Wednesday, February 18, 2015

RR Interview: Beijing Bronze Medalist and Rio Olympic Hopeful George Bridgewater of New Zealand

George Bridgewater racing at the 2015 New Zealand Rowing Championships (Photo: Steve McArthur)

Already a double Olympian after Beijing, where he won a bronze medal with partner Nathan Twaddle in the men's pair, George Bridgewater decided it was time for a new challenge. The next chapter in his life took him from Oxford (where he won the Boat Race) to Hong Kong, where he put his considerable competitive drive to good use in the business world. But something wasn't quite right—Bridgewater knew that he could still be competitive on the water as well, and last year made the decision to give it one more go. The goal: Rio 2016. Here, George shares some insights about his previous Olympic experiences, his time away from the sport, and the journey back to elite-level training and racing with Rowing New Zealand.

RR: Take me through your last Olympic cycle—the lead up to Beijing. What was the Rowing New Zealand team like at that time? Could you tell that the seeds of what was to come for Kiwi rowing were planted? How did the athletes at that time go about laying the foundations/establishing the culture?

"While it seemed American athletes focused on intensity in regular pieces, we just did not do pieces as regularly and had an ever-present focus on full pressure, low-rating work."George Bridgewater: The NZ Rowing team was still building something of a culture all the way from 2001-2008. After Sydney, there was one good crew (Evers-Swindell 2x) but nothing else really. So there was a big rebuilding phase and a bunch of young athletes came into the system (including Mahé Drysdale, Eric Murray) not really understanding what the standard was, except we were constantly told by the old guard (former NZ rowers who had won international medals in the '60s, '70s and '80s) that we were too soft. Dick Tonks was really the godfather of the current culture that exists at Rowing NZ, overseeing a program that focused on competitiveness and huge distances covered each week on the water. It still took two to three years for us youngsters to adapt to the grueling program and then begin seeing results on the international stage. Each year we had to wait until World Champs to race the best in the world—fast forward a couple of years and we were racing the best in the world every day in training. I’ve trained with a few American collegiate guys over the years, and the NZ view to training at "low intensity” is quite contrasting. While it seemed American athletes focused on intensity in regular pieces, we just did not do pieces as regularly and had an ever-present focus on full pressure, low-rating work.

Coming through the Athens (2004—see video below) and Beijing (2008—see video here) Olympics, the NZ team was a pretty tight bunch —most of us had come through the grades together, with a few inclusions along the way. So we were starting to be successful—in 2005 the NZ team kind of burst onto the scene of world rowing, winning four of six small boat medals. This also helped NZ to win the mandate to host the 2010 World Rowing Champs, which was another boon for the sport and rowing infrastructure at Lake Karapiro.



Funding was the other driver behind the increasing success and NZ’s ascension on the Olympic medal table. In 2002, Sport and Recreation NZ was established by the Government, perhaps in response to our pittance in the medal table at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (one gold medal), which is not dissimilar to the establishment of Australian Institute of Sport in the 1970s. I remember in the lead up to 2004 Olympics, rowing athletes began receiving cash grants for the first time. So we could train full time and eat better food.

RR: The Olympic final saw you competing against what was then the world's most dominant pair—what are your memories of that race, and have those memories in part sparked your desire to return to elite level rowing?

GB: It was nice to race against the best. We tried a few different things against them, to try and rattle their cages, but generally these guys were unflappable. We beat Drew [Ginn] and Dunc[an Free] only once in our three years of racing against them. Drew seemed to have a bit of an aura about him and clearly thought about the rowing stroke in a way that has inspired a generation of rowers in this part of the world. He remains a true legend of the sport—I just hope he doesn’t pass down too much sage advice to his charges racing against us now…

Racing was always the highlight of any year. Particularly at World Cups, as that early season was when people tended to have the largest variance in performance. We all know the training to racing ratio in rowing is something well off the continuum.

"But I remember thinking before the race that it was pretty interesting that we were racing the disputed co-founders of Facebook." The people we got to race against and in other crews are a huge part of my memories of rowing in that era. We often socialized after world cups and it's a really nice way to relax after racing. Finding out that there's some guy on the other side of the world—different timezones, different seasons and different languages—doing pretty much the same daily routine as yourself, makes it pretty easy to at least have a mutual respect for each other.

I don’t have a huge recollection of the 2008 Olympic Final—in fact, I don’t even think I have seen a replay of the complete race. But I remember thinking before the race that it was pretty interesting that we were racing the disputed co-founders of Facebook.

I think what sparked my desire to return is the purity of training and how there is no way to BS your way to a performance on the water. I missed that daily opportunity to challenge and test myself against the best.

RR: What made you decide to step away from the sport following Beijing? How does being away from the sport for a few years give you a new perspective on training at the highest level?

GB: Even before Beijing, I was exhausted. Our program gave us one month out of the boat every year, and then back into it. Perhaps running the domestic season in Dec-Feb, where we would race 2km quite regularly, meant we needed to be on our game that many more times every year. I was offered a place at Oxford and needed a break from the NZ system, which I had been in for seven years. During my year at Oxford, I decided that I didn’t want to return and wanted to enter a career.

