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The selfless mentality driving the resurgent Australian Men’s Eight

By Rupert Guinness with the Australian Rowing Team in Belgrade.

The Australian Men’s Eight is focused on trying to win its first Olympic Gold Medal in Paris next year.

But how the Mark Prater-coached boat that pipped the fancied Eight from Great Britain to win at World Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland, in July is tracking will become much clearer after the World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, from September 3-10.

It is one thing to win at Lucerne. But to produce the same or more boat speed against the same opposition at the World Championships, with Olympic qualification also on the line, in will be a bigger challenge. It will provide the real indicator of the Australian Eight’s progression towards the Paris Games.

The Men’s Eight recorded an historic win at World Cup III… what can they produce at the World Championships? Photo: Vera Buscu/Rowing Australia

Australia has never won an Olympic Gold Medal in the Men’s Eight but has twice won Silver – in 1968 at Mexico City and in 2000 at Sydney – and the World Championship once, in 1986.

The pursuit of that elusive Olympic title has been dubbed ‘The Project,’ by Prater. Since he became coach last year, the Eight has shown strong signs of progress.

It won the Bronze Medal in last year’s World Championships in the Czech Republic. And its win in World Cup III at Lucerne showed that its bid to reach its potential and the world-best speed it will need in Paris is trending upwards.

For Angus Widdicombe, stroke of the Eight, the major goal is to win that Olympic gold. But he and the crew know that aside from what winning at the World Championships would mean in that grand plan, they must first qualify the boat for the Games in Paris.

Simply getting a lane at the Olympics is a huge challenge in itself. For the Men’s and Women’s Eights, only the first five from six boats in the A-final will make the cut.

The Australian Men’s Eight for the world titles in Belgrade is coxswain Kendall Brodie, Widdicombe, Angus Dawson, Jack O’Brien, Jack Robertson, Tim Masters, Ben Canham, Josh Hicks and Paddy Holt.

With six new members from the Bronze Medal winning crew of last year, Widdicombe has embraced the selection process, knowing that it adds strength to the boat. He certainly doesn’t take his position for granted, given the calibre of athletes and the talent depth in the Australian camp.

“I would rather fight tooth and nail for the chance to win than be comfortable with my position in the crew,” Widdicombe said in Gavirate, Italy during the Australian Rowing Team’s final World Championships preparation.

“I like to think that if I wasn’t in the boat, I will have still put everything single thing I could have into the boat being a part of something historic, if we can pull this off. It’s a bold ambition that requires the commitment, investment of energy and time by all involved. It’s something which is really exciting just to be a part of. Talking about it now is exciting.”

Prater doesn’t regard his remit as the Eight’s coach as being to get the best out of eight rowers and their coxswain to challenge for the Olympic Gold Medal.

He sees his job as being to ‘build’ a crew that can power the boat over the 2000m race distance faster than any other boat, no matter how many rowers it takes to find the best combination.

It takes a lot more than eight rowers to achieve that goal. Prater has already drawn on the resource of 21 rowers to row in various combinations in the boat, and that number could extend to 23-plus by the time the Paris Games begin.

It is a work in progress that will continue after next month’s World Championships, no matter if Australia wins the Gold Medal in Belgrade or not.

“I’ve tried to be quite open with the guys,” Prater said. “No individual is bigger than the crew. We’re building a boat and everyone has to be invested into that. If that means you’re on the bank, watching the boat win a Gold Medal, that’s a good thing for the squad.

“No one knows, at the end of the day, who’s going to be in it, who’s going to be out. Things happen, especially come the Olympics next year.

“I’ve really been trying to encourage the philosophy that we’re all invested in the same project. I have a list of all the people who have rowed in the boat since we started it … that’s 21 guys for eight seats.

“They’ve had to do at least three rows in the boat to be on that list. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of more added before we get to the Olympic final.”

Finding the chemistry needed for a Coxed Eight is not easy.

“It’s an ongoing project figuring out who works together in the boat in what seat … in certain combinations. All the seats have slightly different roles and responsibilities,” Prater said.

“There’s physical characteristics. There’s technical characteristics of how you row the boat. There’s the mental approach; the training and characteristics of the athletes.”

Since their win at World Cup III at Lucerne, the Men’s Eight – as with every boat in the Australian team – has been put through their paces in a rigorous final block of training.

Not until the crew has recovered will Prater really know how fast the Eight can be expected to go in Belgrade. But he is optimistic.

“It’s progressing well,” he said. “They’re pretty tired because of the training we’ve done. We’ve seen good signs of where the speed is tracking. But we won’t know truly where they’re at until they have freshened up to race.”

Fatigue aside, Widdicombe is confident all their work will pay dividends. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot by focusing on our process and vision, where people are seated, what combinations work best. But where we are now is very good. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Widdicombe said central to the crew’s support for Prater’s blueprint is the clarity in which it has been outlined to them. “It’s about who we need to make this boat go as fast as possible,” Widdicombe said.

“We all buy into it, and we all understand it. It comes down to the clarity of that vision. It can be hard. Sometimes there are changes. But once you have that vision and everyone understands, it makes sense.”

  • The World Rowing Championships will be broadcast on Kayo/Foxtel in Australia from September 3-10. Rowing Australia will provide full coverage from Belgrade and across all of our social media channels.