Rowing: How Oamaru took on Australia and won

Three members of the Oamaru Rowing Club gold medal winning coxed four at the Perth British Empire...
Three members of the Oamaru Rowing Club gold medal winning coxed four at the Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1962.George Paterson, Bill Smedley and Win Stephens admire the difference between their wooden rowing shell and the modern "plastic fantastics" when they gathered for the club's 125th reunion in Oamaru at the weekend. Photo by David Bruce.
Fifty years ago, North Otago sports fans could not believe their luck. First, the rugby team beat the touring Wallabies (we revisited that great day on September 4.) Three months later, a rowing team consisting of four Oamaru men won gold at the Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. Exactly half a century later, Hayden Meikle helps the key figures reflect on the momentous achievement.

Stew Mitchell (Oamaru Rowing Club stalwart): "It was a great time for Oamaru. We were the bottom club in Otago in the mid-1950s, but by 1959 we were starting to look strong."

Keith Heselwood: "I think we all joined the club not too far apart, and went through the various grades."

Bill Smedley: "I started rowing when I was 18 or 19. Keith and I sort of rowed together in a pair for a while. We could beat the other two blokes. Then they put us together in a four in 1960, I suppose."

George Paterson: "Win and I raced in a pair together, and so did Bill and Keith. We raced each other. I think there was only a foot between us each time. That's when it was decided to make a four out of us."

Win Stephens: "George and I both went to South School, then to Waitaki Boys'. The other blokes had gone to North School before Waitaki, I think.

"Bill and Keith started in a four.

"George and I were in a novice four. We were one year behind all the way through. Then George and I won the novice pair at Waihola in 1959, and the junior pair in Picton in 1960.

"That's when we all got put in the four."

Smedley: "I was a panelbeater.

"George was a builder. Win worked for one of the stock agents. Keith was working in the forestry."

Heselwood: "We'd played a bit of rugby against each other.

"Basketball, occasionally. It used to be quite funny when we faced each other on the rugby paddock. It was about who could drop who first."

Stephens: "In 1961, we won the championship four in Wellington. I remember [coach] Rusty Robertson telling us to look across at all the other crews. He said we were better than all of them. Well, I looked over, and I could see five blokes who had represented New Zealand. That was really the start, when we thought we might have the ability."

Paterson: "I don't think there was a natural leader. It certainly wasn't me. I was the baby. I was 21, Win was 22, Keith would have been 22, and Bill was a bit older."

Stephens: "We cleaned up the whole South Island. We should have won the eights as well. But of course we had nowhere to train. We trained in the Oamaru Harbour. That's like rowing around a postage stamp."

Smedley: "Win was stroke, then Keith, then me, then George in the bow."

ORC centennial booklet: "A match race between Oamaru and Auckland was arranged to be rowed on Kerr's Reach at Christchurch. Oamaru won the race and the entire crew selected to represent NZ."

Stephens: "Kerr's Reach was an awful place. We raced the two fours out of the eight. We won by a fair distance."

Smedley: "The Aucklanders wanted to take a four out of an eight. So we challenged them, and beat them well."

Stephens: "Rusty Robertson was the most important member of our crew. He was the pinnacle of coaching in New Zealand.

"Him and [Arthur] Lydiard.

"They were just world-class.

"Rusty had the ability to make you so bloody wild you wanted to haul off and smack him one.

"And he was a big unit."

Mitchell: "He was a man's man.

"He knew how to handle men.

"They used to say he thought he was God, and he had to be God, because he'd failed the angel test."

Smedley: "He was just the boss.

"He could tune a crew up perfectly."

Heselwood: "Rusty could pick everyone's brain. He knew you couldn't treat everyone the same, because people were built differently."

ORC booklet: "With the aid of the then mayor, Mr W.R. Laney, the club rallied the townsfolk to raise the necessary funds and finally the Oamaru club four, and their coaching mentor, flew to Perth. So great was the support from the people of Oamaru that a new coxed four was purchased and named after the town."

