The greatest race you never heard of: NZ's first gold medal in rowingby Mike White
It was one of New Zealand’s most unlikely sporting triumphs. But the feats of the 1968 Olympics coxed four that won our first rowing gold medal remain largely unknown. Mike White joined the crew at their most recent reunion and tells their story of hardship, friendship, victory and unfathomable tragedy.
“Êtes-vous prêts?” (“Are you ready?”) he intoned, each word ascending in inflection and anticipation.
Beneath him in lane four, the New Zealand crew knew they were ready, knew what they’d done to get here, knew what they now had to do. And they knew what they had to prove.
They were the leftovers, the supposed second-stringers, the rowers considered not good enough to make the glamour eights crew. They’d given up jobs, abandoned families, and only been guaranteed a place in the Olympics team at the last minute. They were bolshie, willing to ruffle officialdom, and had raised the money to get to Mexico cent by hard-earned cent. But, by god, they were quick.
In the boat’s bow, Warren Cole, who sold milking shed equipment and had a wife and two toddlers back in Whakatāne, noticed sweat dripping onto his oar. He glanced forward to the crew’s stroke, three seats in front of him. Dick Joyce, a 22-year-old powerhouse, had just finished his mechanical engineering degree. Cole swore he could see the hairs on Joyce’s neck standing up as the starter began speaking. “And I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s on today – let’s go!”
In front of Cole sat Ross Collinge, newly qualified as a pharmacist and recently married. For two years, Collinge had dreamt the same dream, over and over: they were in the Olympic finals and he was more exhausted than he’d ever been in his life – but they beat a team in red and won. Night after night, the same dream, the same complete fatigue, the same result. So as Collinge sat waiting, he had an unlikely coolness, convinced they could confound the critics who’d written them off and win. But superstitiously he still wore his “lucky socks”, just in case.
Between Collinge and Joyce hunched Dudley Storey, a carpet layer whose wife was about to give birth to their first child back in Auckland. He was the veteran at 27, the only one of them to have rowed outside New Zealand before, the toughest man any of them knew.
And perched in the stern was cox Simon Dickie, a 17-year-old schoolboy with a tin megaphone who’d been plucked from Wanganui Collegiate after a previous cox was killed in a training accident. Over the preceding weeks, he and coach Rusty Robertson had worked out a radical but risky race plan they hoped would stun their rivals and sweep them to victory.
Two thousand metres away at the finish line, Robertson waited, sweating in the heat and altitude, waiting for the arrival of what he’d called “the funniest-looking crew I’d ever seen”.
The starter’s right hand gripped the flag’s short pole above his head, his left hand steadying the pennant’s corner. Then, in the same instant he brought the flag down like a guillotine, he spoke again. “Partez!” (“Go!”)
Dickie’s three hunting dogs sped and slid across the entranceway to greet Collinge, 73, who carried a bag of lunch supplies, while Valerie produced presents for the dogs, soft toys that were spirited away to their beds. Valerie had a present for Dickie, too.
“It’ll be the worst Christmas present you’ll get, I guarantee it,” she announced, laughing. Dickie cautiously undid the wrapping to reveal a pair of plastic sandals in the shape of fish, garish and ghastly, and intended as a joke for Dickie, whose life revolved around fishing. “Jesus,” said Dickie as he slipped them on, “where did you find these?” “I saw them in Singapore and immediately thought of you, Simon,” Valerie chuckled. The dogs dropped their toys to sniff at the fake fish, but Dickie shooed them away, insisting he’d wear them the next day when they were all going out on the lake.
Next to walk through the front door were Dick Joyce and wife Chris. Joyce, known as “Tricky”, had been the tallest of the crew, and at 71 remained a mountain of a man, still worked as an engineer, and lived by the beach near Wellington.
With them was Paula Storey, the wife of crewman Dudley. The previous November when they’d gathered at Dickie’s for their 48th anniversary, the rest of the crew noted Storey had a slight lisp. “And I said, ‘Dud, we might have overdone it a bit, we’ve drunk a bit too much wine,” Dickie later remembered. But Storey said no, he’d noticed it himself a few days before.
Within a month, Storey had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live. By February, he could barely speak and Dickie and Collinge travelled to his Auckland home, where they put him in his wheelchair and took him down to the beach. “You’re going to have one last look at the water,” Dickie told him. Five days later, Storey died, aged 77.
