Feature: Mike Nicholson on the 2013 World Rowing Masters Regatta, MUBC, and His Rowing Films
The above feature comes to us from the prolific rowing filmmaker, Mike Nicholson, and is the latest in a series of rowing documentaries that Nicholson has out together detailing the sport's past and present. Here, finally, we not only get a sense for the other athletes and for the regatta itself, but also for Nicholson's own background—a life that has been closely tied to rowing from an early age. And, to the delight of rowing enthusiasts and historians alike, his passion for filming and documenting our sport goes back almost as far. Even better—his work is posted to his YouTube Channel, available to all for free. Here, we catch up with Mike on his personal background in rowing and as a filmmaker.
RR: You took an interest in rowing from an early age, in part because of your father's involvement in the sport at MUBC. What was it that first grabbed you about rowing, and can you shed a little light on your family's legacy on the water?
Mike Nicholson: One of my earliest memories is when l was about four years old; one of the eights my father was coaching was boating and l ventured onto the very slippery staging, had a look inside the boat, and thought the seat and slide was some sort of train set. Then l started pestering my father that l would like to steer a crew, so when l was 10 years old he put me into a four—MUBC was always short of coxes.
RR: Having begun at MUBC, you've stayed loyal ever since. What are some of the highlights and changes at the club over the years that stand out for you?
In the 1960s the club was essentially geared around intercollegiate rowing in April then 'inter-varsity' in May, and that was sort of it. Gradually, during the 70s in particular, it blossomed into serious lightweight rowing [MUBC was the first club in Australia to win a gold medal in the LM4-, at the World Rowing Championships in 1974], veteran rowing, women's rowing and training all year round. In the past 20 years or so it has been active all day, every day of the year.
MUBC is the oldest rowing club in Australia and is currently the No. 1 rowing club after the National Rowing Championships earlier this year. Also, Lucy Stephens from MUBC stroked the Aussie women's eight that defeated the USA machine. But on the Yarra River it's a bit like a scene out of the movie Ben-Hur with our fierce rival Mercantile annoyingly well organized, and Banks Rowing Club in their pretty pink singlets have a huge membership. Then right next door to MUBC is the Yarra Yarra Rowing Club that makes any serious competitor shudder. So all in all it's one big bun fight on the Yarra River.
RR: Two years ago, you put together the now well-known series on the eight-oared rowing shell and crew, called simply, 8+, which he released in nine parts. When did you first begin documenting the sport, and what was it that inspired you to begin making rowing films? What was the inspiration behind your two feature-length documentaries, 8+ and School for Sculling? Having made a sweep film, did you feel that a sculling film was only natural?
MN: Well my father always filmed his crews training for technique purposes. He would film one rower, for example, on Standard 8 mi film and then turn it into a 'loop' so it would go on continuously and the rower could see himself. He also filmed all the regattas and many World Rowing Championships so he built up a considerable archives for the club. Then when l started coaching l used to film my crews too. I'm a filmmaker anyway, so l like to combine my two interests of rowing and filming. I made the 8+ documentary because we had the stroke [Sarah Heard] and the cox [Lizzy Patrick] from MUBC in the Australian eight that won the gold medal at Gifu in 2005. l found l was getting to know all the Australian team, and thought a sequel was what you do in Hollywood, so one on sculling was a natural progression [last year, Nicholson produced what is arguably his finest film to date—that being the 10-part documentary entitled, School for Sculling]:
RR: How did the introduction of a women's program at MUBC change things? How does the presence of elite-level athletes like Kim Crow add to the overall competitive culture of the club?
MN: That's a good question. It began around 1977 when a lot of the colleges went co-ed. The main thing is Melbourne University is sort of the top University in Australia, and what l found from coaching the women's inter-varsity eight for seven years, starting in 1978, was that they were, and still are, so focussed and switched on—high achiever type people. Everything was fun; they were polite, they trained hard, never complained, and won all their races. And this is just the inter-varsity level.
When Kim Crow first arrived on the scene (she was a fantastic 400m hurdler already, but a foot injury put her out of that) we had had Paul Reedy as head coach, and later Ian Wright. Well Kim got up at the MUBC Annual Dinner and said, "The good thing about MUBC is you can learn to 'read' and 'write'...." Kim is a tremendous athlete, who switched sports and made the Australian women's eight within a year of first stepping into a boat. And although she is very much a team player, she finds herself in a single scull because she is so skilled and focused. But where Kim is so interesting is that she has managed to make the single scull a team sport.
RR: While you've been fascinated with rowing all your life, the nature that surrounds our sport hasn't escaped your notice, and you've made efforts in a number of your films to talk about the importance of clean water and ecological considerations that affect riparian environments. Any plans or projects on the horizon?
MN: Well we have this bridge called the Swan Street Bridge, about 400 meters from the finish line of the Yarra River 2k course. It's basically a boring looking bridge, unlike the Princes Bridge or some of the other ones that are very beautiful. However, the Swan Street Bridge could easily be turned into a rainforest, and a habitat for local birds and wildlife—it's very near to the famous Botanical Gardens. Flower boxes could be attached to the outside of the rails and ferns and various creepers be planted. Underneath the arches bird nests could be attached and the two arches, far left and right, where river traffic is never used, these could be turned into habitats for birdlife, but the bicycle paths would be untouched. There could also be hanging baskets under the arches. This would not affect the car traffic or pedestrian usage of the bridge.
What we would end up with is a fantastic green bridge covered in native plants and creepers and be a habitat for wildlife. This bridge is at the end of the 'Olympic Boulevard' that crosses the Yarra River. This is a project I will be working on.
Thanks very much to Mike for taking the time, and for his hard work and dedication to not only the documentation of rowing, but also to the environs that make our sport possible.