After hitting a patch of rough water, Christchurch girls’ school Rangi Ruru have earned the crown of the country’s top rowing school at the Maadi Cup for the second year running, with a little help from one of the world’s best coaches.
For 17 days, the rowing team of Rangi Ruru Girls’ School lived in their own tight bubble in the town of Twizel.
Twice a day, their bubble moved between the Mackenzie Country Hotel and Lake Ruataniwha with military precision.
With Omicron raging back home in Christchurch, the Rangi Ruru squad, who’d been crowned the best rowing school in the country in 2021, decided to head to the scene of the Aon Maadi Cup well ahead of the regatta.
For almost three weeks, no one new was introduced into the bubble, and no one left it. The girls did their schoolwork online during the day, and trained on the lake each morning and afternoon.
“Everything was the same as if we were in Christchurch,” says Holly Lill, the student Head of Rowing at Rangi Ruru.
It’s how the team stayed Covid-free leading into the Maadi, the rowing team’s manager, Olivia Ling explains. “It reduced household contact and contact with other students. Obviously before we went away, we couldn’t control it, and it caught up with us a little bit,” says the woman the rowing girls call their ‘second mum’.
“But I think that stint in Twizel was how we stayed in pretty good nick for Maadi.”
Pretty good nick would be an understatement.
The young women of Rangi Ruru dominated the annual school regatta – the country’s largest school sports event – for a second straight year.
They returned home to Christchurch on Sunday with five of the major trophies, and five gold, one silver and a bronze medal as well. Among the glittering haul was the coveted Star Trophy, for the best performing school at the regatta.
But even more significant to Rangi Ruru, in a competition season pummelled by Covid, the school brought home both the Levin Jubilee Cup for the champion U18 eight (defending their title in the pinnacle race for girls) and the Dawn Cup for the winning U18 coxed four.
Although Rangi Ruru’s name will be engraved on the Dawn Cup for a 15th time, it’s the first time the school has won it since 2010.
In both the eights and fours finals, Rangi Ruru were pushed hard by their old rivals and Christchurch neighbours, St Margaret’s College.
Rangi Ruru won the eights by just two seconds from a fast-finishing St Margaret’s (with a second Rangi Ruru crew finishing third). And in the fours, the distance between the two schools was only 0.78s.
Lill was in both winning boats.
“One of my best mates from St Margaret’s was in the other [four] boat, and I could see her in my peripheral vision,” she says. “It’s cool because at the finish line, you give them the thumbs up and say ‘Good work’ to them. It’s all about that camaraderie.”
While camaraderie plays its part in school rowing, competitive rivalry is just as vital. Just ask Gary Hay, who coached two women’s crews to medals at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, and returned to coach Rangi Ruru this season.
“St Margaret’s had a great regatta; they pushed us all the way, which is great. I always think those close races are the ones you remember the most,” says Hay. “They clearly have a very good programme there, and that’s good for us – it’s what competition is all about.”
Hay, who was named world rowing coach of the year in 2019, took on the role of head coach at the private girls’ school straight after he helped the pair of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler to gold in the coxless pair and the New Zealand women’s eight to silver in Tokyo.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it – especially being back home in Christchurch, but also being involved in the Rangi Ruru programme again,” says Hay, who helped the school to great heights between 2004 and 2009, before heading into high performance coaching.
“We’re very lucky there’s such a great depth at this school, the numbers are fantastic. We had 90 girls at the beginning of the season and we had to make some difficult decisions early on and ended up capping it at 60.
“There are some special ones there who would be good at any sport they choose – thankfully they chose rowing.”
Hay reckons that boom in numbers directly relates to the success of the New Zealand women’s rowing team over the last few years. “I don’t think it’s a fluke the numbers being attracted to rowing across the country are growing,” he says.
The magnitude of having Hay lead the six-strong coaching team at Rangi Ruru isn’t lost on the young rowers.
