THE GREAT­EST RACE

It was one of New Zealand’s most un­likely sport­ing tri­umphs. But the feats of the 1968 Olympics coxed four that won our first row­ing gold medal re­main largely un­known. Mike White joined the crew at their most re­cent re­union and tells their story of hardsh

North & South - - In This Issue -

Hard­ship, friend­ship and un­ex­pected tri­umph marked our coxed four’s run to gold at the 1968 Olympics. Un­ex­pected tragedy marks their 50th an­niver­sary. Mike White re­ports.

The starter was a small man with a red flag held aloft. Spread in front of him were the six crews of the 1968 Olympics coxed four row­ing fi­nal, aligned like match­sticks on a pond.

“Êtes-vous prêts?” (“Are you ready?”) he in­toned, each word as­cend­ing in in­flec­tion and an­tic­i­pa­tion.

Be­neath him in lane four, the New Zealand crew knew they were ready, knew what they’d done to get here, knew what they now had to do. And they knew what they had to prove.

They were the left­overs, the sup­posed sec­ond-stringers, the row­ers con­sid­ered not good enough to make the glam­our eights crew. They’d given up jobs, aban­doned fam­i­lies, and only been guar­an­teed a place in the Olympics team at the last minute. They were bol­shie, will­ing to ruf­fle of­fi­cial­dom, and had

raised the money to get to Mex­ico cent by hard-earned cent. But, by god, they were quick.

In the boat’s bow, War­ren Cole, who sold milk­ing shed equip­ment and had a wife and two tod­dlers back in Whakatāne, no­ticed sweat drip­ping onto his oar. He glanced for­ward to the crew’s stroke, three seats in front of him. Dick Joyce, a 22-year-old pow­er­house, had just fin­ished his me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing de­gree. Cole swore he could see the hairs on Joyce’s neck stand­ing up as the starter be­gan speak­ing. “And I thought, Je­sus Christ, it’s on to­day – let’s go!”

In front of Cole sat Ross Collinge, newly qual­i­fied as a phar­ma­cist and re­cently mar­ried. For two years, Collinge had dreamt the same dream, over and over: they were in the Olympic fi­nals and he was more ex­hausted than he’d ever been in his life – but they beat a team in red and won. Night af­ter night, the same dream, the same com­plete fa­tigue, the same re­sult. So as Collinge sat wait­ing, he had an un­likely cool­ness, con­vinced they could con­found the crit­ics who’d writ­ten them off and win. But su­per­sti­tiously he still wore his “lucky socks”, just in case.

Between Collinge and Joyce hunched Dud­ley Storey, a car­pet layer whose wife was about to give birth to their first child back in Auck­land. He was the vet­eran at 27, the only one of them to have rowed out­side New Zealand be­fore, the tough­est man any of them knew.

And perched in the stern was cox Si­mon Dickie, a 17-year- old school­boy with a tin mega­phone who’d been plucked from Wan­ganui Col­le­giate af­ter a pre­vi­ous cox was killed in a train­ing ac­ci­dent. Over the pre­ced­ing weeks, he and coach Rusty Robert­son had worked out a rad­i­cal but risky race plan they hoped would stun their ri­vals and sweep them to vic­tory.

Two thou­sand me­tres away at the fin­ish line, Robert­son waited, sweat­ing in the heat and al­ti­tude, wait­ing for the ar­rival of what he’d called “the fun­ni­est-look­ing crew I’d ever seen”.

The starter’s right hand gripped the flag’s short pole above his head, his left hand steady­ing the pen­nant’s cor­ner. Then, in the same in­stant he brought the flag down like a guil­lo­tine, he spoke again. “Partez!” (“Go!”)

