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Saturday 11 April 2015

Robbie Manson - Pt1: The path to success

Posted in: Hall of Fame
By Jay Bennie - 30th December 2014

Robbie Manson grew up on the rural outskirts of Blenheim, “definitely not a city kid... it was a small town and a pretty quiet kind of a place.”

His grandparents had a vineyard which his mum managed, while his dad was a welder. He has two brothers, one older and one younger.


An arty kid who also enjoyed sport, he didn't take to mainstream codes such as cricket and rugby. “I wasn’t one of the most sporty kids at school,” he says. “I liked sport and I wanted to be good at sport, but there wasn’t anything I was really great at until I started rowing."

He explains, “I’ve always been interested in sports, but like most rowers I’m not that coordinated and tend to be better at something that’s not a ball sport. A lot of people end up rowing because they’re not great at rugby or other more mainstream sports.”

Initially he was heavily involved in equestrian sport and also dabbled in hockey, rugby and volleyball before he moved to rowing. His parents have both been successful rowers and he hopes he might row in the double sculls with his younger brother, Karl, at the next Olympics.

Asked whether he considers himself a natural sportsman, Manson says he took to rowing quite well. “Mum and dad always rowed so I understood it a little bit. I’ve always been quite fit and active, but struggled with most ball sports and coordination. But whenever the Olympics was on TV when I was younger I’d just want to take two weeks off school and sit there and watch it, 24 hours a day. The Olympics has always been something that, when I was younger, I was almost obsessed with. I never really thought I’d actually get there. I didn’t consider myself to be terribly good at sports, or talented at anything in particular. Obviously with equestrian you’ve got to have a pretty good set up behind you – it’s really expensive and mum and dad weren’t horsey at all so it made the horsey thing a bit harder.

“But once I started rowing I thought ‘I’m actually quite good at this’ and I enjoyed having a little bit of success. But at that stage, I never in a million years thought I would be good enough at rowing to make it to the Olympics. I’ve never been a terribly strong person – even now I’m not one of the strongest people in the team – I seem to be good in a 2km rowing race, but I’m not the strongest.”

He was sixteen when he started rowing, following his younger brother into the sport, with his mum coaching.

“I loved it straight away,” he says of his first times out on the Wairau River just north of Blenheim. “I said I would do it for just one summer, and I kept my horse - but the horse got a little bit neglected and I was really enjoying the rowing, so I stuck with that.”

After rowing for Marlborough Boys’ College for a year he went to St Andrew’s College in Christchurch for his final year of school and represented it in the Maadi Cup, where he nabbed a bronze after just two years in the sport. His competitive spirit left him disappointed in the bronze, despite most other rowers starting when they are twelve or thirteen, not sixteen.

“I wanted to do a lot better. And I didn’t see rowing as a future because I didn’t make the junior team or even get a trial.”

After school he had intended joining a rowing club but decided to push himself and trial for one of Rowing New Zealand’s four Regional Performance Centre squads. He did well and made it in, then went on to make the New Zealand Under-21 team the following year, 2008.

Manson's list of achievements steadily grew, his progress was spectacular. In 2009 He won his first national title in the under-21 double sculls – backed up by a win in the under-21 single sculls about an hour later.

He leapt into the next step up, joining with reigning 2008 Under-23 single sculling world champion Joseph Sullivan to secure the 2009 Under-23 World Championship double scull title.

“I went from pretty much not having done anything to winning two national titles and winning the Under-23 World Championships in the same year, so 2009 was the biggest year for me, or the most improved – going from nothing to that.”

In 2010 he competed with his younger brother Karl at the 2010 Under 23 Rowing World Championships in Belarus, finishing fifth. The same year made it to the senior New Zealand men’s quadruple scull, finishing seventh at the 2010 Rowing World Championships at Karapiro.

Then, in 2012, he was named in the quad team for the London Olympics, which he says was a dream come true. Unfortunately the quad team finished 7th after missing out on a spot in the final.

Manson says 2013 has been his most successful year to date. He and new rowing partner Michael Arms dominated World Cup events in the double scull, winning all three golds, but finishing sixth at the World Championships into which Arms had carried a back injury.

This year he’s been back with brother Karl in the elite double, and they finished fourth at a World Cup in France and sixth in another in Switzerland. “We finished eight at the World Champs, which was a little bit disappointing. We went in the wrong direction, instead of getting better each time. It was a bit of a disappointing way to finish off the year.”

Back home though, Manson was strong at the Lake Karapiro Christmas regatta, beating defending Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale in the single sculls and winning the double sculls with Chris Harris.

He's not entirely sure what makes him such a good rower, feeling it might be a mixture of attributes. “I’m not outstanding at anything. I’m definitely not the strongest person and I don’t have the best technique, but I seem to go well in racing. I go a lot better in racing than training. I think I am probably just consistent across the board and that’s why I do well. There is no one thing that really stands out that I’m exceptional at.”

He says the two kilometre distance of rowing races is perfect, as he’s not a sprinter. “I don't think I’ve got any fast twitch muscle fibres at all.”

It was around 2012 that he began coming out. He had a relationship which, though it didn’t work out, did lead him to open up about his homosexuality.

“It kind of gave me the push. I wanted to see this person and not have it be this big secret that I was terrified of anyone else finding out.”

He started telling a few people he was gay and let word of mouth do the rest. He would find out what people’s reactions were from others, and says he almost liked not having to tell everyone himself.

By the end of the Olympics “everyone knew,” including the rest of his crew, who ultimately finished seventh in London.

He thinks a few of “the girls” might have picked it. “I tend to get on with girls, and I think it’s the same with most gay guys, you tend to get along better with girls than you do with most of the straight guys, whether it’s because you’re afraid that you might be rejected or something if they knew. Some of the girls I was really good friends with, I think when I came out to them they weren’t surprised. They maybe had an inkling... I think the guys were a little bit more miffed. They weren’t expecting it.”

But he says none of his male friends and teammates had an issue with his revealed sexuality, “most were incredibly supportive, they just hadn’t seen it coming.”

Despite decades of work towards gay liberation and equality it's still rare for a nationally or internationally competitive sportspeople to come out, usually it happens when they are past their peak or retiring when there is less to risk. But Manson says the support of Rowing New Zealand helped give him the freedom to come out in the middle of his career. He says he knew it wouldn’t hamper him. Even when he first came out to those around him he wasn’t worried about his career, just how his teammates might react. But the more people he told the more he realised nobody was having a problem with it.

In Part 2 of this interview, on Thursday, Robbie Manson talks about coming out, his brother who led the way and homophobic slurs.

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Jay Bennie - 30th December 2014