Deciding on New Zealand greatest 25 Olympians of all time wasn’t an easy task.
Partly because of the sheer volume of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across a range of sports.
It’s hard enough for the Halberg Award judges every year, but we had to compare the merits of medals won in different eras.
The list was thrashed out by some of the Herald and Radio Sport journalists covering the Rio Games.
We had to agree some early ground rules.
The first was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was a tough call, considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) had provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.
But there had to be a line in the sand.
We also agreed that potential success in Rio wouldn’t be taken into account, so the likes of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Valerie Adams and Mahe Drysdale would only be judged on achievements until 2012.
The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annalise Coberger, our only winter medallist, may have featured quite prominently.
From an original master list, each of us was tasked with listing our personal top 25.
From there we met, debated each group of five (25-21, etc)and took the majority view.
In general we considered the following factors: The impact of the performance at the time, the relative competitiveness of the sport or field and the rarity of the feat.
It’s unlikely anyone in our lifetimes will match Snell’s three gold medals on the track, nor Danyon Loader’s feats in the pool.
Most of the rest of the top 10 were multiple medallists or responsible for achievements that resonated for decades (the Munich rowing eight, Yvette Williams).
It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.
2004 Athens - Double Sculls
2008 Beijing - Double Sculls
Caroline Meyer & Georgina Earl won their first Olympic gold in the double sculls at Athens in 2004.
They went on to win gold in the double sculls at the Beijing Olympics, becoming the first duo to defend a title in the discipline. The 0.01s victory over Germany was the only time they were ahead in the race.
Caroline Meyer and Georgina Earl achieved New Zealand Olympic immortality by less than the length of this sentence.
On August 16, 2008, on Beijing’s Shunyi course, with Caroline in the stroke seat and Georgina commanding the bow, they delivered rowing’s triple double – twin sisters double sculling to victory at consecutive Games.
The only time the tandem - then operating under the household name of ‘Evers-Swindell’ - led was at the finish line. The 0.01s margin of victory was the narrowest in Olympic history.
They advanced from fourth at the 500m mark to second by the 1000m. From there they bored down on Germans Annekatrin Thiele and Christiane Huth in what coach Richard Tonks quipped was “the slowest overtaking move” he had witnessed.
“In the last 500m, with 60-70 strokes to the finish, Georgie was saying ‘go, go, go’,” Caroline says. “She was more aware of where the Germans were, so it was a matter of trusting her. I started thinking of all the training, all the miles and all the hard work with Richard over all those years.
“My gut feel was that we’d medalled [Britain finished third, 0.23s further back]. I was stoked to come ‘second’. We’d had our worst year in terms of results, so to be in medal contention was amazing.”
“We rowed through the Chinese and the British, which left Germany ahead on our right,” Georgina says. “I said to K [Caroline’s nickname] ‘we’re gaining’ and had a few cheeky looks in the final 500m.
“I had no idea of the result. The German girls were yelling and screaming with their arms in the air, but we were happy because we’d had an awesome race and didn’t care what colour of medal we’d won.
“We were catching our breath, and just happy the pain had stopped, when we heard a cheer from the grandstand. The big screen faced away from us and, after what felt like a couple of minutes, the umpire boat came over and said ‘congratulations New Zealand, you’ve won’. We said ‘are you sure?’ It was surreal. Deep down we knew we’d never experience that again.”
The twins captured the public imagination with their athleticism, symmetry and an intuition to thwart opposition.
Beijing Olympics 2008Photo: NZ Herald
Caroline Meyer & Georgina Earl
Christiane Huth & Annekatrin Thiele
Anna Watkins & Elise Laverick
|7:07.32 s||7:07.33 s||7:07.55 s|
However, their destiny was tracking differently in the Beijing lead-up. No one, bar perhaps those observing the prognostics in the Rowing New Zealand programme, could have predicted the result.
Eight weeks prior, at the World Cup in Lucerne, they failed to make the final. They finished last in their heat and the repechage, beaten by crews who hadn’t qualified for the Games. A sports psychologist was called in to repair their damaged mojo.
“Our parents went to Beijing and thought they’d be mopping up tears rather than celebrating a win,” Georgina says.
The 2004 victory at Athens was a doddle by comparison. The twins were favourites to become New Zealand’s first women rowing gold medallists on the back of two world championships. They beat Germans Britta Oppelt and Peggy Waleska by 0.99s, but led from the start.
Athens Olympics 2004Photo: NZ Herald
Caroline Meyer & Georgina Earl
Britta Oppelt & Peggy Waleska
Elise Laverick & Sarah Winckless
|7:01.79 s||7:02.78 s||7:07.58 s|
Silence descended on their room the previous evening as both contemplated the race which would change their lives.
“I was incredibly nervous,” Georgina says. “It had been a long week because we had qualified from our heat. The race plan was constantly in my head. However, it got foggy in the last 200m.
“You never knew who was saving themselves, but we had confidence because Richard was our coach. Not once did I doubt we hadn’t done enough training.”