Everyone gathered in Dickie’s kitchen, nibbling crackers, salmon, cheese and olives and drinking pinot grigio, waiting for Warren Cole, the last crew member. Cole was travelling from Hamilton but had a doctor’s appointment en route. Now 77, he’d had his own health problems and arrived saying the latest news wasn’t brilliant. But there was no time for mulling as Dickie emerged with a magnum of Champagne.
Collinge: “Oh, Simon, that looks good. Is that my one?”
Cole: “Jesus, Simon, all the way from France. Rumour has it, this stuff cures cancer.”
Dickie: “Well, it hasn’t done me any problems. Last year, you drank seven of these – I don’t know how you did it.”
Joyce: “We don’t know how we did it, either.”
Dickie: “My god, isn’t it great, the old team, 49 years – can you believe this? Can you bloody believe it, 49 years?! Jesus.”
With glasses filled, they reached across to toast each other.
“Absent friends,” said Dickie, everyone’s minds tracing back to their previous reunions, which Storey had been central to. “It’s the first time we’ve had to do this with absent friends.”
They’d won their heat and also their semi-final, but in slower times than the East Germans, who were the favourites alongside Italy and Russia. However, Dickie and coach Rusty Robertson had a race plan to go out hard, build a lead and trust they could hang on. After six strokes, Dickie told the crew they were coming fourth.
“And I thought, ‘For fuck’s sake, Simon,’” remembered Collinge, “give us a chance to get going.”
Gradually they pulled ahead, keeping their high rating of 42 strokes a minute, while other crews eased back.
Cole said they’d managed to hold that punishing rating for 600m in their semi-final and figured if they could maintain it for an extra 10 strokes to the 700m mark in the final, it might make a vital difference. “We believed totally in the risk. Everybody bought into it 100%.”
They banked on none of the other crews being mad enough to try to stick with them that early in the race, especially at 2240m (7350ft) altitude. They banked on it being easier to win from in front than come from behind. And they banked on everyone having the strength to pull off such a bold strategy.
That confidence and trust in each other went back six months, back to New Zealand and a bleak winter, a million miles away from Mexico’s heat and humidity. In May that year, 13 rowers assembled on the banks of Christchurch’s Avon River to begin four months of training. They’d been chosen as the Olympic squad after trials, and the selectors, christened The Kremlin for their sternness, immediately split them into an eight and a four, with one reserve rower. There was never any doubt the eight was the main focus – a New Zealand eight had won an international regatta the previous year and were considered genuine gold-medal prospects in rowing’s blue-riband event. So when Collinge, Cole, Joyce and Storey heard they’d been omitted from the eight, there was disappointment, spiked with resentment. Instead, they were being asked to form a coxed four, despite being a completely unlikely crew in many ways.
Collinge had come to rowing as an 18-year-old because he needed a sport where it didn’t matter if he wore glasses. “I was a skinny little bastard with funny, round glasses and sticky-out ears, and I weighed just over 11 stone. So I went down to the Petone Rowing Club and the club captain looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we don’t need anyone right now, we’re full up.’”
But not long after, the club called Collinge saying they were one short, and to get on his bike and come down. He’d never been in a boat before and was initially woeful.
Warren Cole was another unsuited to rowing, if you believed the experts. At the 1967 New Zealand trials, “some bloody smartarse bastard turned up from Otago University, he was a sports psychologist or something, and he was doing body-typing where he went round squeezing your fat. And he said to me, ‘I don’t know about you, Warren, but with your fat content and buoyancy, you should be a swimmer.’”
The same sports scientist eyed Joyce, who’d only been rowing for four years, and declared he should be a long-jumper or high-jumper because he was so skinny.
Then there was Dickie. Shortly before the Olympic squad convened in Christchurch, the eight’s cox, Alan Boykett, was drowned. He’d been in a coaching boat with Dick Joyce on Wellington harbour when another boat slammed into them. Joyce survived and repeatedly dived under the wreck to locate Boykett, but his body was never found. So a month later, selectors called for trialists to join the Olympic team.
Dickie had coxed Wanganui Collegiate’s eight to three consecutive victories at the national school rowing championships, and his coach suggested he have a go. To the surprise of most, the schoolboy who’d just turned 17 was chosen ahead of many more experienced coxes and put in charge of the eight. Later, he was swapped to the four, and immediately had any precociousness knocked out of him. Taking his seat for the first time, Dickie dangled his feet over the boat’s edge and announced this was easier than the eight. Storey exploded. “Get your feet back in the boat, boy, you’ve got a job to do!”
Things didn’t go well when training started, Joyce remembering their first outing as “a bagful of arseholes”. Soon after, Collinge and Storey forgot to lock the oars in place, a rookie mistake, and the crew fell into the river as they climbed into the boat.
