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THE SPORT WITH AN OARSOME HISTORY

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OLYMPIC WATCH: You mightn’t hear much about them from one Olympics to the next but the rowers are huge contributors to the Australian effort, writes RON REED.

BY NO means for the first time, the rowers have stepped up as Australia’s Olympic secret weapon. Between editions of the five-ring circus they fly under the radar, rarely featuring in the newspapers or on TV, their identities next to anonymous – until, suddenly, there they are on the podiums collecting their medals and in the headlines soaking up their 15 minutes of fame, and then some.

It was no different in Tokyo on Wednesday when the women’s and men’s fours won gold within 20 minutes of each other, followed by the two quadruple sculls crews each adding a bronze.

Honestly, hands up if you could have named any of Rosemary Popa, Lucy Stephan, Annabelle McIntyre and Jessica Morrison, or Alex Hall, Alex Pernell, Spencer Turrin or Jack Hargreaves a week ago, or a day ago.

But they have now ensured that rowing remains in fourth place, behind swimming, track and field and cycling, and just ahead of sailing, as the nations most prolific medal winner, with 13 gold, 15 silver and 16 bronze adding up to 44, with more possibly in the pipeline.

I’m not sure what their funding arrangements might be but what is certain is that they represent great value for money.

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More than that, they have a habit of throwing up some of the best stories, so their entertainment value is top-shelf, too – which is why when I was a regular attendee at the Olympics over 28 years I always gravitated towards them if I could. You just knew you would see some history made.

That has been the case since single sculler Bobby Pearce won Australia’s first gold medal on the water in Amsterdam in 1928 – a feat he repeated in Los Angeles four years later —  despite stopping rowing during a quarter-final to allow a family of ducks to cross the river single file in front of him, losing five boat lengths to a rival but still winning the race.

I was privileged enough to witness the Oarsome Foursome men’s four win gold in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, making James Tomkins, Mike McKay and Nick Green, with Andrew Cooper firstly and then Drew Ginn, the most famous oarsmen Australia have produced.

The Tokyo triumph took place on the 25th anniversary of the Atlanta win with Tomkins, now an International Olympic Committee member in the grandstand, and Green spearheading Channel 7’s coverage.

Tomkins is one of the most enduring and decorated Australian Olympians in any sport, having competed at six games for three gold medals and a bronze, not to mention seven world championships.

 The Oarsome Foursome’s twin triumphs were, well, awesome to watch, but I have two even better memories, both recalled in detail in my recent book WAR GAMES (wilkinsonpublishing.com.au)

In Barcelona, Melbourne’s Peter Antonie, 34, and Tasmanian Stephen Hawkins, 21 – the oldest and youngest men in the field, and giving away between 10 and 15kg to every other crew – won the double sculls against all the odds.

Few have ever deserved a gold medal more than Antonie, whose enormous determination and dedication was the perfect personification of the Olympic ideal that the struggle is more important than the result.

For a decade and a half he had devoted himself entirely to his sport, abandoning two university degrees and supporting himself as a labourer, lawn mower, painter, gardener, kitchen hand, van driver and abattoir worker – you name it – to support himself until finally the ANZ bank, which ran a sports stars job program, took him on as financial adviser.

The  ninth century village of Banyoles, where the regatta was held, was, unsurprisingly, the scene of an epic celebration. I went looking for Antonie the following morning and found him, at sun-up, sitting on the banks of the lake, dripping wet and looking a touch worse for wear.

It had been “a lunatic night,” he told me, involving a visit to every bar and disco in the town and finally a wee-hours swim, from which he had still not dried off.

And then he told me he had arrived at a big decision: he was retiring.

Within the hour this big – and exclusive – news was rolling off the presses at home. “I realise I have been destroying all other aspects of my life outside rowing and the time has come to do something about that,” he said for all to read.

But barely had the papers hit the streets than he fronted the obligatory media conference after the medal presentations, which had been delayed until the end of the regatta, and – rapidly overcome by second thoughts – unretired himself.

He also revealed that in a rare quiet moment before embarking on the celebration he made a brief but poignant phone call. It was to his former girlfriend in Melbourne. She remained nameless for obvious reasons but she and Antonie dated for four years until the relationship cracked and shattered under the strain of his constant devotion to training.

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“We just couldn’t cope with the pressure of what I was doing,” he said. “The relationship was totally destroyed from my end. It really makes you wonder what sort of a person you have become. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a bastard.”

That wasn’t a sentiment shared by anyone else in the sport, then or ever since. Far from retiring he continued on to the Atlanta Olympics and just failed to make the team in Sydney, where he was an emergency – and still just happy to be involved.

In Beijing in 2008, Ginn, 34, won the coxless pairs with an old schoolmate, Duncan Free, his third Olympic gold following his contribution to the Oarsome Foursome and another in the double sculls with Tomkins in Athens. He was a last-minute scratching from Sydney because of a back injury.

 Ginn and Free were favourites until his back gave way with a prolapsed disc during the heats. He was in so much trouble that a team-mate was secretly placed on standby to take his place.

With intense pain in his left hip – “just sitting down in the boat was bloody painful,” he said – he made it through the semi, but it became so bad the pair couldn’t even train on the water. They just had to take their chances with Ginn promising his mate he wouldn’t let him down.

He didn’t. They won clearly but Ginn had to be helped out of the boat as his entire right leg shut down and had to be put to bed. Days later, his foot still flopped from side to side. Doctors feared the damage might be long term, that surgery might not repair it, and that he should never row again.

There have been many such stories of athletes in various sports overcoming severe physical trauma on the Olympic stage but, as an eye-witness, I have seen none more impressive than Ginn’s agonising refusal to give in to his perennially fragile body.

Only a madman would ignore the advice he had been given by the surgeons, surely. You would have to be specially crazy to take the risk when you were 36 with a wife and two young kids, your status as an authentic sporting hero locked in with nothing left to prove.

And yet, after a brief and not entirely unsuccessful flirtation with elite cycling, he got back in the boat and made it to a fourth Olympic in London, where he returned to where it all began, the coxless four, and settled for silver behind Great Britain.

That was one of three successive Olympics in which GB had edged out Australia in this, a signature event for Australian rowing, a streak that was finally broken in Tokyo – with Ginn, most recently the high performance boss at Cricket Australia, revelling in it along with the rest of the Australian rowing family who continue to contribute so much to the Olympic effort.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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