Ross Collinge and his wife Va­lerie from Lower Hutt were the first to ar­rive, just af­ter 1pm, at Si­mon Dickie’s house over­look­ing Lake Taupō. It was De­cem­ber 2017 and the old crew were get­ting back to­gether again. They’d done this reg­u­larly since 1968, an an­nual re­union be­com­ing an es­sen­tial cir­cle on their cal­en­dars for the past 30 years. In re­cent years, they’d con­gre­gated at Dickie’s house, a mid­way point for ev­ery­one, with Dickie or­gan­is­ing a day’s fish­ing in his boat.

Dickie’s three hunt­ing dogs sped and slid across the en­trance­way to greet Collinge, 73, who car­ried a bag of lunch sup­plies, while Va­lerie pro­duced presents for the dogs, soft toys that were spir­ited away to their beds. Va­lerie had a present for Dickie, too.

“It’ll be the worst Christ­mas present you’ll get, I guar­an­tee it,” she an­nounced, laugh­ing. Dickie cau­tiously un­did the wrap­ping to re­veal a pair of plas­tic san­dals in the shape of fish, gar­ish and ghastly, and in­tended as a joke for Dickie, whose life re­volved around fish­ing. “Je­sus,” said Dickie as he slipped them on, “where did you find these?” “I saw them in Sin­ga­pore and im­me­di­ately thought of you, Si­mon,” Va­lerie chuck­led. The dogs dropped their toys to sniff at the fake fish, but Dickie shooed them away, in­sist­ing he’d wear them the next day when they were all go­ing out on the lake.

Next to walk through the front door were Dick Joyce and wife Chris. Joyce, known as “Tricky”, had been the tallest of the crew, and at 71 re­mained a moun­tain of a man, still worked as an en­gi­neer, and lived by the beach near Welling­ton.

With them was Paula Storey, the wife of crew­man Dud­ley. The pre­vi­ous Novem­ber when they’d gath­ered at Dickie’s for their 48th an­niver­sary, the rest of the crew noted Storey had a slight lisp. “And I said, ‘Dud, we might have over­done it a bit, we’ve drunk a bit too much wine,” Dickie later re­mem­bered. But Storey said no, he’d no­ticed it him­self a few days be­fore.

Within a month, Storey had been di­ag­nosed with mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease and given two years to live. By Fe­bru­ary, he could barely speak and Dickie and Collinge trav­elled to his Auck­land home, where they put him in his wheelchair and took him down to the beach. “You’re go­ing to have one last look at the wa­ter,” Dickie told him. Five days later, Storey died, aged 77.

Ev­ery­one gath­ered in Dickie’s kitchen, nib­bling crack­ers, salmon, cheese and olives and drink­ing pinot gri­gio, wait­ing for War­ren Cole, the last crew mem­ber. Cole was trav­el­ling from Hamilton but had a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment en route. Now 77, he’d had his own health prob­lems and ar­rived say­ing the lat­est news wasn’t bril­liant. But there was no time for mulling as Dickie emerged with a mag­num of Cham­pagne.

Collinge: “Oh, Si­mon, that looks good. Is that my one?”

Cole: “Je­sus, Si­mon, all the way from France. Ru­mour has it, this stuff cures cancer.”

Dickie: “Well, it hasn’t done me any prob­lems. Last year, you drank seven of these – I don’t know how you did it.”

Joyce: “We don’t know how we did it, ei­ther.”

Dickie: “My god, isn’t it great, the old

team, 49 years – can you be­lieve this? Can you bloody be­lieve it, 49 years?! Je­sus.”

With glasses filled, they reached across to toast each other.

“Ab­sent friends,” said Dickie, ev­ery­one’s minds trac­ing back to their pre­vi­ous re­unions, which Storey had been cen­tral to. “It’s the first time we’ve had to do this with ab­sent friends.”

The New Zealand crew heaved into their first stroke even be­fore the starter shouted “Partez!” They’d watched him in pre­vi­ous races and no­ticed he dropped his left hand from the flag a frac­tion be­fore he gave the start com­mand. In the Olympics, the tini­est ad­van­tage is cru­cial, and the crew had looked for any trick, or crack in their op­po­nents to ex­ploit.

