May 20, 2015
Natural Born Winners: Hamish Bond & Eric Murray
The World Rowing Male Crew of the Year for the second year running, New Zealand’s Hamish Bond and Eric Murray seem all but unbeatable.
Go on, disagree with that.
Well, of course you could. There are too many ways to measure “best” in rowing — by technique, by strength, by sheer speed in a multiplicity of different boat classes. Longevity, adaptability, coachability…. Oh, and pure results.
No other active senior international can match the winning streak that Bond and Murray — “the Kiwi Pair” to most of the rowing world — currently possess. They claim to have lost count of how many consecutive unbeaten races they’ve had in the pair, but it’s at least 55 in FISA events, 11 at Henley Royal Regatta and a minimum of six victories together in domestic New Zealand competition. They’ve now won 19 FISA M2- titles on the trot (world cup, world champs or Olympics), which far outdoes Redgrave and Pinsent’s tally between 1991 and 1996, hold world best times in two boat classes – coxed and coxless pairs – and have the latter also at world cup and Olympic level.
It can come as something of a surprise to remember that they’ve only won one Olympic medal each: the London 2012 gold. Would you bet on them failing to win another in two years time in Rio?
In the absence of any other definite pairs rivals, Murray and Bond’s biggest threats are probably their own minds. “After winning races now we’re just living up to our own expectations,” says Murray. “When we first won some races back when we were in the four and then the pair it was ‘Awesome, we’ve done something we’ve never done before’,” says Bond. “It was the same with the  Olympics – there was a huge sense of elation winning that gold. Now we meet our expectations and it’s just ‘Cool. Pat on the back. Next thing!’ That’s the position we’ve put ourselves in – a lot of our philosophy at the moment is about how to challenge ourselves and do different things in training and racing. Just motivating ourselves to get better, because that’s about the only thing we can do from here.”
“I can flat out say I have not lifted a weight for four years, and I haven’t lifted heavy weights since 2008.”
Hmm. Challenges. They inadvertently engineered a good one after the 2012 Games, returning to training so late that it was a rush to be ready in time for the 2013 world championships in Chungju. “We thought it would be hard starting over again with a four-year cycle,” says Bond. “But it wasn’t too bad with three to four months off, very little rowing. I did a bit of training, Eric had his charity boxing gig [he lost to a rugby league man-mountain], and we were even later back starting than we’d planned. There wasn’t even time to think about were we enjoying it: it was more, ‘Sh*t we’re stuck in behind the eight-ball here — we’d better get cracking otherwise we’re going to embarrass ourselves!’”
They shouldn’t have worried. The gold in South Korea was their fifth consecutive season title, and then they came up with the coxed pairs challenge, stretching themselves to win that with under-23 steersman Caleb Shepherd in between the semi and final of the 2014 worlds pairs event in Amsterdam. It was a hugely satisfying race, Murray and Bond slicing a whopping 8.9 seconds off the 20-year-old best time to bring the event back to a serious standard and encouraging several strong entries in response. So what are they planning for 2015 as a new challenge? “To integrate some weights,” replies Bond.
Hang on, is that for real? (Both Murray and Bond are not above trying to pull interviewers’ legs).
No, he’s not kidding. For those reading this around the world, yes it is true, the @kiwipair have trained 95% of the time on the water for years on end. “I can flat out say I have not lifted a weight for four years, and I haven’t lifted heavy weights since 2008, although you couldn’t tell from looking at my biceps,” says Bond. “It’s not a New Zealand thing, just what we’ve done.”
That leads us on to the subject of hurt, and whether they are better at conquering pain than most. “More like being stupid,” jokes Murray.
This was mostly due to Dick Tonks, the high-profile coach who guided most of the recent Kiwi rowing success stories, before stepping down from the lead coach role last year. Tonks’s “miles make champions” philosophy was quite literal, with very few weights or even erg sessions to break the monotony. “The only time we’d erg was if Karapiro was unrowable,” says Bond. “If we rowed a couple of ks and sank, we’d come back and go on the ergs. It’s an asset to be able to work on a rowing machine and not hurt your life!”
“It was bloody hard doing it with Tonks, just rowing every session,” says Murray. “We thought, if we’re going to do this again, we’ve got to make it more enjoyable.” Cue a more collaborative 2013 approach with their new coach, former Australian ‘Oarsome Foursome’ guru Noel Donaldson. “Noel still has power of veto and the final word, but we do have a dialogue,” says Bond, “because the coach only has the outside perspective and sometimes the inside perspective is valuable. At younger levels the coach does know best and the athletes should just shut up and do what they’re told. But we have done enough that it would be ignorant of a coach not to feel as if we had some value to offer.”
“Mahe’s name is unique and so people recognize it, but I’ve got the facial hair,” says Murray. “The dude with the mean mo, that’s who I am.”
So, on to 2015. “As part of moving forward, we’re investigating incorporating weight training back into the programme. Not for variety, but we’ve got to try and find ways to go faster,” explains Bond. “Maybe what we’ve been doing has worked for us in the past, but perhaps the rest of the world is on to something,” he muses, as if discovering an amazing new idea. Time for “the rest” to get worried.
What drives the duo furiously forward is their own determination to push the limits – leading to the mile-wide margins we are so used to seeing them win by. “It stems from a strong mentality of not just trying to get a length but trying to get more and more and push out on people,” explains Murray. “If we’re sick, or wake up with a cold, if there’s something wrong with us we still want to be in a good enough position to win.” An essential tactic in a small team, which MaheDrysdale proved when he won the singles bronze in Beijing despite being horrendously dehydrated due to a violent stomach bug.
