The first Kiwi women to win an Olympic rowing medal 33 years ago, the paths of Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen have converged again – becoming neighbours, adventurers and beekeepers together.

In a home high on a hill in Nelson, two former rowers sat transfixed as the Tokyo Olympics unfolded.

Nikki Payne (now Dr Nikki Mills) and Lynley Hannen (now Lynley Coventry) live only 300m apart these days – despite choosing very different life paths. And so they watched much of the Olympics together. 

Inevitably, it triggered memories of winning their bronze medal in the coxless pair in Seoul 1988, when they became the first New Zealand women to win an Olympic rowing medal.

Watching the Games in Tokyo, they kept thinking: “Don’t the Kiwi women rowers rock!” And marvelled as one-by-one, they racked up four of New Zealand’s five Olympic rowing medals.

Quietly, they also felt a deep sense of pride at just how far the trail they’d once blazed had come. Looking back, Nikki can see that their medal “created the possibility for other women rowers to think they could do it too.”

In an era with few role models, the pair are convinced their Olympic success would never have happened without their “amazing coach”, Harry Mahon.

“Someone recently said it’s weird that coaches don’t get medals as well, and I thought, ‘That is so true of Harry’,” Nikki says.

Lynley is quick to agree. “He was instrumental in us getting our medal.”

It’s telling that this unassuming pair credit their coach with their success, but the road to the Olympic dais was also a result of Lynley’s astonishing athleticism paired with Nikki’s dogged determination and technical expertise.

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Their successful partnership is an unlikely story that began with a fateful meeting on the banks of the Waikato River.

At the time, Nikki was already an accomplished rower, having won the 1986 world U23 single sculls title. Lynley, on the other hand, was in the New Zealand basketball team, following in the footsteps of her mother Anita Hannen. She’d only more recently taken up rowing as a way to keep fit over summer. Before long though, numbers at her local rowing club in Te Awamutu dwindled.

“So I wandered down to the Hamilton Rowing Club and bumped into Nikki,” Lynley says.

“I was looking for her,” Nikki says with a laugh. She’d heard of Lynley on the rowing grapevine and needed a new partner after her previous one “retired to have babies”.

“I loved pairs,” Nikki says. “So when Lynley came along, we gave it a go and it just kind of clicked.”

Lynley agrees: “I’d never been in a pair and didn’t realise how technical it was.” Lynley and Nikki laugh heartily at the memory of their first strokes together.

They progressed rapidly; Lynley deciding to focus on rowing rather than basketball. By the time the Olympic rowing trials were held in March 1988, they had become the national coxless pairs champions.

So they were surprised when only Nikki was invited to trial. Regardless, none of the four women who got a trial were selected for the Olympics.

In one of their many adventures, Lynley Coventry (nee Hannen, left) and Nikki Mills (nee Payne) climbed Mt Stokes in the Marlborough Sounds in February. Photo: supplied.

“At the end of the trial, the selectors said we weren’t good enough to go,” Nikki remembers. “I asked why Lynley didn’t get a trial when we’d been national champions for two years, but they said we didn’t have a record as a pair.

“I said ‘How do you get a record if you don’t send someone the first time?’ But they were unwilling to take a chance on us, so we paid for ourselves to go to Europe and raced the summer season over there.”

“Plan A was to get to the Olympics,” Lynley adds. “Plan B was to have a holiday in Greece.”

Under the coaching guidance of Mahon, they trained and raced all summer and did a stint of altitude training at St Moritz in Switzerland.

Fortunately the pair didn’t have to drown their sorrows with ouzo on a Greek island, because their international results – including placing second at the World Cup in Lucerne – forced the selectors to rethink their Olympic worthiness. The pair received a last-minute call-up into the team and were soon, miraculously, marching in the Olympic opening ceremony in Seoul.

On the day of the 1988 Olympic women’s coxless pair heats, Lynley and Nikki lined up at the Han River Regatta Course as only the second-ever New Zealand women rowers to contest an Olympics (single sculler Stephanie Foster had placed a creditable seventh in Los Angeles in 1984).

The pair sat in their boat awaiting the start of the race, easily identified by their black singlets and distinctive blonde pixie cuts. Behind them, the 2000m course stretched far into the distance.

