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Monday, March 19, 2018

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Taking on the world

Posted at 8:20am Thursday 20 Apr, 2017

It’s a sharp left off the northern end of the Wairoa River Bridge.

Follow Wairoa Road all the way to the boat house and you might just hear them ….out on the water, bitching and moaning. Sore bits, bits that don’t work properly, missing bits, bits that need replacing and bits that have been replaced.

He’s talking about body bits. “We get in the boat and complain about this and that, our piles, sore knees, whatever,” says the undertaker.

But the bitching and moaning is a privilege, a pleasure even, that comes with seniority and is all part of the mechanics and experience of masters rowing.

“You know what old guys are like,” says the undertaker. “My problem is worse than your problem. Now let’s row.”

Three short strokes, then they lengthen, then they stretch out. The Bay Coast Rowing Club masters rowers are four surges away upriver and onwards to the 2017 World Masters Games at Karapiro this month.

The undertaker is Bruce Wills. Grief is his business, but rowing is his love.

“I did athletics at school, throwing events. I also played rugby. But the exhilaration of making a boat go fast, feeling the bubbles under the hull and getting that boat run…”  He is almost purring.

This is a story of numbers – Bruce is coming up 73, Chris is 72, Tim 70 and Des just a boy at 68. Average age 70-75. And that qualifies this crew as category ‘H’ – between ages 70 to 74 at the World Masters Games in about 10 days.

They’ll also be mixing and matching, all sorts of combinations. “I’ve entered eight races in five days,” says Bruce. And a medal is preordained.

“We’re also doing an ‘I’ four – average age of 75 or more – with two Rotorua guys, one is 76 and the other 86. They don’t slow the boat down, they do their share.” There are only three crews in the race, so they could come last and still pick up a medal.

There are 12 Bay Coast masters going to Karapiro for the Worlds. Bruce’s story will be just one of a thousand there, and it’s probably not atypical.

Bruce relaunched his sporting career at 64 – the year they introduced masters at the Bay Coast club. “And I’m the fittest now than I have been for a long time.” Fit but creaky.

He had a ‘bit’ replaced, his knee, it was bone on bone because all of the cartilage had disappeared. “I can’t run, I can’t walk a long distance because my other knee is playing up. But I can row forever.”

He is sitting down in the boat, he is driving on the slide. “It agrees with my knees, I don’t get any pain when I am rowing.”

But this 72-year-old, who in regatta terms is actually 73, is trim, taut and toned. He belies his years. But like his knees, Bruce’s crewmates will be groaning and their eyes rolling when they read this. He will cop it.

The masters have been putting in some serious preparation for the masters. They spent last winter on the ‘erg’, the land-based rowing machine. But this summer past the crews have spent one-and-a-half hours a day, four days a week on the water – perfecting technique, building up boat speed and putting in the mileage to build up fitness.

A 500m sprint, three-minute rest, another 500m, another three minutes and so on. And practising those important starts, three short strokes, lengthening and then stretching it out. Twenty strokes, 10 sets, back-to-back.

When the hooter goes up, when the race starts, the fun and the banter stops and a competitive streak kicks in. “Even in over 70s you are still lined up against ex-Olympians – they are usually wiry, forever fit and have perfect technique. They are hard to beat,” says Bruce.

Before and after there is kidding across the water. “And a beer and a chat – that’s an essential part of masters rowing,” says Bruce. “It’s fun, it’s a lot of fun.”

If anyone would like have crack at masters rowing – the Bay Coast Rowing Club will be into winter training next month after the World Masters. “We see who arrives and put together a crew,” says Bruce. “We try not to nag them too much – just give them a couple of ideas to think about each time.”

For more information, see: There will be one 1000 world masters at the Karapiro regatta.


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Rotorua lake, Mokoia island and a manned canoe.  Photo: Thirza Fleeson.

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