They’d won their heat and also their semi-fi­nal, but in slower times than the East Ger­mans, who were the favourites along­side Italy and Rus­sia. How­ever, Dickie and coach Rusty Robert­son had a race plan to go out hard, build a lead and trust they could hang on. Af­ter six strokes, Dickie told the crew they were com­ing fourth.

“And I thought, ‘ For fuck’s sake, Si­mon,’” re­mem­bered Collinge, “give us a chance to get go­ing.”

Grad­u­ally they pulled ahead, keep­ing their high rat­ing of 42 strokes a minute, while other crews eased back.

Cole said they’d man­aged to hold that pun­ish­ing rat­ing for 600m in their semi­fi­nal and fig­ured if they could main­tain it for an ex­tra 10 strokes to the 700m mark in the fi­nal, it might make a vi­tal dif­fer­ence. “We be­lieved to­tally in the risk. Every­body bought into it 100%.”

They banked on none of the other crews be­ing mad enough to try to stick with them that early in the race, es­pe­cially at 2240m (7350ft) al­ti­tude. They banked on it be­ing eas­ier to win from in front than come from be­hind. And they banked on ev­ery­one hav­ing the strength to pull off such a bold strat­egy.

That con­fi­dence and trust in each other went back six months, back to New Zealand and a bleak win­ter, a mil­lion miles away from Mex­ico’s heat and hu­mid­ity. In May that year, 13 row­ers as­sem­bled on the banks of Christchurch’s Avon River to be­gin four months of train­ing. They’d been cho­sen as the Olympic squad af­ter tri­als, and the se­lec­tors, chris­tened The Krem­lin for their stern­ness, im­me­di­ately split them into an eight and a four, with one re­serve rower. There was never any doubt the eight was the main fo­cus – a New Zealand eight had won an in­ter­na­tional re­gatta the pre­vi­ous year and were con­sid­ered gen­uine gold-medal prospects in row­ing’s blue-riband event. So when Collinge, Cole, Joyce and Storey heard they’d been omit­ted from the eight, there was dis­ap­point­ment, spiked with re­sent­ment. In­stead, they were be­ing asked to form a coxed four, de­spite be­ing a com­pletely un­likely crew in many ways.

Collinge had come to row­ing as an 18-year- old be­cause he needed a sport where it didn’t mat­ter if he wore glasses. “I was a skinny lit­tle bas­tard with funny, round glasses and sticky- out ears, and I weighed just over 11 stone. So I went down to the Pe­tone Row­ing Club and the club cap­tain looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we don’t need any­one right now, we’re full up.’”

But not long af­ter, the club called Collinge say­ing they were one short, and to get on his bike and come down. He’d never been in a boat be­fore and was ini­tially woe­ful.

War­ren Cole was another un­suited to row­ing, if you be­lieved the ex­perts. At the 1967 New Zealand tri­als, “some bloody smar­tarse bas­tard turned up from Otago Univer­sity, he was a sports psy­chol­o­gist or some­thing, and he was do­ing body- typ­ing where he went round squeez­ing your fat. And he said to me, ‘I don’t know about you, War­ren, but with your fat con­tent and buoy­ancy, you should be a swim­mer.’”

The same sports sci­en­tist eyed Joyce, who’d only been row­ing for four years, and de­clared he should be a long-jumper or high-jumper be­cause he was so skinny.

Then there was Dickie. Shortly be­fore the Olympic squad con­vened in Christchurch, the eight’s cox, Alan Boykett, was drowned. He’d been in a coach­ing boat with Dick Joyce on Welling­ton har­bour when another boat slammed into them. Joyce sur­vived and re­peat­edly dived un­der the wreck to lo­cate Boykett, but his body was never found. So a month later, se­lec­tors called for tri­al­ists to join the Olympic team.

