marcks (Olympic gold medalist in the Women’s Pair in 1996)?

Rachael Taylor, Kate Allen and Megan Marcks with the newly named ‘Megan Marcks’

We wanted to ensure that we gave our boat a name with significance for us – something we could draw inspiration from. In my early years rowing I had been coached by Gordon Marcks; in fact he was my first Aussie (junior) team coach. Gordo was both a good friend and a mentor to me. Megan had rowed with Kate for many years as a very successful pair – and in fact Megan (and Kate) were both some of my own early idols as an up and coming female rower. Megan had married Gordo, and so the name Megan Marcks held a lot of significance for both Kate and myself. It was the obvious choice for our boat name, and also a beautiful way to be able to honour two people who were very special to us and who had played an integral role in us getting to that point.

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

SIRC was just such a special place at that time. I recall being overwhelmed and touched constantly by the support and encouragement we experienced every time we were there. The Australian Olympic volunteers and all the support staff working at the venue were just so happy to be part of such an amazing event, and they were literally cheering us on at every single opportunity; that might mean getting words of encouragement 10-20 times from 10-20 different individuals from the moment you woke up in the morning to the moment you put your boat on the water to go for a training row. Everyone was just backing us all the way and it was easy to get taken along for the ride on such a positive wave of encouragement and support.

In a sport like rowing we are not accustomed to racing in front of large crowds, let alone large crowds full of one-eyed Australian sports fans. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. In our heat the cheers of the crowd was so loud in the final 750m that I don’t think Kate would have even been able to hear my calls in the boat – it was literally like a deafening thunder of cheering – and we knew it was all for us as the Australian team. This was actually overwhelming.

We were grateful for the opportunity to row the repechage because we wanted to get out there and have another crack down the course in front of that crowd again, and to better master the energy and excitement that had actually overwhelmed us in the heat a little bit. It’s something very difficult to prepare for!

We took the opportunity to go and row on the Nepean River for a few days between the heat and the repechage, just to get away from the intensity of the SIRC venue. We’d row right up into that stunning gorge deep up in the Nepean each day, which is such a stunning and special place. It’s silent, calm and still and you’re so surrounded by the awesomeness of nature in the Australian bush. We’d row up there and then sit quietly and talk through our plan and our approach – I think we were able to draw in that calm and that peace – as we collected ourselves and prepared for the extreme positive energy and the deafening noise of the Australian home crowd that was waiting for us at SIRC.  After some beautiful zen’d out rows on the Nepean, we were able to go back to SIRC and harness that noise and energy in the repechage and the final.

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?

My parents and some of my siblings had never seen me race internationally prior to the Sydney 2000 Games. To have my Mum, Dad, two brothers and sister all there in the crowd was just sensational; and I know it was a very special time for all of them; and for us as a family.  My parents sacrificed so much of their time, resources and effort to support me in realising my dream, and for them to be there and share in the Sydney Games was like the ultimate reward for all of those years and for all of that selfless dedication. There were just so many hours spent for my Dad – just as one example – sitting in the car out the front of the rowing club waiting for me to finish training after his own long day at work; and so to see me out there performing at our own home Games, I think it just made everything seem so worth it. It was the perfect culmination of many years of commitment and hard work for all of us, as a family unit.

 Did you 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?

We went to both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The Opening Ceremony remains a highlight of my life.

I don’t think there is any way you could prepare for such an experience. It was utterly awe inspiring and completely mind blowing. Just insane. It was a big decision to attend the Opening Ceremony as we knew it would mean a lot of messing around, a late night, a lot of time standing up, and it could present as a huge distraction in our meticulous preparation.  I remember planning for the Opening Ceremony like it was race day; even had a day plan mapped out to ensure that if there was a controllable element I had it in control.  The element that you could never control was the impact walking into that stadium packed full of Australian supporters screaming and cheering as loudly as they possibly could for the entire duration of us marching around the track.

As the Australian Olympic team we got to march in last; so the crowd was well and truly warmed up. As we were finally ushered from that stadium (all the teams were kept in a separate hall prior to coming into the stadium) and walked as a team across to the big stadium there were huge crowds of people lining the streets and so the path we took was like walking a deafening crowd of home supporters from start to finish.  To then walk into the corridors of the Stadium and feel and hear the crowd we were about to walk out in front of – it was almost too much!  The cheer that went up when we walked in was just out of this world; I think I nearly started crying, just over awed by the whole thing. My face was breaking from smiling too much. It was just such an incredible thing to experience. I am so grateful; how lucky were we?!

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

Rachael Taylor’s brother, Luke, swimming out to meet his sister’s boat

There are so many highlights it’s pretty hard to pick just one.

After we’d received our medals we got the opportunity to do a ‘row past’ – back past the grandstand full of Aussie supporters who were jam packed into the final 750m of the course.  The row past itself was just so cool, as we were able to just enjoy the crowd and almost play with them as we showed off our new silverware. My youngest brother Luke – never one to not overdo things – was completely painted in green and gold zinc cream, he looked like an alien creature from the depths of the sea…when we rowed past him he ran down screaming and jumped in the water and wildly swam out to our boat in a fit of maniacal over-excitement (see picture).

It was absolutely hilarious, and he was being cheered on all the way by this huge crowd! It was quite the rock star performance.  This was immediately followed by teams of security personnel then descending from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once. I understand Luke had to do quite a lot of talking to not get kicked out of the venue! Luckily he had my name smeared on his back in zinc cream which must have vouched enough for the fact that he was just my harmless brother and not a crazed terrorist!  We still laugh about that moment to this day, it was absolutely a highlight.