At one point, assistant coach Ted Lindstrom, who’d taken charge of the four, yelled out for them to stop, insisting the boat was getting slower and slower, and demanding to know what the problem was. Everyone admitted they weren’t comfortable with their seating order in the boat, and wanted to change. But when Joyce suggested this to Robertson, the coach told him, “You will not do this,” and stalked off.
A week later, with Lindstrom in hospital and Robertson home in Ōamaru for a wedding, the crew decided, “Fuck it, we’ll do it anyway,” recalled Joyce, and they changed everyone’s seating position, with the boat immediately going faster.
“If this goes well, the selectors will take the kudos,” Joyce told the rest of the crew. “If it falls on its arse, we’ll never wear a black singlet again. Do you want to take this risk?” Everyone said yes. “We had nothing to lose,” remembered Cole.
When Robertson returned from Ōamaru, Joyce fronted him. “And I told him, if the objective is to go as fast as we’re capable of, this is a better combination, so please, have a look.”
Robertson, still suffering from the weekend’s festivities and wearing dark glasses, said nothing, but followed them closely in the coach boat. On their way home, Joyce told the cox to “‘just let the bastard go.’ And it just took off, absolutely boogied over the last 500m.”
When they arrived back at the club-rooms, Robertson drove the coach boat up the bank, got in his car and disappeared without a word. “So we untangled Rusty’s boat from the bloody long grass, washed it down, put it away and looked at each other going, ‘What now?’” recalled Joyce. “And I remember saying, ‘I don’t think he was impressed, but he didn’t say no. So until he says no, we carry on.’”
Robertson never said no.
Rowing relies on rhythm, relaxation, timing, self-belief and trust in each other. And as the four developed these things, the boat got faster. And as the boat got faster, any lingering desire to be part of the favoured eight faded. It completely disappeared when, on one training row, the four headed the supposedly faster eight past the Burwood bridge, past the unmistakable pig farm, and all the way to Sumner.
Training was six days a week, fitted around work. Collinge got a job in a pharmacy, Joyce as a railways engineer, Storey laying carpets, and Cole at a concrete company.
“Somebody found this bike in the Avon River,” recollected Cole. “It had no brakes, no lights, no gears, but I’d get up at seven every morning and bike 7km uphill to work and shovel aggregate all day into this bloody concrete mixer. Then cycle 7km home, always into a head wind, to be at training by three o’clock.”
Dickie, meanwhile, had transferred to Christ’s College to join the team in Christchurch and went to class each morning before training.
On Friday nights, they’d shiver outside pubs selling raffle tickets and doing coin trails to fund their way to Mexico, with administrators threatening if they didn’t raise the money they wouldn’t go. “You’d try and think, ‘Shit, this is good, we’ve got 100 one-cent coins down the footpath,’” said Collinge. “But there’s nothing like the cold winds of poverty blowing up your arse to make you row hard.”
On Saturdays, they went house to house asking for donations. “It was pleading for money,” recalled Dickie. “It was begging.”
Paula and Dudley Storey rented a freezing house for $5 a week on the Avon River’s banks, furnished with a table, chairs, a borrowed bed and a one-bar heater.
Cole couldn’t afford to bring his family from Whakatāne and didn’t see his two preschool children for months while training.
Despite the costs and commitment, just weeks before the team was due to leave for Mexico, the four still didn’t know if they’d be selected, along with the marquee eight. “I thought, ‘How can you train this hard and make the sacrifices and get dropped at the last minute?’” said Cole.
On July 1, the crew gathered upstairs at the Avon Rowing Club to hear the Olympic team being announced live over the radio. “W.J. Cole… R.H. Collinge… S.C. Dickie… R.J. Joyce… D.L. Storey.”
“Just relief,” remembered Cole. “Just big sighs of relief.”
As Dickie ferried more Champagne from his cellar, the crew moved to the lounge to continue reminiscing. Storey’s death had rocked them, and reminded them the bonds between the 1968 crew were precarious but unique.
As Joyce put it: “The guys in the boat are family.”
So already, plans were being made for their 50th anniversary celebration. They’d hoped to return to Mexico City, but Dickie’s daughter had been there recently and reported the rowing course was overgrown and unrecognisable. So now the idea was a holiday to Vietnam, and someone produced a newspaper advertisement for a week’s getaway.
They’d booked for dinner at a nearby restaurant for 7pm, but as glasses were topped up, Dickie phoned through to let the restaurant know they’d be late. Photos were taken in the evening light, the crew instinctively lining up in the same order they rowed in, Paula standing in for her late husband.
