Emma Twigg’s remarkable sporting story has been captured in a kids’ book, written with her old university friend, Jessica Lawry. And its message of resilience can be shared with anyone, Merryn Anderson writes.
It’s hard to summarise almost 20 years of world-beating highs and agonising lows.
So, who better to help tell the story than a friend of over 15 years?
When Emma Twigg reached a childhood goal of an Olympic gold medal in the single sculls in Tokyo in 2021, university friend Jessica Lawry leapt on the chance to follow her own dream.
Lawry, a teacher, illustrator and mother of three, had long dreamed of creating a children’s book and had an epiphany not long after the Tokyo Olympics.
“I had the inspiration at 3.30am one night, up with my baby,” Lawry says, her youngest just three months old at the time.
She’d watched Twigg finally triumph after four attempts at an Olympic medal to win gold, and had the “lightbulb moment”.
“It still gives me goosebumps when I think about Emma’s journey,” says Lawry, who had followed Twigg’s rowing career since she was still in junior races.
“There’s a lot of athletes who get to the top of their game and they sustain that and kick butt which is great. But Emma had to pick herself up off the ground several times.”
Twice, Twigg finished fourth on the Olympic stage – first in 2012, then again in 2016 (an agonising 0.35 seconds off a medal). It saw her step away from the sport, before her successful comeback for Tokyo.
Emma Twigg (second from back) competing in the NZ quadruple sculls crew at the world coastal rowing champs.
And at 35, she’s still competing at the highest level. Last month, she won silver in the single scull at the world rowing championships in the Czech Republic, and last weekend, Twigg won silver in the quadruple sculls at the world rowing coastal championships off the Welsh Coast – a new experience for her.
The ocean rowing discipline has just been added to the list of sports for the 2026 Commonwealth Games in Victoria – giving Twigg and fellow flat water rowers a chance to compete at a Commonwealth event.
Twigg was initially shocked when Lawry approached her with the idea of Emma. “But then she started sending through some of her concepts and I was blown away,” Twigg says. “I couldn’t think of anyone better to be writing my story and illustrating it as well.”
Lawry appreciates Twigg took a chance on her, when she hadn’t written a formal picture book before.
Twigg and Lawry both started studying the Bachelor of Communication Studies degree at the University of Waikato in 2005, and kept in touch over the years. Now they’re both mums – Twigg and wife Charlotte welcomed baby Tommy into the world in April.
Lawry uses her creativity in her job as a teacher, but found herself struggling to find time to pursue art with work and family life.
Trying to perfect drawings with pencil and paper was time consuming, so investing in an iPad was a gamechanger for Lawry, able to erase errors with the click of a button.
“I’ve had a go at writing a few kids books but I wanted to start with a real bang,” Lawry says.
Twigg wanted to make sure every detail, including the technical aspects from the boats to the oars, were perfect, so the illustrations were passed back and forth several times.
They joke there will never be a role reversal – Lawry with an emphatic ‘no’ to getting in the boat. “My drawing is probably about the level of a six-year-old,” Twigg laughs. “Put a pen in [son] Tom’s hand, he might even do a better job.”
Twigg hopes the book will be used in schools, to inspire the younger generation. “One of the reasons why I came back to rowing after that time off was probably less about the medal and more about the impact it could have,” she says.
Lawry summarises Twigg’s story, and the book’s message in two words – resilience and perseverance.
“I just think any way you can show and model adults persevering or being awesomely resilient, the better,” she says, lessons she likes to pass on to her kids and students.
Twigg is reluctant to call herself a sporting hero, but knows just how much Kiwi kids look up to their sporting idols.
“It always blows me away when I go into schools and the kids just hang off every word,” she says.
“I think it’s a really powerful thing as an athlete to be giving a certain impression to these very young and moldable people, and sport is an awesome vehicle for that.”
Twigg and Lawry with their book
And it’s not just kids who can be inspired by the book. “It’s the concept of having a dream, and when I was young, that’s what I dreamed of doing,” Twigg explains.
“I always believed I could one day become an Olympic champion, and although it took me 20 years, I finally got there.
“Whether it be sports or arts or business or whatever it is, if they set their sights to it, with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”
Lawry was drawing between 25 to 30 hours a week to make the book; about the same time, Twigg says, she spends rowing each week.
She wasn’t sure how she’d find the time with work and motherhood, but was encouraged by other mums and supported by her husband.
“I think women try to be superwoman, but if you set your mind to it, you can make it happen,” Lawry says.
“Once I had Emma say let’s do it, I actually had to do it too. I couldn’t let her down and go back on that, I wanted to make it happen.”
*Emma: Emma Twigg’s Incredible Journey to Olympic Gold, written and illustrated by Jessica Lawry is available in bookstores now.