Erg Monster: 8 Questions with World Indoor Rowing Record Holder for 2k, Josh Dunkley-Smith

JDS in his element (Photo © Tristan Shipsides)

Before he decided to pursue a world record off the water, Australian Josh Dunkley-Smith had already earned two Olympic silver medals in one of the slickest crews to grace the rowing course, the Australian men's four—really, an institution in our sport. It's not as though he didn't know he had an engine, but, as he says below, it wasn't until recently that the pursuit of his own physical limits made the idea of a new 2k world record seem within reach. And recently, that potential came to fruition.

1. With two Olympic medals already to your name, it would be easy to say that you had nothing to prove—what was it that drove you to want to break this record?

JDS: "The fact that it was held by a Kiwi. [Laughs] Nah, I think mainly just the self improvement aspect really—challenging yourself and seeing how far you can really push things. You follow that all the way through, and I was lucky enough that I sort of found myself with a chance to do that in my natural growth. So, it's always been about chasing yourself, seeing how much you can better your last effort, and how far you can push that."

2. When did it first enter your mind that you had the engine, the raw physical capability to achieve a 5:35?

JDS: "That's very um, descriptive words. [Laughs] I think probably not until last year? I had started out rowing with a lot of guys who were very powerful on the erg, and was always initially chasing them down, and then, as I said, chasing my own PBs. I knew that I had a good capability and everything like that, but as soon as you're around 5:45 you feel like, that's pretty good, and anything from there is just a bonus. So, not until really last year, yeah."

3. Following up on the last question, do you feel that you still have more to give? How did you feel coming through the finish?

JDS: "Um, I don't know, probably frustrated [laughs], but I felt pretty good. Last year, when I had the attempt at Sarah Tait's Super Saturday [see below], trademark Matt Ryan, we'd been doing a lot of specific stuff for the ergo—doing a lot power ergs, and a fair amount in the gym, and so that was something really different to what I'd done previously. Obviously, when you're doing a lot of stuff on the water, like T2 and things, you don't have the time, or the real desire to do that. So, doing something really different helped me to go that little bit more. But, the last attempt was a really low rate, high power sort of affair—this year. Holding onto those gains in terms of strength and power, and coming into a high volume training program for a while, and bringing back that little bit of fitness, and again, bringing the racing, bringing that rate up a little bit—those two things sort of teamed up, and really helped me throughout. I was able to come home with a bit more room to move than I did previously. So yeah, I felt pretty good."

4. You seem to always test with bare feet—is that something you got used to as a junior?

JDS: "Initially, I was always just too disorganized to bring anything to wear, to ergs and things like that. And then, I do like to travel light. I like the idea of just showing up and sitting on the erg, and not worrying about too much stuff. I mean, I think as I've gotten a little bit older, I need a towel a bit more now to sit on, otherwise I get a sore bum. But still, just showing up in bare feet works for me."

5. As you said in the statement to Rowing Australia, you want to take a step back for a moment from your international racing career and take time to enjoy family life—did you plan to do that even before the record breaking performance?

JDS: "Yeah I did. That was something I'd been talking about with a lot of people, including Bernard [Savage] and Iain [Brambell] at the High Performance Centre and RA, for a while. So, I had already made that decision over a long period of time, not just this year. I'd been thinking about it for a while. You always continuously weigh up things. And I had a lot of people's encouragement. All the guys at the VIS last year were really excited about everything, and really supported me. And then, coming into it here, Iain was pretty encouraging, in his way, pushing me to go and have a crack at it. So yeah, I'd already made my decision, but still, I was still a rower—and I am still a rower—and if your coach says go and do an ergo, a 2k test, you go and do a 2k test, and it's pretty easy really. If they say do it, you just do it."

When you set a new world record, you get to sign the erg (Photo: RR Staff)

6. You’ve never been a social media guy, but did you see the reaction among the rowing community following your performance?

JDS: "I didn't see it because I don't have an Instagram or a Twitter. But I did start getting emails and text messages pretty soon afterwards, and not just from people close at home, but people from all over the world. So that was really remarkable, to see how big the response was an how quick it was, to the point where I was sitting on the bike cooling down, not even 20 minutes afterwards, and some schoolboys came up to me and asked if I'd broken the world record (they were there at Nepean Shores for a rowing camp prior to the Head of the River [the Australian one(s)—ok it's complicated]), so that was amazing—that it had gone all the way around the world, and come right back home within 20 minutes."

7. What kinds of messages did you get from friends and competitors alike?

JDS: "It was good—everyone was very amazed by it, which was pretty nice, pretty cool. A lot of really funny responses. Some of my friends back in Melbourne—people who have supported me over the years—had some really funny responses. It's amazing how much it sort of galvanized people, and there's a lot of funny stuff that I've read."

8. While you’re stepping back at the moment, I imagine folks are keen to have you back if you do choose—have your friends on the squad already started recruiting you?

JDS: "Yeah look, I mean, I always take the view that given the chance, anyone can do what I do; anyone can be good and fill the seat and do the job. So yeah, they were all pretty keen to try to keep me around, particularly after the ergo. And that's probably one of the main things—it's tough leaving the other guys behind. But personally, if I'm not one hundred percent there, I don't want to be saying that they can rely on me, and then potentially, when it comes down to it, maybe not. So, yeah."

Thanks very much to Josh for taking the time, and congrats again for such a monumental achievement on the machine! Also thanks to Lucy Benjamin of Rowing Australia for helping put together the interview.


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