When you finish a heartbreaking fourth at the Olympics, twice, there’s an immediate assumption that if you come out of retirement, you’re doing so to chase an elusive medal.

For single sculler Emma Twigg, returning to rowing is about something bigger.

“I want to fulfill the potential that I believe I have,” Twigg, 31, says. “I don’t feel I’ve managed to do that yet.”

There’s no denying that, after three attempts to reach the coveted top step of the Olympic podium (finishing ninth at the 2008 Beijing games, fourth both in London 2012 and Rio 2016), Twigg is on a mission to get on there in Tokyo 2020.

“You have a limited time to be at your peak and be the best in the world at something. I feel I can still be the best in the world, so why not get back amongst it for a couple of years and see what happens?” says Twigg, who was the single sculls world champion in 2014.

Twigg has been undefeated since she returned to New Zealand, racing against other summer squad members and thriving on the challenge of being back on the water.

“Technically, I’m not there yet. Physically, I’m nearly there. Strength-wise, I’m way ahead,” she says. “Mentally, I’m in a really good space.”

The idea of returning to rowing first came to Twigg while she was in South Korea. She was working at last year’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics and watched as the New Zealand men’s long track speed skating team finished an agonising fourth.

“Just being in and around the Olympic village, and feeling the buzz, made me realise how special the Games are. The seeds were well and truly sown,” Twigg says. 

Another factor in her comeback was the desire to be a full-time athlete again after working with the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne for two years after the Rio Olympics.

“Working has certainly made me appreciate what a privilege it is to be an athlete. It’s a pretty sweet life doing what you love,” she says.

During her two years out of the sport, Twigg wasn’t sitting at her desk twiddling her thumbs. She completed an ironman and a half-ironman, and most of her weekends were spent adventuring on bikes with friends, often smashing switchbacks up the Swiss Alps.

In fact, she kick-started her rowing comeback by finishing up at the IOC and joining two of her Kiwi colleagues – Olympic heptathlete Rebecca Wardell and Sarah Van Ballekom – cycling from Switzerland to Singapore, on a mission they called “The Long Way Home”.   

Twigg cycled for six weeks from Lausanne to Istanbul, before leaving the other two and flying back to New Zealand to return to full-time training.

After seven months back on the water, Twigg won her eighth national single sculls title in Twizel, recording her fastest ever time on Lake Ruataniwha in the process.

“If someone had told me six months ago I would be winning nationals I probably would have laughed,” she admits.

The cutthroat New Zealand rowing team trials start today [Tuesday]  for the single scullers.

With Twigg’s dominance over the domestic season, there are no other challengers to the boat – so she will need to complete a solo time trial to be selected in the women’s single scull for 2019.

Her selection will be another box ticked in her plan for Tokyo, and will see her head to Europe in June for two World Cup events and the Royal Henley regatta. 

At the world championships in Linz Ottensheim, Austria, in late August, the top nine boats will automatically qualify for Tokyo 2020. Twigg is determined to be one of those nine – and not go through the predicament she faced before the 2016 Olympics. 

In 2015, Twigg had a year off competition to complete her FIFA Masters in Sport Management overseas (she also holds a Bachelor of Communications from Waikato University).

During the international season, New Zealand didn’t qualify the women’s single scull for a spot at the Rio Olympics. So when Twigg returned to the water, she had to secure her place at the ‘last chance regatta’ in Switzerland.

“It’s a non-negotiable for me to qualify the boat this year for Tokyo. So if I am in the single next year, I don’t have to peak before the big peak,” she explains.

One of the biggest lessons learned in Rio was the impact the last chance regatta – in Lucerne in May – had on her ability to lift her game again at the Olympics in August.

Twigg has also recognised she couldn’t simply come back to the same training regime she’d done in previous campaigns.

Outside of the Rowing NZ system, she’s been able to work with High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) power physiologist Angus Ross – which Twigg says has been a refreshing change in her strength and conditioning training.

“He’s very skilled at what he does, and really positive about what I can and should be able to do. In a short amount of time, I’ve had some really good gains. Obviously when you’re around these kind of people you want everyone in your team to be like this,” she says.

Twigg also credits HPSNZ sports psychologist John Quinn for installing a sense of gratitude and fun: “I feel I’m definitely more balanced right now.”

While in the past Twigg was always looking to the next World Cup or world championship, she now says it’s about simply enjoying the daily grind.

“Ultimately Rowing NZ want the same thing that I do – and that’s an Olympic gold medal.”

The legacy of the rowing programme isn’t lost on Twigg who, at 18, left her hometown of Napier to train and study in the Waikato. Her demanding daily routine comes down to always having a benchmark.

“When I started it was the Evers-Swindell twins; before them it was Rob [Waddell]. And then it was Mahé Drysdale and the men’s pair. Those are the people that you aspire to be and that’s where the ingrained work effort comes from,” she says.

It would be fair to say that today, Twigg is the benchmark for the women’s rowing programme. But she’s adamant it doesn’t make her the ‘grandma’ of the team.

“It’s very different to be involved in now. It’s a very different world compared to when we started in the tin shed on the other side of the lake,” she says. “I think sometimes you can forget how good we’ve got it, even compared to other sports.”

Twigg has been training at the HPSNZ training facility at the Avantidrome in Cambridge alongside athletes from different sports. 

“It’s been nice becoming better friends with other athletes and getting to know how their sports work. I’m often in the gym with the sprint cycling guys, who are always trying to gee me up to lift heavy weights, which is great.”

The other enduring support Twigg has going into Tokyo comes from her fiancée Charlotte Mizzi. The pair recently got engaged and Twigg says to have Mizzi, a former Wellington cricketer, now in Cambridge, helping her balance out life off the water, has been amazing.

“She’ll be a big part of the next year and a half, in terms of support,” Twigg says.

For now, Twigg is concentrating on making the most of every day – which usually consists of a row up to 30km, hours on the bike and a weights session.

“I want to cross every T and dot every I. If that means I finish sixth [in Tokyo] then that’s great, but I think that if I do it all right, I will be on the podium,” she says.

“I believe I can be the best. It’s about getting the process right and getting there in the best shape that I can.”

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