After 21 years of having the privilege of wearing the silver fern and representing New Zealand as part of the Rowing New Zealand team, I am today announcing my retirement.
It has been one hell of a ride! While you always dream of ending it with a fairy tale, time has beaten me on this occasion.
I am immensely proud of all I have achieved over the past 21 years. It has not been easy and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs along the way, but it has all shaped me into the person I am today. Rowing has given me some unbelievable experiences and allowed me to meet, work and compete with, and against, some of the greatest people in the world, most of which I am now very fortunate to be able to call friends.
Covid-19 has had a massive impact on the world as well as on the end of my career. Tokyo 2020 was supposed to finish 10 months ago along with my rowing career. But with a postponement for 12 months, it was like my body knew the timing and I sustained a reasonably serious back injury, the week I was supposed to be racing at the Olympics.
With five months away from full training, I thought on a number of occasions my career wasn’t going to make it past the end of 2020. But 2021 has been a lot more positive and while I have been hindered at times in the training I could do (to ensure I managed my back), I have been racing against time to try and get myself back to peak form in time to make it back into the team for Tokyo.
I made good progress and by Nationals in February, followed closely by the trials, I was progressing, but still a long way off where I needed to be. Unfortunately the cards didn’t fall my way, the axing of the men’s quad and the subsequent selection of Jordan Parry in the single made my pathway very precarious.
When I assessed where I was at that time, and the change in timeframes from being ready to go in July to proving myself in late May/early June, I didn’t think it would be possible to get where I needed to be in time. I therefore agreed with Rowing NZ that I would do another 3 weeks and retire post the first Rowing NZ Winter Series (internal racing) in April. The reason I wanted to go on to that point, is I wanted an opportunity to prove to myself that I could overcome the injury worries and finish racing at a higher level than I had shown at both the nationals and trials . I also saw I could be of some benefit to Jordan, providing strong competition in training and racing to help his preparations for the Olympics.
In the end I achieved my goals at that winter series and was happy I had overcome my injuries; in actual fact I answered the question too well and suddenly realised I had most probably undersold myself. I could see if the improvements continued at the current rate I actually had a chance to not only get back to where I needed to be to prove myself, but also be a realistic medal chance in Tokyo. I then requested another 3 weeks grace in order to see if I could keep the improvements going through to Rowing NZ Winter Series 2.
That came and went, and the improvements continued giving me huge belief, so I decided to go to Rowing NZ Winter Series 3, which would be my last chance to prove myself before the team was named. We raced last Thursday to Saturday with 3 races. The second race I was able to control it like old times and was very satisfied with how I raced, despite having a 2 sec lead at the 1500M Jordan managed to come back and pip me on the line by 0.5sec. The final race on Saturday was solid but the third race in three days meant the legs didn’t have the spark needed and I was beaten again by Jordan.
While it’s hard to step away knowing what I could be capable of in 50 days’ time, (having seen some glimpses of my old self in the last few weeks racing) I always knew how hard and improbable the pathway was. I was realistic about what I needed to do in order to have any chance of being selected. I am very grateful I was given an opportunity, and proud of where I managed to get myself back to. Since March, I’ve run my own program, coached myself and had limited support doing it, but to me it has felt like full circle to the beginning of my career, doing it for the love of the sport.
I would like to acknowledge Jordan, as despite my improvements and the pressure I applied he has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few months and managed to hold me at bay and win the races that counted. I wish Jordan all the best and know the singles seat will be in good hands. I hope some of the competition I provided him will be beneficial and wish him all the very best as he pursues his Olympic dream.
The fairy tale of finishing my career with a fourth medal at my fifth Olympics is not meant to be! I walk away knowing the sport is in great shape and we can all be excited about what the team will achieve in Tokyo in a few months’ time. While the past five years haven’t been as successful as the previous four Olympic cycles, it has been just as enjoyable and my time in both the quad and the eight were very rewarding.
In the 12 year stretch between 2005 and 2016 I was able to bring back 11 pinnacle event medals in the single including 2 Olympic gold, 1 Olympic bronze, 5 World Championship golds and 3 silvers, two world best times and an Olympic best time. I am very proud that over my career I am one of only two New Zealand Rowers to bring home 3 Olympic medals and became the world’s most decorated male single sculler in the process.
The medals are a bonus, as rowing has provided much more to me over the years. It was West End Rowing Club that got me off the couch and started me in this wonderful sport. The club have supported me my whole career and given me lifelong friends. I met my beautiful wife, Juliette through rowing and started a family and now have 3 amazing kids.