“I don’t think we enjoyed it as much as we should have,” Caroline says of the instant adulation. “We came home and knuckled down again, but it started some great sponsor relationships [like with Beef and Lamb New Zealand].
“It was generally ‘situation normal’ as just-another-rower in Cambridge, but New Zealand’s a small country and I suppose we were in the news. Strangers came up to offer congratulations, which was weird but lovely. People would also pull up in cars when you walked down the street and yell out ‘Are you beef or lamb?’ or, when I ordered lamb at a restaurant, they’d say ‘Are you sure you’re allowed that? Aren’t you beef?’”
The twins were born Georgina Emma Buchanan Evers-Swindell and Caroline Frances Evers-Swindell on October 10, 1978 in Hastings. Georgina entered the world four minutes before Caroline.
They enjoyed an idyllic upbringing on a Hawke’s Bay pip fruit orchard with sisters Pippa and Lizzie, and parents Hornby and Fran.
“It was a great backyard to run around in,” Georgina says.
“We’d occasionally ruin Dad’s machinery too, like when K drove a forklift into a shed trying to impress a young lad hanging about.
“We all worked hard on the orchard and in the pack house. It was mainly apples, but included a few pears in later years.”
They attended a Steiner school which holds an element of irony, given that education system’s non-competitive philosophy.
“For us it was just ‘school’, but it’s interesting to see our children go to the local primary and witness how different it is to our education,” Caroline says. “The school still supported our rowing, they wished us luck, but no rah-rah on our return kept us grounded.
“We loved the [Steiner] philosophy, despite the fact it’s non-competitive,” Georgina says. “For Mum and Dad it was an alternative to what was on offer as co-ed education in Hawke’s Bay … and Dad just did what Mum said. It was a big call because it was seen as alternative then.
“It’s funny because our parents are actually really competitive, especially our father, not that – sorry, Dad - he was an amazing sportsperson. He rowed his last year at school because boarders had to do a summer sport and it got him an extra bottle of milk for breakfast.”
Caroline says the twin rivalry – initially Georgina wasn’t allowed to compete in ‘Caroline’s sport’ – also played its part.
“As twins, I think you’re always trying to prove you’re better than the other, be it crawling, walking or beating the other home to say what happened at school.”
A close family bond was often evident during their careers. In addition to their parents’ support, the twins devoted their 2007 campaign downtime to making a patchwork quilt as a gift for sister Pippa’s premature twin daughters.
“Our nieces were born at 24 weeks, a week before we went overseas,” Caroline says. “We felt helpless on that side of the world, so Georgie started sewing, given there wasn’t much else to do.”
That move coincided with the roommates earning the nickname ‘The Nanas’, and began the advance towards their retirement on October 9, 2008, a day before their 30th birthdays.
Almost eight years on, both their families are settled in Cromwell with three children apiece. Their children’s schooling has replaced sculling, but the duo are no less considerate or humble.
A roaring fire, home-baked banana bread and a whistling kettle greeted the Herald’s arrival on a two-degree Central Otago evening. The expectation that gnawed in their later years has evaporated.
The gold medals live in their respective sock drawers, but the memories are clear.
The reality is that the combination always worked more as a triple than a double. The toughest decision was confessing their retirement decision to coach Richard Tonks.
“Richard had a feeling we had another Olympics in us …” Georgina chuckles.
“… Bless him,” Caroline chimes, as is their occasional tendency to finish each other’s sentences.
“But it’s not as if Rowing New Zealand or Richard have suffered since we retired. The opposite has occurred,” Georgina adds.
“I wanted him to be there on the finish line to give him a hug, but apparently he couldn’t watch. The one thing he said beforehand was that you only have to win by that much [her thumb and forefinger separate by 2cm] and that it’s not dressage. You’re judged on going from A to B as fast as possible and don’t have to look good doing it.
“It was a buzz to get back to him, he’d been through all the training and we wished he could stand on the dais with us.”
These days the relationship remains cordial from afar.
“That was the case when we were rowing, too,” Caroline says. “If I see him at a regatta in Twizel, I go up and give him a hug.
“Richard and his wife have also always sent cards when our babies were born, which has been sweet.”
Eventually rowing exacted its physical toll. Both had carpal tunnel surgery on their wrists, and injuries saw them spend excessive time out of the boat.
“When we first tried to qualify for the [Sydney] Games in the eight, the older girls stretched beforehand and I thought ‘I’m never doing that’,” Caroline says.
“Contrast that with Beijing, where we probably spent more time in the gym than on the water. People must have thought we were nuts. Physically it’s hard, but mentally the unknown of when we would recover was tougher. That underlined why it was right to retire.
“Before that, we didn’t think about life after rowing. Our husbands [former New Zealand representatives Sam Earl and Carl Meyer] continue to suffer sore backs from rowing. It impacts when they pick up the kids, go for a light jog or chainsaw a tree. It’s a bit scary.”
Retirement was the one result which gave the twins a margin of certainty to lead healthy lives in the wake of their success.
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