Eventually, sometime after 8pm, everyone wandered down to the restaurant, and spread around a long corner table. There was talk of races past and crew mates gone, of Stasi spies and fickle coaches, of grandkids and Christmas coming, of tomorrow’s boat trip on the lake when they’d catch some fish and probably throw most back.
It was after 11 when they settled the bill and headed home along still-warm pavements. It had been a great day.
“At the 1150m, it was the first time I’d taken my eyes out of the boat and had a real good look at where we were and where everybody else was,” recalled Joyce. “And I thought, ‘Shit, all we have to do is not blow up and we’ve got this race. So I pulled the rating down a notch and gave everyone a bit of a breather.”
With 400m to go, Dickie told Joyce in the seat closest to him, to “friggin’ smarten up”, and Joyce remembers “we just let it go, man”. At 200m, Dickie relayed what their lead was and warned the East Germans were moving up.
Only with 100m left did he raise his voice, calling for maximum energy from the crew, then counted them in, over the din of 30,000 spectators. Eighty metres to go meant just eight more strokes, eight more times to haul their 12’6” willow oars – silver ferns stencilled on their mahogany blades – through an agonising arc; 50m meant five…
As their heart rates edged towards 200 beats-per-minute, Cole was seeing stars. Collinge’s jaw and hips ached. Joyce remembers everything had gone grey as they crossed the finish and he wasn’t sure what had happened. But they’d won easily, by nearly three seconds from East Germany, with Switzerland third.
“Nobody reneged on the power they could give,” recalled Cole, “but we were all unconscious basically; we were all in serious oxygen debt. That’s why no one said anything at the finish for at least 30 seconds.”
Eventually Cole found his voice. “Hey, you bastards, do you know what you’ve done? You’ve just won an Olympic Games gold medal!” he shouted from the bow. At the other end of the boat, all a shattered Joyce could think was, “For fuck’s sake, Warren, shut up.”
Too exhausted to row, they drifted to the pontoon where Robertson helped them from the boat, while Dickie’s father, Maurie, a Taranaki farmer, hung from the judge’s tower nearby, whooping. A photo taken well after the finish shows the crew all still in a state of collapse, leaning on each other, only Dickie impishly beaming in the front.
“The Olympics were such a fantastic thing,” said Cole. “In your wildest dream, you never expect, as a sportsman, to be on the playing field for a gold medal. And we were. And I thought, ‘Jesus, we’ve got to do some super, super, super thing to win a gold medal’ – and we did something super, super, super.”
At the press conference afterwards, someone noted Joyce’s black socks, worn to prevent chafing in the boat, and, given the Black Power movement sweeping the Games, asked whether there was any significance in wearing them at the medal ceremony. “Exactly the same significance as the fact we’re wearing black shorts and have a black shirt on,” replied Storey smartly.
It was New Zealand’s first-ever rowing gold medal; the only gold for the country at Mexico; and Dickie became, and remains, New Zealand’s youngest Olympic gold medal winner.
Back in Auckland, heavily pregnant Paula Storey was staying with friends, waiting for the race commentary to come over the radio around 6am.
“And I said to them, ‘I can’t stick around and listen, I’ve just got to get out of here.’ I had a really old Hillman Husky stationwagon and I hopped in and the radio often didn’t work but
I went down the road, turned it on and I could pick it up. And I sat in the car listening to the broadcast, and
I heard that he’d won. I switched it off and went back and they already had the Champagne ready.”
Nine days later, she gave birth to their first child, Dudley Jnr. Even though his Olympics were over, Storey wasn’t allowed to return early to New Zealand. By the time he touched down in Auckland, his son was five days old.
Celebrations in Mexico were muted. The fancied eight wilted to finish fourth, the loneliest Olympic placing, leaving administrators embarrassed given the emphasis they’d put on the big crew compared to the four. Even when they returned to New Zealand, gold medals around their necks, outsized sombreros on their heads, there was little hoopla, these being the days when All Blacks trudged back to halfway, emotionless, after scoring a try, rather than celebrating exultantly. The crew returned to their jobs, Dickie to school to sit his end-of-year exams.
They never raced together again. Three races, three victories. Dickie and Joyce went on to win gold again at the 1972 Munich Olympics as part of the eight that finally triumphed, with Dickie also winning a bronze with the eight at the 1976 Olympics. Collinge and Storey won silver at Munich in a coxless four. Cole was part of the coxed four, which finished sixth.
