Row, row, row your boat, savagely down the stream…
With less than two months until the London Olympics, the ghosts of Sally Robbins loom large. Australia’s female rowers are sneaking glances over their shoulders at their crewmates, probing for the slightest signs of weakness and ruthlessly eliminating those who don’t cut it.
That’s the obvious conclusion to draw after this week’s sacking of star rower Pippa Savage. The 31 year old was axed from the London quad scull team because she wasn’t getting along with her team-mates. She also had a bustup with a rowing partner pre-Beijing, which is the sort of baggage her current team-mates were clearly not willing to take on board.
But there’s another way of looking at it. Sally or no Sally, rowing always has been, always will be a sport in which a unified crew is everything. To use the oldest, most dog-eared cliché in sport, it is a sport in which a champion team will always beat a team of champions.
There’s a great example of that adage at play in a piece of rowing history which happened in front of our very eyes yet which virtually all of us missed.
In that famous Athens women’s eights final when Sally took a little nap and made a cup of tea halfway through, Romania won. The Romanians had won gold in Atlanta and Sydney, then subsequently disbanded the crew. Many women had babies after Sydney and had no plans to return. But with just months to go, they hopped back in the boat. They were no longer as strong as their rivals. But by god, they knew how to row like a team.
So just how important is it to have that right mix of personalities in a rowing crew?
The Punch last night contacted Amber Halliday, a dual Olympic rower who turned to cycling before her career was devastated by an horrific fall. Halliday knows Pippa Savage well, but wouldn’t be drawn on this week’s events. She did, however, confirm our suspicions about the nature of this most team-orientated of team sports.
“In rowing, it tends to be the more tolerant personalities who reach the top level,” she explained. “I believe the selectors do take personality into account, but it’s one of those things that is subjective and hard to quantify.”
Halliday added that boat speed should ultimately be the most important factor. The question is, to what extent does a harmonious crew contribute to boat speed?
“Rowing looks like a pretty simple motion, but I assure you, it’s not. You basically have to do these delicate, precise movements in exactly the same way as your crewmates at exactly the same time, and at great speed.
“At the elite level, you can feel how somebody looking out of the boat or slightly hesitating can effect the boat speed. It can be pretty intense. In terms of personalities, we talk about ‘crew harmony’ meaning you get the job done in a similar style as you crewmates.”
So there you have it. A crew that gets along is a crew that performs well. As Amber Halliday says:
“It’s like a workplace really. Some people you really get along with and others you don’t. Except in rowing, you sit about 30 cms away from someone two to three times a day, most days, for years on end. But you all have the same goals so you learn to work around it.”
Well, they mostly work around their differences. As we’ve seen this week, some crews don’t. Whether that’s the Sally Robbins effect at play or not is up for debate, but from where I sit, it doesn’t seem a huge leap of logic to make that assumption.
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