The next few days will be a twitchy time for Natalie Bocock.
She has her architecture books to bury her nose in as she marches through her final year in search of her degree at Victoria University.
But next Thursday Bocock’s mind will be elsewhere. That’s when Rowing New Zealand are due to name their elite squad for this year’s European campaign, highlighted by the world championships in Ottensheim, Austria from August 25.
It’s a two-into-three situation for the Canterbury born and bred coxswain. She’s battling with two men, Caleb Shepherd and Sam Bosworth, who have both enjoyed world champs campaigns.
Bocock, 21, has form as something of a trailblazer in rowing.
Last year, she coxed the New Zealand men’s under 23 quartet to silver in Poznan, Poland. A sizzling final 500m, during which they jumped from fourth to overtake Italy and Germany, had them finish behind only a formidable United States crew.
As she stood on the podium, Bocock didn’t realise she was making a little piece of history.
She is the first woman to have won a medal coxing a men’s crew at a world championship.
It wasn’t so long ago that simply didn’t happen.
But it’s a different world now.
Gender equality is in. Rowing, for example, has ditched the men’s lightweight four and included a women’s coxless four and the old eight men/six women Olympic events programme is now a seven/seven split for the Tokyo Games next year. It is the most significant Olympic schedule change for the sport in 24 years.
Bocock started rowing at St Margaret’s College, a prominent women’s rowing nursery, at the end of her first year as a boarder.
‘’All my friends were doing it so I thought I’d sign up but I didn’t think of being a coxswain,’’ she said.
As Bocock put it, she was carrying a bit of extra weight as a growing 12-year-old but, after that first season of dipping her toes into the sport, found herself at the coxswain’s weight of 50kg.
In 2011 she contested the Maadi Cup as a rower at Lake Karapiro; the following year she was at Lake Ruataniwha calling the shots from the front of the boat.
She won three titles at St Margarets, winning the Simon Grigg Cup as best cox in her final year. Bocock was catching the right eyes. She was chosen as cox for the national under 21 men’s crew in their transTasman races against Australian 2015.
In 2016 she coxed the under 23 women’s eight at their worlds. They finished fourth, just 0.310s behind Russia.
‘’I never forgot that. We thought we’d got third, then looked up at the screen and Russia had pipped us on the line.’’
Bocock remembers 2017 as a pivotal season. Gender neutrality was in. Women could cox men. A group of candidates were trialled for the sole men’s under 23 position.
She missed out to a male rival, so Bocock spent another season with the under 21s.
The big change came last year, and the silver, calling the tactics to Ben Taylor, Sam Jones, Edwin Laver and Angus McFarlane.
First though she beat out the challenge from the cox who had got in ahead of her a season earlier. She enjoyed that, and admits in a sense it might have been a blessing missing out, as it gave her time to sharpen up her work in the boat.
So who’s the boss in the boat – the cox or the rower in the stroke seat, who sets the tempo, and pace, for others to match?
A dollar each way. ‘’They really have to have a really good relationship. Communication must be good, and it’s not really an open forum for everyone to say what they’re feeling.’’
The first ‘serious’ men’s crew campaign in which Bocock was cox was last year in Poland. She recalls the quartet were good towards her but ‘’I had to learn how it happens. They were quite different to the women, similar but also different. It was about me responding to what works for them.
‘’For example, boys do so much better if they’re not serious all the time. They’re having a laugh and enjoying being out on the water.
‘’But the girls take it so much more seriously. They are different and you have to tweak yourself a bit.
‘’You have wakeup calls when you change (from men to women or vice versa). Like ‘oh yeah, that doesn’t work with boys’.’’
Bocock has a clear memory of a visit to Lake Karapiro several years ago. Rowing New Zealand were soon to embark on the mission to get eights boats back on the programme for men and women.
She went into an RNZ shed to look at an eights boat.
‘’I talked to one of the helpers and said I’m a coxswain, do you think they’ll ever have a women’s eight? He said ‘don’t be ridiculous, you’ll never to be able to row for New Zealand.’
‘’After that comment it wasn’t like I was going to stop rowing. I wanted to see how far I could go. At that stage it wasn’t even a possibility of a women’s eight.’’
Now she’s eyeing the Tokyo Olympics, even if she misses the worlds this year.
Assuming New Zealand qualify their two eights boats at the qualifying regatta, which happens to double as the worlds in Austria, two coxes will be required.
Bocock’s parents, Richie and Kate, didn’t row, but she recently discovered two aunts, Andrea and Carol Bocock, had coxed for New Zealand years ago. So maybe there’s something in the genes. Whatever. Bocock says she’ll simply be putting her best foot forward.
While the two men are ineligible for the under 23 squad – which was named a few days ago with TBC beside the identity of the cox – Bocock is available for both categories. Shepherd and Bosworth are only eligible for the elite group.
‘’I would definitely be quite gutted,’’ she said of the prospect of missing a place. ‘’But I’m also determined to get gold in the (under 23) coxed four and put myself forward for the coming summer and Tokyo.’’
Her thinking is clear, and positive. Just what you’d expect of a sportswoman called on to make rapid calculations on the water, with the ambitions of others in her hands.