Stephens: "It was pretty unique.

"Bill Laney was an absolute supporter of us. I think he was the patron of the rowing club.

"His catchphrase was, 'You bring home the bacon, and we'll have the eggs'."

Mitchell: "We were called into the mayor's office and asked what we could do for the guys.

"And Rusty, too, because there was only one New Zealand coach going. I suggested a raffle.

"But the mayor said, no, we'll sit out on the street and just ask for it. People will give it to us."

Stephens: "It was amazing. Kids were coming in with thruppence."

Mitchell: "The Oamaru Licensing Trust made their first grant to the team. The freezing works chipped in. And we sat on the street with a big barometer and raised about a thousand pounds. We had kids coming in and emptying out their money boxes. Little old ladies making donations."

Smedley: "Once we were picked, we started training at the Waihao Box. Often we went up at night after work."

Stephens: "It was 2000m with an S-bend at the finish. Robertson had this speedboat and would set the throttle to seven-mile-an-hour or whatever. We had to beat him. We'd leave him behind, but then he would slowly pull up beside us. He'd get out his megaphone and say, 'You think you're tired. You're not tired'. That would just pound into your brain. If we improved on our time, we were allowed a beer. So we'd troop into the Glenavy pub and order a few schooners."

Mitchell: "They looked at a local boy for coxswain. Young Barry Harbert. But Dougie Pulman was a little bit older and was part of a very strong Waikato crew."

Paterson: "Doug was only 16 but he was a huge influence on us.

"Hugely talented. Very confident. He was appointed and sent down to Oamaru a few months before we went to Perth."

Roy Burke (Waikato Times): "Tiny, just 166cm tall, he was tough as a boot and totally respected. He was a talented boxer and he could have gone to the top as a rugby halfback.

"Fast, quick-thinking, fearless, he tackled and brought down giants. In a later interest he was picked for the New Zealand sidecar racing team."

Stephens: "Doug was a magnificent coxswain. We were given the opportunity to pick him. There were a couple of others. I think one was a jockey.

"Doug had just left school but he was a super talented athlete.

"He died last year. Very sad.

"George and I were both pall-bearers."

The Games (Ron Palenski/Terry Maddaford): "Rowing was included in the Empire Games in Perth for the last time and New Zealand sent its biggest overseas contingent of 19."

Stephens: "It was very hot. Over 30degC in the opening ceremony, and we had blazers and ties on."

Smedley: "Full black blazers. Lovely."

Heselwood: "All the big boys, Snell and company, were running around. That was pretty awe-inspiring."

Paterson: "We had one heat.

"Then there were the Brits, Canada, us and Australia in the final."

Stephens: "The Australians had never been beaten. They were from the same school, Geelong College. And we were all Waitaki Boys'. Everyone thought they were going to win.

"But we were in absolute peak condition. I think we would have cleaned up most crews in the world."

Heselwood: "In training, we'd clipped a few seconds off the Games record. It was only off one stopwatch, but we knew we were going pretty good. The old Aussies used to give us a bit of stick. 'You're wasting your time going out there to be second' and all that. We sort of decided we didn't care if we won the gold, as long as we beat the Aussies."

Rowing manager Don Rowlands (ODT, 28.11.62): "The two crews are of much the same type. Our fellows look like Otago forwards, and the Australians are much the same. It was just a matter of who could hold on longest."

The Games: "[The New Zealanders] started like the eight with a rating of 45 but the Australian crew stuck tenaciously."

Paterson: "We started well but the Aussies took off from us.

"They really poured the pressure on."

Heselwood: "We were quite a heavy crew. And we had that side wind, which used to upset us a wee bit. We couldn't get into our work as we would have liked. But we were always confident because we'd been going so well."

Mitchell: "TV had not long come in. We went up to old Weir Pasco's place up on Eden St to watch the race."

The Games: "In the last quarter, the Australians made the first break of the race and seemed to be heading for gold. At 250 metres, New Zealand responded, although some thought it was too late."

