In retaining their Olympic coxless pairs title at Rio 2016, New Zealand rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray extended their remarkable unbeaten run in international regattas to 69 races over eight seasons, cementing their status as one of the greatest double acts the sport has ever seen.
A blow in Beijing The Dunedin-born Bond and the Hastings-born Murray, who is the senior of the two by nearly four years, first came together in the coxless four crew that won the world title in Munich in 2007. That NZ quartet, which also featured James Dallinger and Carl Meyer, brought an abrupt end to Great Britain’s domination of the event by winning seven of the eight international races on the programme that year.
The New Zealand four went to Beijing 2008 as strong favourites for gold. Surprisingly, however, they missed out on a place in the final and eventually had to settle for first place in the B final, though Bond did have the consolation of becoming New Zealand’s 1,000th ever Olympian in China.
The start of a wonderful storyIn response to that major disappointment, Bond and Murray decided to change to a new boat. “It had been in the back of my mind since Beijing,” said the younger member of the pair, “We’d trained in pairs while we were preparing for the four and we had done some fast times. I knew that the combination had potential. Eric was taking time away from the sport and looking at his options and I approached him and he decided it would be worth a crack. Thankfully the selectors, in their infinite wisdom, agreed.”
The rest is history. The duo began their supremacy by winning the coxless pair world title in Poznan (POL) in 2009, a year that also saw them win the New Zealand Team of the Year award. They retained that world title on home water in Karapiro the following year, and again in 2011 in Bled (SLO), and won every World Cup event they contested in the lead-up to London 2012.
Breaking records in LondonBond and Murray laid down the best possible marker on their first outing at the London Games, setting a new world record of 6:08.50 on the water at Eton Dorney to win the first heat by nearly ten seconds from French pair Germain Chardin and Dorian Mortelette. Two days later the Kiwis cruised to victory in their semi-final, crossing the line with a comfortable margin over Italy’s Niccolo Mornati and Lorenzo Carboncini
The NZ duo lined up in Lane 6 in the final and made a fast start in their bid for gold, though they trailed their French rivals by three hundredths of a second at the 500m mark. From that point on, however, the red-hot favourites took control, hitting 38 strokes a minute to pull out a 1.5-second lead over Chardin and Mortelette after 1,000m.
Gliding across the water at an average speed of 19.1 km/h, the uncatchable Kiwis passed the 1,500m marker more than five seconds clear of Great Britain’s George Nash and William Satch, who were battling it out with the French for silver, a duel Chardin and Mortelette eventually won by a nose. Ahead of them, Bond and Murray crossed the line in 6:16.65 to seal gold in emphatic fashion.
“It was great when I first got back (to New Zealand) and one of the coolest things I got to do was the All Blacks (the national rugby team) hosting all of the Olympic medallists in Dunedin,” said Bond, recalling the days that followed their Olympic triumph. “They introduced us at half-time to a full crowd of 30,000. It was a surreal feeling to have 30,000 people applaud and give a standing ovation. I’d almost put it on a par with the medal ceremony in London.”
Staying on topNamed members of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013, Bond and Murray continued to sweep aside all before them in the coxless pair, cruising to a fourth world title in Chungju (KOR) that September, and then a fifth the following August in Amsterdam (NED), where they also won the non-Olympic coxed pair event with Caleb Shepherd. An inevitable sixth world crown then came their way in Aiguebelette (FRA) in September 2015.
“We don’t go out to defend anything,” said Murray, explaining their philosophy. “That’s the way we’ve always worked, which has been successful for us. You’ve got to go out there and win every single race you’re competing in. For the other crews, they’ve never beaten us, so they’ve probably got doubts: ‘Are we going to beat them? Probably not, because nobody ever has’. And that’s what’s really been driving us for the last four years: it’s been going out to try and win another gold medal at the Olympics.”
Ruthless in Rio After dominating the heats and the semi-final at Rio 2016, Bond and Murray made a typically low-key start to their title defence in the final, lying third at the 500m mark behind Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling of South Africa, and Giovanni Abagnale and Marco Di Costanzo of Italy. Gradually stepping up the pace, the NZ pair edged into the lead by the halfway point, 1.30 seconds ahead of the Italians.
It was then that the defending champions hit the accelerator, pulling away from the rest of the field to open up a five-second advantage with 500m to go, with Great Britain’s Alan Sinclair and Stewart Innes joining the Italians and the South Africans in the battle for silver and bronze.
Maintaining their stroke and composure all the way to the line, Bond and Murray claimed a second consecutive gold in the event in a time of 6:59.71, 2.8 seconds clear of the fast-finishing Brittain and Keeling, with Abagnale and Di Costanzo coming in third, 4.81 seconds behind the winners.
Their second Olympic win stretched the six-time world champions’ undefeated run to 69 international races spread over eight glorious seasons, a staggering sequence that has made them one of the greatest partnerships the sport of rowing has ever seen. Only too happy to live up to the huge expectations that weighed on them going into Rio 2016, Bond and Murray were elated to have extended their remarkable winning streak in such brilliant fashion.
“There’s a lot of relief in there. The conditions were pretty tough,” said Murray. “If we have a good race and we don’t win, we just accept it, but we don’t want to let the New Zealand rowing team down,” added Bond. “We always have to apply ourselves, but we did the hardest work in the four years leading up to this race. That’s what staying unbeaten is all about: All we can do is live up to expectations, not exceed them.”
What next?Bond and Murray decided to take a well-earned break in 2017, while leaving the door open to a return to the New Zealand team for Tokyo 2020. “We’ve done the lot in coxless,” said Murray in late 2016. “After London 2012 we won all the races that mattered, and we did it again in Rio. For Tokyo, we could go and do it all over again.
“We’re always up for a challenge. The only unfinished business for New Zealand rowing is the eight. We just have to ask ourselves if we feel we can help them to do it or if they’d be better off without us.”
Showing his ability to excel off the water as well as on it, Bond took third place in the national cycling time-trial championship in January 2017, an indication – if it were needed – of the remarkable athleticism that has helped Murray and him to reach the pinnacle of rowing and remain there.