I have been lucky to work alongside some of the world’s greatest coaches, that have moulded me, pushed me, and turned me into one of the world’s most successful rowers. They have taught me a huge amount about myself and what I am capable of. While I have worked with many, I have to make a special mention to Dick Tonks, who has certainly had the greatest impact on me. While he caused me endless hours of pain and pushed me to places I never thought I could go, he also helped me realise my potential. And John White who started me in the single as my coach at West End and has been a friend, mentor and coach ever since.
There are numerous others that have been a part of my journey and enabled me to achieve all I have. Firstly, my manager’s Roger and Charlotte, they are much more than managers and are like family to me. Roger has been my first port of call when making decisions or needing advice for as long as I can remember.
I have to thank my wonderful sponsors who have supported me for many years and been fantastic supporters and mentors to me. I will make special mention of Calibre Partners, Grant, Brendon, Neale and Natalie (and in earlier years Michael) who have been with me since I started on this journey and are still supporting me to this day. Derek and Judy from Rocket Foods have been loyal friends and supporters who have literally driven me in style, with a sponsored vehicle since 2005. Warren and Kirsty from Hobson Wealth have supported me and managed my money since the early days. Mainfreight and the two Don’s have been a huge part of my journey as sponsors, advisors and role models. I need to thank David at Filippi boats for all the beautiful boats and designs over the years as well as Darren at Croker oars for providing oars at any rowing venue I am at in the world. Wheelworks have provided me with the best bike wheels a rowing cyclist could ever need! There are plenty of others over the years that have been a part of my journey and to all I thank you sincerely for all you have done to support me.
Rowing New Zealand and High Performance Sport, thank you for the many years of support and guidance. Like all relationships it hasn’t always been easy but we have always managed to find a way to work together and achieve successful outcomes for all parties. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the development of sport in New Zealand over the years and have seen firsthand the changes made and the subsequent success that has flowed from those changes. I wish to thank Craig Ross for the vision he bought to Rowing New Zealand and Simon Peterson for realising the potential the sport had and finding a way to make us athletes feel valued and an important part of the success of the sport. Lisa is the only current member of Rowing New Zealand that has outlasted me and been the one constant to keep the wheels moving behind the scenes. Thanks Lisa because you make all our lives much easier! All Rowing NZ sponsors over the years thank you to you too. The financial support is one thing but the support and friendships are certainly what will live on into the future.
I can’t forget the amazing support staff who have helped me and kept my body in working order. As the years have gone by, it’s required more work but I appreciate each and everyone of you who has helped me over the years, there are far too many to name!
To my crewmates, teammates, training partners and everyone else (you know who you are) - I couldn’t have done it without you, so a huge thank you. To all those who have backed and supported us over the years, it has been special knowing you were watching and celebrating our success with us.
Thank you to the rowing community and public of New Zealand for your unconditional support. I have taken a huge amount of pride representing you on the international stage. You’ve all been a big part of the journey and I hope I have made you proud!
Last but certainly not least thanks to my family, you had no choice but to support me, but I appreciate that you did! My late Gran was the first person to believe in me and back my rowing adventure by paying my expenses when I started (in the days you did it for love). Thanks to my Mum who finally came round to accepting that I was going to be a rower over getting a ‘real’ job and has been my biggest supporter since! Penny and John I appreciate all you have done for me and our family. Your support is amazing and gives me the freedom to focus on rowing, knowing Juliette and the kids are also well supported. A huge thanks to Juliette, it was so special to be able to work alongside each other as teammates and training partners and both achieve our dreams in London together. You were fully supportive in me continuing my journey in rowing as we started married life and a family together for which I am incredibly grateful. The finish in Rio was the closest race in Olympic rowing history, but I wouldn’t have even been in the race without you. It was special to have Bronte there to witness me win and I am certainly looking forward to some time at home to repay all the sacrifices you and the family have made for me.
And so there it ends! I didn’t make it to Tokyo, where I planned to finish, but I did make it a lot further than I thought I might at times over the past 10 months. It has been a rollercoaster with plenty of frustration and tough times along with weeks of absolute enjoyment, delight and appreciation of just being out on the water and doing what I love. I have pretty much lived day to day since coming back from injury, focusing on how privileged I am to be doing what I love, knowing it could end any day. There is certainly disappointment not to get to Tokyo but in sport there are no guarantees and there are no handouts - you have to earn everything you achieve. I earned the right to be on the right side of most tough decisions throughout the past 21 years, and this time I was close, but ultimately not good enough. I have no regrets and walk away with my head held high. If you never try, you will never fail. But if you never fail, you have never pushed yourself to the limit and will never truly know what you are capable of!
I hope my success sets an aspirational benchmark for others to follow, but I also hope it won’t take the next kid 21 years to be inspired to go from being overweight on the couch watching the Olympics to become New Zealand’s most successful Olympic Rower.
Ake Ake, Kia Kaha
Article added: Thursday 10 June 2021