“Gary has such a lot of knowledge and it’s awesome to learn from his experiences,” says Lill. “He’ll often tell us stories about his time coaching the Olympic women and it’s really cool to think we receive similar coaching to what they do.”
While Hay has yet to decide whether he’ll return next season, it’s clear many of the girls from those two Rangi Ruru U18 eight crews will be back. Of the 18 girls who stood on the podium together last weekend, 11 could be on the water in the distinctive blue and gold again next summer.
From the victorious U18 eight boat – Georgie Bethell (stroke), Nicole Vance, Alice Wallis, Phoebe Wallis, Lill, Caitlin Muir, Francesca Richards, Abigail Reid and coxswain Annabel Wynn-Williams – seven girls are returning next year. That includes Year 12 student Wynn-Williams, who won the Simon Briggs Cup for top coxswain of the regatta, featuring in three gold medal-winning crews.
“Our retention rates are really high – last season we only lost two rowers,” says Ling, who’s in her fourth year at the school. “Hopefully that speaks volumes to what we’re doing, that girls are wanting to come back.”
But that’s changed from a decade ago, when the school’s rowing programme slipped inot “in a pretty dark place”, Ling says. After their U18 eights were unbeaten through the 1990s, and surged again in the late 2000s, the school suddenly dropped to very small squads. Having won the Star Trophy in 2006 and 2010, they virtually fell off the Maadi medal table.
“Over the last nine years it’s been a real rebuild, and that had to start with the culture,” says Ling, who’s now the NZ U21 manager. “Hopefully now we’re doing something right, and the girls are having fun.”
That was no more obvious than when two Rangi Ruru crews stood side-by-side on the podium for this year’s Levin Jubilee Cup.
“The photos taken after that race speak volumes to the culture we have here at Rangi, where everyone is there to support each other,” Ling says. Those images (like the one below) show the two Rangi Ruru crews climbing out of their boats and running across the pontoon to hug each other.
“I’ve had a few messages from people saying: ‘I can’t believe how much your No.1s support your No.2s and vice versa’. But that’s what we’re all about – we all want to do well.”This was Lill’s final Maadi Cup, and it was bittersweet. “Rowing has definitely been the highlight of my high school years, so it’s going to be sad to leave,” the Year 13 student says.
She’s been rowing since she started at Rangi Ruru in Year 9. “My brother rowed and I spent a lot of time on the banks watching. I’d always see the blue and yellow boat rowing down the course and they’d be dominating most of the time, and I definitely wanted to be part of that,” Lill says.
She’d like to continue rowing once she’s left school, and there could be a pathway for her. She’s one of five Rangi Ruru students selected to trial later this month for the New Zealand U19 squad to compete at the world junior championships in Varese, Italy, in July. Lill will be trialling for all the sweeping boats, but the eight is her favourite.
“I love the atmosphere of rowing and racing. I like the training and being around people,” she says. “I really want to carry on.”
Hay wants to see more young women stay in the sport after school, but he doesn’t know the best solution to keep them involved.
“The drop-off rate from school through to clubs and the pathway system is huge,” he says.
“I’m not sure what the answer is, but maybe it’s trying to create a good environment so they enjoy the sport. Holly is keen to continue and I hope others are, too. It’s just making sure they know where they can go.
“I don’t think you can ever recreate a school rowing programme at a club. The girls go off to universities and go their separate ways. We can only do what we can do at school and it’s up to the girls to make decisions to what they do after that.
“Hopefully they have fond memories of what they’ve achieved and the camaraderie they’ve had with their team-mates and their peers that they will want to carry on.”
* Rangi Ruru’s medals from the 2022 Aon Maadi Cup: U18 eight – gold and bronze; U18 four – gold; U17 eight – gold; U17 four – gold; U16 eight – gold; U16 four – silver. (There were no U15 or novice crews at this year’s regatta because of Covid restrictions).