Smedley: "We just sort of put in a burst. We'd trained for it. We knew how many strokes we had left in us."

Stephens: "I didn't realise exactly where we were. We'd always rowed in front of the field in our races. We were probably three lengths down with 500m to go. They were flattening us. With 250m to go, Pulman was just screaming at us. Slowly but surely, we pulled them in. I've seen a photo of our boat at the finish. We're going so fast that George, in the bow, is just about out of the water."

The Games: "In 10 strokes the New Zealanders hauled back Australia and crossed the line 76cm in front."

Paterson: "We were little country bumpkins. But we had self-belief. We wanted to do the best we could. I was just absolutely over the moon."

ORC booklet: "A nearby Aussie supporter said, 'What's this Oamaru business; it's New Zealand isn't it?' and Tony replied, 'New Zealand be buggered, that's Oamaru'. That summed up the feelings of everyone back home. It was a very close race with Oamaru winning by just inches from Australia."

ODT (28.11.62, describing the scene in Oamaru): "Drivers of cars and lorries pressed their horns. Telephones rang everywhere. People slapped each other on the back. One man even hoisted a flag. The fire signal came 40 minutes before a vague radio announcement."

Mitchell: "I think it was a bloke called Doug Wallace. He picked up the news on the radio. Word went out, and the sirens went off."

Stephens: "We finished competing quite quickly. So we had plenty of time to kill in Perth. By the time we got home, we were just washed-out rags.

"We'd been celebrating quite a lot. One night we got down to Fremantle and hooked up with this floating hotel. That was pretty exciting stuff."

Oamaru Mayor Bill Laney (ODT, 28.11.62): "We are just waiting to welcome them home. It will be some reception."

Stephens: "We flew back on the old South Pacific airline. They had big windows in the old DC3. The captain said he'd fly us over the town so they knew we were home. We landed at the airport, got into town and it was just crazy. Thousands of people."

ORC booklet: "A volcano which had been simmering in Oamaru since last Tuesday finally broke out yesterday. The crew was mobbed by parents, friends, cameras and autograph hunters. From North Oamaru on, the number of people lining the road built up gradually along the route, reaching a peak outside the Salvation Army Hall. The crew, resplendent in New Zealand blazers and gold medals, accompanied by their coach and followed by the North Otago Highland Pipe Band, paraded through the business area to the cheers and applause of thousands of people."

Mitchell: "The boys didn't really realise what they'd achieved until they got up on the stage at the Opera House and saw all those people that had supported them."

Paterson: "The whole Opera House was packed out. It was a pretty heady sort of a moment."

Waitaki MP Allan Dick (in ORC booklet): "Our conquering heroes return. What an occasion this is for the town of Oamaru."

Stephens: "I think we had over 20 wins as a crew. The only time we got beaten was in 1963.

"Things just didn't really click.

"Our hearts weren't in it."

Smedley: "We rowed in 1963 but got beaten. We'd had enough, I think."

Paterson: "The others were getting married and things. I was lucky enough to go to the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Then I was getting a bit old."

Stephens: "I started rowing at 17, and I was retired at 22. In those days, your job came first, and I had a transfer from Oamaru to Whangarei."

Heselwood: "I coached for a few years. But I started to spend more time pig hunting than rowing."

Stephens: "The gold medal? I wouldn't know where it is. In a box somewhere."

Heselwood: "For years, my mother and sister sort of held on to it. I guess it's floating around here somewhere."

Mitchell: "The club had its 125th last year. We put the original boat up above our gym. We haven't quite got around to getting a plaque for it yet. We'll never see that sort of achievement again. The new structure of rowing has ripped the guts out of the clubs, which is a bit sad."

Post script: Bill Smedley and Keith Heselwood live in Oamaru. George Paterson is in Christchurch. Win Stephens has just moved from Kaikohe to Paihia. Doug Pulman died of cancer on December 7, 2011, aged 65. Rowing has only been held at the Commonwealth Games once since Perth, in 1986. New Zealand crews have not been selected on club lines since 1964.


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