More than meets the eye

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If there’s anyone who knows the realities of rowing, it’s former New Zealand rower Alison Storey. Her father Dudley Storey won an Olympic medal in the sport and her mother was one of the first women to compete for New Zealand in rowing. This month Alison shares the story behind the most iconic of rowing events, Maadi Cup.

As far as secondary school sports events go, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Maadi Cup.  

The annual pilgrimage to either Karapiro in Waikato or Ruataniwha in South Otago is normally the highlight of a school rower’s year.  

It’s often said that winning at Maadi Cup is actually harder than winning at the club-based National Rowing champs, due to sheer size and so the number of competitors you have to knock out of contention on your way to making a Maadi final.

It’s hard to know whether the racing or the social and travel opportunities are the biggest drawcard.

However one thing is for sure, the amount of work that has to go in to meet most school’s standards for even earning the right to race at Maadi is considerable and so the rewards become proportional to the effort.

The Maadi Cup originates from a race between a Kiwi army crew that included former New Zealand champions, and a local Egyptian rowing crew (prompting one to wonder why Egypt didn’t continue as a competitive rowing nation) during the Second World War down the Nile of all places.  

What most people probably don’t know is that it was originally in 1941 that an eight from Maadi army camp first raced on the Nile (Regats du Caire) and they were presented with medals.

It was at a regatta held on 20 November 1943 that the Maadi Camp Rowing Club “Kiwi” oarsmen beat the Cairo River Club by 11 points to six to win the Freyberg Cup. In humble Kiwi style, they gifted it to their competitors.

In return, as a token of friendship, a guy named Youssef Baghat presented the Kiwis with a cup.

The cup was brought home at the end of the war and for as long as anyone can remember, has been the holy grail of secondary school rowing for boys.

So much so, that a rule had to be introduced late last decade to limit the number of ‘new’ students a school could field in its crews; limiting poaching of athletes and athletes jumping ship to row at a different school with a perceived better crack at the cup.

Thankfully gone are the days of a boat full of ‘second year 7th formers’ who stayed at school supposedly to repeat the 7th form (Year 13), but then coincidentally dropped out the day they returned from the Maadi Cup.  Full facial hair was a bit of a giveaway.

Of course, girls rowing was a fair few steps behind as far as organised racing for trophies was concerned and so it wasn’t until 1981 that the Levin Cup has been awarded to the winner of the girls’ under 18 eight.

In 1981 the Maadi regatta was held on Lake Horowhenua and that year the Levin Borough Council was holding its 75th Jubilee.

The obviously non-sexist mayor, Jack Bolderson, decided that a fitting memorial would be a cup for the girls’ senior eight. The inaugural winner was Wanganui Girls College.

There are plenty of examples of Olympic, World and National champion rowers who only started after school, and some would argue that the intensity of school rowing can actually burn some kids out, limiting their athletic career.

There is no argument that rowing training, as an endurance sport and one with a particularly successful history to live up to in this country, is not for sissies.

Most schools train six days a week, sometimes twice a day, which is arguably an elite style training programme.

Miles make champions is the core of Kiwi rowing training and that starts at school.

What this intensity of the sport does do however, is teach athletes to be tolerant, to be disciplined, to not let the team down, to work together towards a common goal, to deal with defeat, to work through challenges with a team of people, and perhaps most importantly, that hard work and perseverance pays off.

Certainly lessons that can be transferred to other facets of life and why there seems an unspoken respect for anyone who has had the guts to stick it out at rowing for more than a couple of years.

Whether rowing starts at school, university or club level, the nature of the sport seems to breed certain values, skills and experiences that are immeasurable to anything else in a rower’s life, and ones that most parents would arguably want their kids to embrace.

Which is why at the end of March you will witness plenty of former rowers taking the opportunity to sit on the banks at Karapiro and let the action bring back happy memories and rekindle old friendships – one’s born out of a shared experience (read; shared suffering) like no other.

And if you haven’t yet witnessed a Maadi Cup boys’ eight final in full flight, you really should wander down to Karapiro and have a look. Full noise school hakas, waving flags, shouting cheers and beating drums that can rival any crowd at the Sevens.

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