This was the first time that women had been allowed to race over 2000m at an Olympics. Until then, it had been decreed women could only race 1000m, half the distance men raced. Despite their nerves, Lynley and Nikki felt confident they were capable of winning a medal.

Reunited: Nikki Mills and Lynley Coventry get back in the boat on the Tamaki River to train for the 2017 World Masters. Photo: supplied. 

They crossed the finish-line of their heat in second place, behind their great rivals, the East Germans, and went on to qualify for the final in the repechage. On the morning of the final, they began their day breakfasting in the Games village.

“The funny thing was the East Germans were sitting just down from us eating eggs on toast,” Lynley remembers. “We knew it wasn’t good to have protein before a race because it takes too long to digest. So we thought ‘Yes! The East Germans will have eggs sitting in their tummies.’ Even if it was just a mental thing, it made us feel like we had an advantage.”

In the final, the Kiwi pair comfortably beat the East Germans, by 5s, and crossed the line third behind Romania and Bulgaria. Lynley and Nikki (the lightest rower at the Games) delighted and surprised Olympic viewers back home, who until now had largely never heard of them. The pair had made New Zealand rowing history, despite facing the dominant crews of the Eastern Bloc.

After retiring in the early 1990s, Nikki and Lynley chose very different life paths.

“I had four boys [now aged from 19 to 26],” Lynley says, “and Nikki did medical degrees and a doctorate. She’s amazing. It was always going to be that way.”

Nikki’s PhD, investigating how breastfeeding babies suck and swallow, was awarded the 2020 University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor’s prize for best doctoral thesis. She has gone on to publish several papers and is regularly invited to speak at international conferences, such is her standing amongst global medical experts.

Lesley Coventry and Nikki Mills’ medal haul from the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland. Photo: supplied. 

For many years, Nikki worked as a paediatric ear nose and throat (ENT) surgeon at Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, where she found surprising parallels with life as an elite athlete, something she wrote insightfully about in the medical news.

“My skills at applying myself in a very disciplined manner to rowing training equipped me well through medical school,” she wrote. “At that time in New Zealand, surgery was a male dominated specialty… When facing the ENT training selection committee, I was told … not to bother applying again. Regardless … I was tenacious in pursuing my dream, and on my third attempt … was finally accepted.”

While Nikki was becoming a world-leading doctor, Lynley was busy looking after her family and undertaking intrepid physical challenges: adventure racing, spring challenges, 24-hour races, biking, hiking, and running. “We’ve got hills here so that’s what I really enjoy doing,” she explains.

Despite their very different journeys, Nikki, who has a 21-year-old daughter, is also in awe of her former rowing partner.

“Lynley’s family is her priority,” Nikki says. “They are very tight. Lynley and Bill have an amazing relationship with their kids in a way that is quite exceptional in our day and age.”

Lynley looks at Nikki. “Aww thanks,” she says.

Nikki smiles back at her. “I mean it.”

Nikki Mills and Lesley Coventry prepare to check their beehives in Nelson. Photo: supplied. 

Nikki carries on, keen to share more about her treasured friend.  “Lynley is a spin instructor at a local gym,” she says. “I go three times a week to her spin classes. Lynley is an awesome instructor.”

The pair lived in different cities until last year when Nikki took a job as an ENT surgeon at Nelson Hospital. But they’d always stayed in touch and taken every opportunity to get their respective families together.

“We called it ‘Boot camp with Lynley’,” Nikki says. “We’d come and do seven-day adventures together, climbing mountains, rowing, biking, all from dawn to dusk. We loved it down here, so when the right job came up it felt like the right thing to do.”

The pair also reunited with former teammates and have rowed at various world masters and New Zealand masters events over the years, winning countless medals.

“We are always planning our next adventure,” Nikki says, having recently celebrated her 55th birthday with a week of cross-country skiing at Cardrona’s Snow Farm, along with Lynley and friends.

So what’s next on the bucket list for this multi-talented pair?

“We’ve started beekeeping together,” Nikki says, before the pair walked across Lynley’s property to decide where to place the hives. “Plus we’ve got a tramp organised in October.”

Olympic rowing medallists, pioneers, global medical leader, parents extraordinaire, adventure racers, beekeepers, inspirational humans … theirs’ is a remarkable list which is bound to keep on growing.

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