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A new dawn: the women's eight

  • 05 Feb 16

At the 2015 World Championships in Aiguebelette the New Zealand women’s eight created history by winning silver and qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Steve Landells finds out more about how they made it happen.

It may be a slight exaggeration to say that moulding the New Zealand’s women’s eight into a world-class force was mission impossible, but it was, to use the words of the crew’s coach Dave Thompson, unquestionably a “tough job”.

When Thompson accepted the challenge last October, New Zealand’s women’s eight had never won a World Cup or World Championship medal or featured at an Olympic Games.

Crews high on quality and expectation had been assembled in the past but had frequently disappointed on the global stage, so when Thompson was tasked with trying to qualify the boat for the 2016 Rio Olympics he was fully aware of the enormity of the challenge.

“Lots of crews had tried before but not succeeded,” admits Thompson. “If it was going to work we had to create history. I always thought it would be a tough job, but the challenge of doing something no one had done before excited me as well.”

Starting out last summer with a quality group of seven women (that was later extended to a full squad of 11), who had all achieved success in the smaller boats, initially the main priority was to ensure a fast pair would continue and those left would be considered for the eight.

One of the tasks for Thompson and the group was to change the perception that making the eight was a demotion – in previous years it had typically been thrown together with athletes who failed to make the preferred smaller boats.

Rebecca Scown, two-time world coxless pairs champion and stroke of the eight, admits she was initially “dubious” about the boat’s ambitions. However, thanks to Thompson’s input and philosophy she quickly became a convert.

The wily coach identified that the dynamics of any crew beyond two people multiplied. His goal was to knit the varied personalities of 11 different women into one solid unit, and to achieve this he needed to define the culture of the crew.

“There were almost four groups within a group, so I had to build a culture around working as a team, and I had to provide an environment to make that happen where the girls could be honest but also accept that everyone would be different.”

To achieve that goal he pursued off-water and “outside-the-box” solutions.

Each week from March this year the crew would meet up for an honest and open session in which everyone was encouraged to air their views about discuss the goals and targets.

Coxswain Francie Turner says of the weekly gatherings, “It was a good forum to bring things up that we normally wouldn’t discuss.”

One theme of the sessions was Thompson’s desire to put the girls in challenging situations. So he regularly gave them an unprepared topic to talk about in front of the group for a minimum of one minute. The purpose was to deliberately put the girls under pressure in order to see how they would cope. The themes differed but always provided a test, and Thompson recalls with a chuckle the occasion when he “pretended to be a media person and asked them some difficult questions”.

This desire to push the crew out of their comfort zone extended to a number of other team-building exercises that ranged from rock climbing to taking on the Tongariro Crossing. Some traditionalists might sneer at the approach, but Thompson believes it was crucial in enabling the crew to gel.

“I regard the team-building sessions as more important than the training sessions in terms of what the girls get out of it,” explains Thompson. “It is important because they are out of their comfort zone. They have to work together and trust each other and it often brings the best out in the girls.”

Turner admits she is “petrified” of heights and was far from thrilled at the prospect of rock climbing. Yet after receiving the full support of the crew during the team exercise she found the experience rewarding.

“Being exposed to that environment makes you work better as a team and learn what the other girls’ strengths are,” explains Turner. “We probably then take those experiences back on the water with us knowing that we have each other’s backs.”

Scown, who featured in the unsuccessful New Zealand eights crew from 2006 to 2008, believes in the past she would have viewed spending time off the water on team-building exercises as a waste of time, but she too has come to see the value.

“There is far more to being in an eight than simply going out on the water and training hard,” says Scown. “When you are part of a big group you have to co-ordinate that. All the individuals in the team might have their own ideas and approaches, so by learning how to work together we are creating that culture.”

The recipe has clearly worked. After the silver eight finished fifth in Varese in the second World Cup event of the season, the stronger black eight crew – which assembled for the third and final World Cup of the season in Lucerne – laid down a serious marker by winning an historic silver medal behind Canada.

This gave the crew the confidence and belief that they could achieve their objective of a top-five finish at the World Championships in France to secure qualification for the Rio Olympics.

In Aiguebelette “all the stars aligned”, according to Thompson, and the crew put in a dazzling display to win silver behind the all-conquering US eight. The New Zealand crew had created history to book an Olympic spot for Brazil and also earned silverware for their momentous efforts. As a further illustration of the resurgence in eight rowing in New Zealand, the men finished fourth at the World Championships and also booked a slot in Rio.

Scown takes immense satisfaction from featuring in a successful eight boat and adds, “It is really special to make history. We all enjoy each other’s company and it is such an exciting boat to be a part of.”

Yet there is no time for complacency. Rio is fast approaching and huge challenges lie ahead. The crew may have booked a slot at the Olympics but there is no guarantee that a boat will be sent. The crew has to prove themselves once more, and Thompson believes the decision on the make-up of the team to be determined in March’s selection trials will be critical. “Get it wrong and you could be sat on the side of the bank watching the final go by,” he warns.

He plans “a few more surprises” for the crew in the race to Rio, and while not all of the crew members may be 100 per cent comfortable with the challenges posed by Thompson, as Scown admits the approach has brought results.

“Dave has shown he understands the group dynamics and he has the foresight to put a structure and a plan around that,” she says. “Without that we wouldn’t have succeeded. It is much more than simply putting great athletes in a boat together, and Dave got that.”