St Peter's School's champion girls' eight powers away on the high country blue waters of Lake Ruataniwha. Photo: Steve McArthur/Rowing NZ

Something special happened at the national schools rowing champs at Twizel yesterday. A new school smashed its name onto one of the two big trophies that crown the regatta of arguably our most successful international sport.

There are two big trophies at the event known by the name of one of them, the Maadi Cup. That one is the premier award for the senior boys rowing 8. It has a rugged, masculine history from its origin in World War II when Kiwi troops won it on the Nile. So ingrained is it in our sports lexicon that the annual schools regatta is known simply as “Maadi’.

The other title is for the girl’s senior 8. It has a forgettable name: the Levin Jubilee Cup. No disrespect to Levin, which bestowed the Cup on the girls’ event in 1981 when the town celebrated its 75th jubilee, but it hardly flows off the tongue or raises images of glamour or triumph. 

But these are two, equal, golden trophies that the 1100 girls and 1000 boys compete for at the apex of the six days of racing.

Yesterday the Levin Jubilee Cup became St Peter’s School, Cambridge’s cup, its name etched into history for the first time – a surprising first for an elite school which has featured prominently in girls’ and boys’ rowing for years.

In emphatic fashion, eight under-18 girls and their cox grabbed that Cup 500m into their 2000m race at the South Island’s rowing headquarters, Lake Ruataniwha, and never let it go. They surged from the field in a manner the course commentator called ‘unbelievable’ on the high country lake and they just rowed away.

Rangi Ruru Girls School, which has its name on that cup 15 times, could do no more than fight for second, edging a former three-time winner, Waikato Diocesan, into third. Showing how fickle fate and school leaving can be, Auckland Diocesan who had won the two past Levin Jubilee Cups and were thus sitting on a hat trick could only manage seventh.

St Peter’s victory was no shock. Last year, on its home course of Lake Karapiro much the same crew won the gold medals at the Aon Maadi Cup for the under-17 eight and the under-17 quad.

This year St Peter’s went into the Levin Jubilee Cup race already having won gold for the Under 18 pair and four, resulting in a rare triple at the top level for schools.

But. But. Rangi Ruru was at home and with a winning pedigree untouched in girls or boys rowing at the top schools level. Glacial silt makes the water in Ruataniwha heavier and slower. It is chillier above the water. Pride, nerves, equipment failure, tactical disaster or a surprise dark horse can tip over the most favoured of favourites.

The race is held second-to-last of the 52 annual finals. The boys’ race is always last. The organisers explain that the Maadi Cup preceded participation by girls schools so has the advantage of its history. Plus usually on the day before the eights are run, the under-18 fours are run at the end of racing, with the boys’ Springbok Shield first and the girls’ Dawn Cup taking prime, final position. (That didn’t happen this time as bad weather saw all finals run rapid-fire on Saturday).

None of this mattered to St Peter’s. The girls simply turned up in the right form with the right attitude (smash-em-bro) at the right time and made history. Their bold surge was so early in the race as to tempt fate. It was like watching a 1500m athletics race where one runner takes off after one of the three and three-quarter laps. In many cases you wait for the inevitable, with leaders of the following pack picking them up and passing as energy fades. 

St Peters kept going. Rangi Ruru were happy, in that company, to get second. Its crew were overjoyed in celebrating with supporters immediately after the race. The winning St Peter’s crew were: Brie Perry (stroke), Brooke Kilmister, Morgan Blind, Anna Cairns, Rebecca Leigh, Katie Bell, Amy Butler, Kaylin Wren and Lauren Gibb (cox).

The Cambridge co-ed school won the Star Trophy for top school overall with eight golds, six silver and two bronze and its coach of the eight, Norm Charlton, was named coach of the year.

Girls rowing grew strongly after the ‘Evers-Swindell effect’ when Georgina and Caroline won world championships and Olympic golds in the double. Women’s rowing continues to prosper, with the latest advance being the replacement in international competition of ‘lightweight’ male events with women’s four races. 

New Zealand runs a women’s eight squad and since 2014, a women’s four. There is more, elite competitive opportunity for the best young women.

The sport has an unusually tough progression after school competition. Only a few of the top rowers, male and female, at Twizel this week will make it into Regional Performance Centres, junior age group New Zealand squads or on to the Olympics.

Rowing NZ’s chief Simon Peterson says many sports have a ‘pyramid shape’ where numbers of participants gradually reduce as they move to the pinnacle. “Ours is more like a long rectangle with a narrow peak in the middle where those who stay go up.

“Rowing is quite cut-throat in terms of selection processes but there is no doubt about the pathway. Of our 26 junior reps from 2012, eight are now in the elite programme six years later.”

While top young rowers could look at the average age of medallists at the Rio Olympics of 28 and consider another decade of hard work, he says a top junior at aged 19 could “absolutely be at the Olympics at 22.”

The schools programme is vital to rowing here. Of 4600 rowers on the sport’s books, 2100 were at Ruataniwha. “This would be hard to beat around the world in terms of participant numbers, ” Peterson says.

But there is competition for our talent. 

Even before the Levin Jubilee glory, Ivy League colleges in the United States were in discussions with girls from St Peter’s and other top schools about possible scholarships. One had three possible rowing and academic paths to consider.

In schools rowing one girl stands out. Veronica Wall of Ashburton College, stunned the Lake Ruataniwha spectator bank two years ago when she won the Under-16 single sculls, then stepped up and won the under-17 single sculls and finally, at the same regatta, the under-18 single sculls. She won multiple times at Karapiro last year as well.

This year, age might have limited those options. She competed only in the under-18 grade. But she won the single sculls, double sculls, and sensationally with her crew ran down Baradene of Auckland on the finish line to win the quad as well. So, three more golds for Veronica.

Turns out she wasn’t Ashburton’s only winner. Her former title of Under-17 single sculls was won by her schoolmate Mollie Gibson, who is also coached by Veronica’s father, Justin. It was fate’s curse for Baradene that both Wall and Gibson (the two senior single scull champions) were sitting in the boat from Ashburton that denied them Ruataniwha glory.

But like Rangi Ruru in the Levin Jubilee Cup, sometimes coming second to greatness is its own reward.

The bravery of St Peter’s victory in the under-18 eight was underlined in the boys’ race immediately afterwards.

In northern rowing, Hamilton Boys is the powerhouse. It is a factory of rowing excellence, but had missed out at the last two Maadi Cups, beaten at Ruataniwha two years ago by Christ’s College and then, stunningly at its home Lake Karapiro last year by St Andrew’s of Christchurch.

This year, St Andrew’s did not even field a senior eight. Kids leave school, as Auckland Diocesan found in the girls’ race.

In the Maadi Cup yesterday, Hamilton tried to muscle the field as St Peter’s had managed to do 15 minutes earlier. They got ahead of Christ’s, the South Island legends, and Christchurch Boys, the South Island champions and looked like a champion in the making. But this time the south,  in the form of Christ’s, overcame the northern impertinence, catching Hamilton in the final 250m and sparking black-and-white striped delirium on the bank.

The Maadi Cup remains in the south, for the third year in a row.

The Levin Jubilee Cup remains in the north, but with a new home that has been a long time coming. And emphatically deserved.

Rangi Ruru’s eight in early racing at the regatta.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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