Five years into my career, I missed the personal challenge of sport and knew I had to give it one more roll of the dice, else be thinking I should have when I hit 50 years old and would be too old to do anything about it. It is a privilege to be able to compete in sport every day as an occupation or, more accurately, a full-time passion. Not to say it’s easy, but I do find it now immensely satisfying being able to chalk up each day’s achievement.

Experiencing other paths in life and living abroad has given me a lot more perspective than I ever would have gained living and training in Cambridge, NZ. Being in the work environment, which was particularly competitive, gave quite bit of insight into human characteristics—and just as there is transference from sport into business, that flow eddies back the other way as well…

Men's premier double podium at the North Island Club Championships (Photo: Steve McArthur)

RR: What does a typical day/week of training look like for you? What are the facilities like/where are you training most of the time? Can you give a little background on the history of the Rowing NZ training center/provide some context for those unfamiliar with the development of the sport in New Zealand?

GB: We train twice a day normally and always have Sunday’s off, unless there is a regatta on. This summer we have done weights as a third session on Monday and Thursdays, which adds a significant amount of stress on the body. These strength sessions occasionally leave us limping around the proceeding days.

One of the girls is learning to be a yoga instructor, so during the summer, a few of us have been going along to the park to do some yoga with a rowing slant… Other than that, every session is done out of the High Performance Centre at Lake Karapiro. Previously we had to drive into the city to do strength work with our trainer, but now there is a team of strength and conditioning trainers full time out at the lake. They operate in a gym with specific equipment suited to rowers (i.e., plenty of Olympic platforms, squat racks and chin up bars).

In between trainings we might see physiotherapists or massage therapists, who are all based on location as well. It really is all laid out now, and with all coaches and physiologists there too, the cooperation between all staff is substantial better than before the HPC was built in 2009.

RR: What has been the most difficult part of the transition back into rowing from life in the 'real world?'

"Competition is fierce in the sculling squad—just making the final at the local regattas is tough."GB: I think the lifestyle has been remarkably easy to assimilate to—I’m still waiting for the wave of darkness to come over me when in the depths of high volume training, it just hasn’t come as I expected it might. I think the most difficult part is coming back and starting near the bottom of the squad. Thankfully, my strength and fitness is coming back really quickly, however I’m learning a totally new discipline in sculling and that is taking some time. Being in the corporate world was relatively ‘comfortable’—not easy, but the requirement to perform wasn’t the same. They said it was a meritocracy, but it wasn’t so simple as that. There are always plenty of office politics in any organization and perhaps, to an extent, the same is true now in the semi-professional era of sport in NZ, but performance on the water still trumps all.

RR: How do you feel that your training has progressed? Do you feel like you're on target? What is it like re-immersing yourself in the world of the Kiwi national team? How have things changed?

GB: Training’s great. Mentally, I am charged to keep training hard for the next two years. However, the timeline is a little frustrating in that I need to be proving myself and going fast at an earlier stage so that I can make it into the top boat. Competition is fierce in the sculling squad—just making the final at the local regattas is tough. We normally have eight guys rowing under 7min, so having six boat final pushes everything along even in the qualifying races.

Being involved with the NZ rowing team now is slightly different. The rowers overall have higher profiles, and a handful of athletes are now household names after their gold medals in London. There’s a little bit of rowing fatigue among popular media and national sporting award ceremonies, because the guys have been so successful. Many pundits, who often don’t particularly understand the sport despite its successes, diminish the achievements of the team because they have been so dominant for years now. The continued success also instills confidence in the athletes, however I think we need to be careful it doesn’t breed arrogance. Not that I think large egos are an issue—it's more the argument that what's done in the past is necessarily the "right way." I think the management is generally doing the right things, however their measure will be ensuring continued and growing success as athletes turnover. NZ rowing has had era’s of success before (early 1970s and again in early 1980s) followed by periods of relative drought.

Continuity in coaching and athletes has been supported by funding and this certainly builds a stronger and lasting culture. I’m often happy to share a bit more than some decision makers might like, as I feel culture is difficult to replicate.


RR: What's the goal for the 2015 season? What would be your ideal outcome?

GB: Simply a World Champs Gold. I think that I would be pretty happy with a medal of any colour for this year, being the first year back.

Thanks very much to George for taking the time, and best of luck with training and racing this year and beyond! You can follow along with George's progress via his personal blog, and keep up with him via Twitter. He'll be racing in the A final of the men's premier single (Event #55) at the New Zealand Rowing Championships this week, in a field that includes Olympians Jade Uru, John StoreyRobbie Manson, Hamish Bond, and Mahé Drysdale. (Yes, that's right—everyone in the final has competed at at least one Olympic Games...)

For more of Steve McArthur's photos and videos from the 2015 New Zealand Rowing Championships (#2015NZRowingChamps), please visit:
facebook.com/RowingCelebration

-RR

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