Dickie had coxed Wan­ganui Col­le­giate’s eight to three con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries at the na­tional school row­ing cham­pi­onships, and his coach sug­gested he have a go. To the sur­prise of most, the school­boy who’d just turned 17 was cho­sen ahead of many more ex­pe­ri­enced coxes and put in charge of the eight. Later, he was swapped to the four, and im­me­di­ately had any pre­co­cious­ness knocked out of him. Tak­ing his seat for the first time, Dickie dan­gled his feet over the boat’s edge and an­nounced this was eas­ier than the eight. Storey ex­ploded. “Get your feet back in the boat, boy, you’ve got a job to do!”

Things didn’t go well when train­ing started, Joyce remembering their first out­ing as “a bag­ful of ar­se­holes”. Soon af­ter, Collinge and Storey for­got to lock the oars in place, a rookie mis­take, and the crew fell into the river as they climbed into the boat.

At one point, as­sis­tant coach Ted Lind­strom, who’d taken charge of the four, yelled out for them to stop, in­sist­ing the boat was get­ting slower and slower, and de­mand­ing to know what the prob­lem was. Ev­ery­one ad­mit­ted they weren’t com­fort­able with their seat­ing or­der in the boat, and wanted to change. But when Joyce sug­gested this to Robert­son, the coach told him, “You will not do this,” and stalked off.

A week later, with Lind­strom in hospi­tal and Robert­son home in Ōa­maru for a wed­ding, the crew de­cided, “Fuck it, we’ll do it any­way,” re­called Joyce, and they changed ev­ery­one’s seat­ing po­si­tion, with the boat im­me­di­ately go­ing faster.

“If this goes well, the se­lec­tors will take the ku­dos,” Joyce told the rest of

“There’s noth­ing like the cold winds of poverty blow­ing up your arse to make you row hard.”

the crew. “If it falls on its arse, we’ll never wear a black sin­glet again. Do you want to take this risk?” Ev­ery­one said yes. “We had noth­ing to lose,” re­mem­bered Cole.

When Robert­son re­turned from Ōa­maru, Joyce fronted him. “And I told him, if the ob­jec­tive is to go as fast as we’re ca­pa­ble of, this is a bet­ter com­bi­na­tion, so please, have a look.”

Robert­son, still suf­fer­ing from the week­end’s fes­tiv­i­ties and wear­ing dark glasses, said noth­ing, but fol­lowed them closely in the coach boat. On their way home, Joyce told the cox to “‘just let the bas­tard go.’ And it just took off, ab­so­lutely boo­gied over the last 500m.”

When they ar­rived back at the clu­b­rooms, Robert­son drove the coach boat up the bank, got in his car and dis­ap­peared without a word. “So we un­tan­gled Rusty’s boat from the bloody long grass, washed it down, put it away and looked at each other go­ing, ‘What now?’” re­called Joyce. “And I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘ I don’t think he was im­pressed, but he didn’t say no. So un­til he says no, we carry on.’” Robert­son never said no. Row­ing re­lies on rhythm, re­lax­ation, tim­ing, self- be­lief and trust in each other. And as the four de­vel­oped these things, the boat got faster. And as the boat got faster, any lin­ger­ing de­sire to be part of the favoured eight faded. It com­pletely dis­ap­peared when, on one train­ing row, the four headed the sup­pos­edly faster eight past the Bur­wood bridge, past the un­mis­tak­able pig farm, and all the way to Sumner.

Train­ing was six days a week, fit­ted around work. Collinge got a job in a phar­macy, Joyce as a rail­ways en­gi­neer, Storey lay­ing car­pets, and Cole at a con­crete com­pany.

“Some­body found this bike in the Avon River,” rec­ol­lected Cole. “It had no brakes, no lights, no gears, but I’d get up at seven ev­ery morn­ing and bike 7km up­hill to work and shovel ag­gre­gate all day into this bloody con­crete mixer. Then cy­cle 7km home, al­ways into a head wind, to be at train­ing by three o’clock.”

Dickie, mean­while, had trans­ferred to Christ’s Col­lege to join the team in Christchurch and went to class each morn­ing be­fore train­ing.