Pairs out there be warned: Hamish and Eric are not just trying to beat you. They’re training to be able to slaughter you even when they’re so sick they should be in bed. That leads us on to the subject of hurt, and whether they are better at conquering pain than most. “More like being stupid,” comments Murray with a snigger. “It’s the ability to be able to go there but then do it again and again,” says Bond. “It’s the people who can make that manageable who go well. We’re still doing stuff now we absolutely hate, and you wonder why you’re hurting yourself, but if you can manage the extent of that emotion, you’re able to do it again and again and it lifts your level across the board.”
“We aren’t necessarily tied to each other — there’s no reason why if one of us has to go both of us have to go,” says Bond.
“Training is basically a constant battle between your body and your mind, isn’t it?” says Murray. “Your body saying ‘let’s stop’ and your mind saying ‘let’s keep going.’ Sometimes you just get your back up and suck it up and feel good suffering, but each person’s pain barrier is unique. The more you can do it in training and the better you get at handling it, the more likely you are to repeat it in racing.”
So is it easier to cope with pain in a race? “Marginally, but I don’t think you will tolerate it if you haven’t done it in training,” says Bond. “You may think you’ve raced really hard but you only race to the level you’ve already done before. It’s not as if you can train like a pussy all year and then hope you’ll go harder on race day. Maybe that happens for some people but not for either of us.”
Given that they train on a natural lake which has a hydro dam at one end, with consequent unpredictable currents and flows, it’s not surprising that Murray and Bond aren’t too obsessed by numbers and stats. They admit to having gone under world record pace over 1000 metres, but not yet over 2km.
“Records are nice to achieve and a good benchmark, but it’s really your places against other crews which count,” says Bond. “You can say we broke six minutes in the pair but for all you know another crew did better, and it doesn’t mean anything if there’s nobody else in the race.” They have spent some of their limited erg training time shooting for a few records: Murray had a go at the Concept2 hour record in 2011, and set a new distance of 18,728m, though it is not acknowledged as a world best since he preferred to do it on a Dynamic.
“When you’re told you’ve got to do an hour’s end of season test as hard as you can, you’ve got to make some sort of challenge towards it,” he says. “If you’ve something to aim for, you’ll do it quite well, instead of just going through the motions. Last year I did the half-marathon just for sh*ts and giggles, and Hamish did the hour.” Both of those achievements are officially records.
Another way to keep themselves interested is their regular singles regime during the early New Zealand summer, culminating in a national championships race-off against Olympic and 2013 world champion MaheDrysdale. Last year Murray led the final for 1200 metres, before Bond powered through to win. “Eric thought he was the fastest sculler until last summer,” points out Bond. “We’ll give it another crack this year. We can’t just row the pair all year round — we’d go crazy.” A bonus, of course, was beating the world singles expert, which Bond hoped might bag him an invitation to the scullers’ Great Eight for the Head of the Charles. “I thought having been the only person not to be beaten by Mahe last year I’d qualify,” he says. “But I was more or less told I wasn’t wanted. So I decided to make my own crew.” While Murray enjoyed quiet time at home with wife Jackie and three-year-old son Zachary, Bond’s sweep super-crew beat several national eights, though they lost to the scullers by three seconds.
Murray is already plotting revenge in the single, while Bond has been spending time with the keen group who just won their second consecutive under-23 M8+ title, and who may for the first time in years create a sweep team around the golden pair. “We’ve been stuck in a no man’s land, Hamish and I and a big gap to anyone else – nobody to row with,” says Murray. “Now we’ve got about 12 former under-23 guys to bring along.”
“It’s not as if you can train like a pussy all year and then hope you’ll go harder on race day.”
Sporting celebrities to some extent, they are recognized in the street more often if together than if apart, and get asked for selfies a few hundred times a year, though mostly at events. “Mahe’s name is unique and so people recognize it, but I’ve got the facial hair,” says Murray, the man with the Viking-like moustache. “The dude with the mean mo, that’s who I am. If Hamish and I are together, people are more likely to get it.” “Not much round here though,” says Bond. “You’ve got all the rowers in Cambridge and now we’ve got the high-performance cyclists as well as a number of retired Olympians. People are quite chilled. We walk around and no-one bats an eyelid.”
As well as Murray being the only father in the Kiwi team, he is also a closet romantic, having recently qualified as a marriage celebrant who can officiate at weddings. “I’ve done two, one someone I didn’t know – they got my name off a list at the department of internal affairs – and the other an equestrian rider I knew from the Olympics,” he says. “I’ll probably look at getting into it a bit more. I haven’t asked Hamish if he wants me to do his but it’s probably a given.” (That elicits a snort from the other end of the Skype line, and a Bondian quip that “I’d like there to be a few elements in my life which didn’t involve Eric….”)
I can’t resist asking – what next after Rio? “There is a finish point, but we don’t want to look at that moment. We just want to make sure we’re getting there in the best shape possible,” says Murray. “Obviously we might make a decision about what happens after that, but you don’t just spurt it out beforehand. If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘This might be my last race, I’m gonna retire’, you aren’t thinking about the right things. When people do that, are they focusing on finishing rowing or on trying to win a race? I could probably keep going for another Olympic cycle quite comfortably, but at the moment I’m just focusing on that Rio gold and everything that’s coming in between.”
“We aren’t necessarily tied to each other — there’s no reason why if one of us has to go both of us have to go,” says Bond. “But I don’t see myself being an also-ran. If you do lose for a reason you take that on the chin, but if the fact is you’re just not good enough to cut the mustard at the top level any more, well I don’t think I’d be hanging around. I might change my tune, but that’s my way of thinking at the moment.” Luckily for New Zealand, it’s not currently an issue.
This article appeared in Row360 Issue 03 // First published January 2015 // Photography: © Hamish Burson