All of them retired from international rowing in the following years because they couldn’t afford to keep going, spending months in training camps and at regattas without income. “In 1972,
I came home and had no job, no money, an old car and two children,” recalled Collinge. “I had to buy a pharmacy because no one would employ me because I was away so much.”
Dudley and Paula Storey were forced to sell their house that year so Dudley could train in Christchurch before the Olympics. “I don’t think I’d had enough,” said Cole of retiring, “but it was just economically impossible to keep going.”
For most New Zealanders, the 1972 Munich eight’s victory is New Zealand rowing’s standout historic moment. That race was televised, as was the medal ceremony where, in unforgettable scenes, some of the crew were in tears as “God Defend New Zealand” was played for the first time at an Olympics. (Previously it had been “God Save the Queen”.)
Meanwhile, the 1968 coxed four’s improbable genesis and ultimate achievement have been largely overlooked, despite their win marking the start of New Zealand rowing’s incredible Olympic Games record over the last half century. (Rowing is New Zealand’s most successful Olympic sport.) Although the 1972 gold-medal boat sits in Auckland’s Maritime Museum, the 1968 crew’s boat was sold to a rowing club to recoup costs, and ended in splinters after a road crash. All that remains are the oars each crew member received, the rudder Dickie nabbed, and the sticker with the boat’s name, Aotearoa, that Collinge peeled off.
Just what made the unlikely crew champions is hard to pinpoint. While training in Mexico before the Games, an impressed onlooker asked coach Rusty Robertson what made them so fast.
“I don’t know,” admitted Robertson.
As Collinge described it, the crew was a bit like a bumblebee flying – logic says it shouldn’t work, but it does. However, it went much deeper than that, said Collinge. “It’s not how good you are or how strong you are or how brave you are, it’s that wonderful mix of people. It’s just this magic thing that happens, and on that day we were invincible.”
There was an element of wanting to prove the doubting officials wrong. There was a desire to make six months of sacrifice and hardship worthwhile. And there was a complete trust in their crewmates’ equal determination to win, said Joyce. “You become so close to these guys, they’re so much your friends, that you’re just not going to let them down. So you daren’t not perform.”
The lack of recognition for the 1968 coxed four didn’t concern Joyce. “Everybody remembers the Munich eight, but nobody remembers who was in it. So I can choose to put my black blazer on and strut about the place and be the big Munich oarsman, or I can choose to keep my mouth shut and nobody knows who the hell I am – which is good. I’d far rather just get on with life.”
The previous day had been spent aboard Dickie’s boat on Lake Taupō as planned – fishing, enjoying the sun and each other’s company.
At twilight, they’d regathered at Dickie’s for a barbecue, good red wine and to debate plans for next year’s big get-together. Around 11pm, they said their farewells, a lingering procession of hugs and handshakes stretching over 20 minutes and the length of Dickie’s driveway. “Happy Christmas… Have a wonderful New Year… see you soon… send me your credit card details so we can book that holiday…” It had been another fabulous day.
The next morning, on Wednesday December 13, they departed in various directions, only for their journeys to be derailed that afternoon by the news that Dickie, 66, had fallen from a balcony at his home and died.
When he’d left school, Dickie began guiding visitors to Taupō, and in 50 years had established an extremely successful hunting, fishing and tourism business, latterly with his wife, Adi, making friends around the world. At his funeral a week later, hundreds of those friends filled Taupō’s St Andrew’s Church, spilling into the vestibule and outside. They sang traditional hymns, “Who Would True Valour See” and “I Vow To Thee, My Country”, and incanted the “Lord’s Prayer”, “… the power and the glory…”
Collinge and Joyce gave reflections, on Dickie’s uncanny ability to extract the most from rowers, and the extraordinary friendships that evolved between the 1968 Mexico crew.
“That’s how I’ll remember Simon,” said Collinge. “Full of fun, great company, just a memorable, wonderful man – a man that compacted two lives of achievements into one amazing life.”
Afterwards, the crew joined rowers from Dickie’s old school, Wanganui Collegiate, to form an honour guard with oars outside the church as the pallbearers passed though, bearing Dickie.
Two months later, the remaining crew and Paula Storey gathered at Lake Karapiro during the national rowing championships. Plans for their 50th reunion would likely be scaled back, but, given recent events, they agreed it seemed more important than ever they should celebrate what happened at Mexico City’s Virgilio Uribe rowing course on October 19, 1968.
“It’s got to happen,” said Cole. “Even if all we do is sit there all night and toast absent friends.”
This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.
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