On Fri­day nights, they’d shiver out­side pubs sell­ing raf­fle tick­ets and do­ing coin trails to fund their way to Mex­ico, with ad­min­is­tra­tors threat­en­ing if they didn’t raise the money they wouldn’t go. “You’d try and think, ‘Shit, this is good, we’ve got 100 one­cent coins down the foot­path,’” said Collinge. “But there’s noth­ing like the cold winds of poverty blow­ing up your arse to make you row hard.”

On Satur­days, they went house to house ask­ing for dona­tions. “It was plead­ing for money,” re­called Dickie. “It was beg­ging.”

Paula and Dud­ley Storey rented a freez­ing house for $5 a week on the Avon River’s banks, fur­nished with a ta­ble, chairs, a bor­rowed bed and a one-bar heater.

Cole couldn’t af­ford to bring his fam­ily from Whakatāne and didn’t see his two preschool chil­dren for months while train­ing.

De­spite the costs and com­mit­ment, just weeks be­fore the team was due to

leave for Mex­ico, the four still didn’t know if they’d be se­lected, along with the mar­quee eight. “I thought, ‘How can you train this hard and make the sac­ri­fices and get dropped at the last minute?’” said Cole.

On July 1, the crew gath­ered up­stairs at the Avon Row­ing Club to hear the Olympic team be­ing an­nounced live over the ra­dio. “W. J. Cole… R. H. Collinge… S.C. Dickie… R. J. Joyce… D.L. Storey.”

“Just relief,” re­mem­bered Cole. “Just big sighs of relief.”

As Dickie fer­ried more Cham­pagne from his cel­lar, the crew moved to the lounge to con­tinue rem­i­nisc­ing. Storey’s death had rocked them, and re­minded them the bonds between the 1968 crew were pre­car­i­ous but unique.

As Joyce put it: “The guys in the boat are fam­ily.”

So al­ready, plans were be­ing made for their 50th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion. They’d hoped to re­turn to Mex­ico City, but Dickie’s daugh­ter had been there re­cently and re­ported the row­ing course was over­grown and un­recog­nis­able. So now the idea was a hol­i­day to Viet­nam, and some­one pro­duced a news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ment for a week’s get­away.

They’d booked for din­ner at a nearby res­tau­rant for 7pm, but as glasses were topped up, Dickie phoned through to let the res­tau­rant know they’d be late. Photos were taken in the evening light, the crew in­stinc­tively lin­ing up in the same or­der they rowed in, Paula stand­ing in for her late hus­band.

Even­tu­ally, some­time af­ter 8pm, ev­ery­one wan­dered down to the res­tau­rant, and spread around a long cor­ner ta­ble. There was talk of races past and crew mates gone, of Stasi spies and fickle coaches, of grand­kids and Christ­mas com­ing, of to­mor­row’s boat trip on the lake when they’d catch some fish and prob­a­bly throw most back.

It was af­ter 11 when they set­tled the bill and headed home along still-warm pave­ments. It had been a great day.

By the 700m mark, the crew was nearly a boat- length ahead of their ri­vals. Dickie took quick stock of the sit­u­a­tion and then at 850m or­dered another burst to get them “over the hill” and on the home run. By the time they’d done that, they’d cracked the field, with a three-length lead.

“At the 1150m, it was the first time I’d taken my eyes out of the boat and had a real good look at where we were and where every­body else was,” re­called Joyce. “And I thought, ‘Shit, all we have to do is not blow up and we’ve got this race. So I pulled the rat­ing down a notch and gave ev­ery­one a bit of a breather.”

With 400m to go, Dickie told Joyce in the seat clos­est to him, to “frig­gin’ smarten up”, and Joyce re­mem­bers “we just let it go, man”. At 200m, Dickie re­layed what their lead was and warned the East Ger­mans were mov­ing up.

Only with 100m left did he raise his voice, call­ing for max­i­mum en­ergy from the crew, then counted them in, over the din of 30,000 spec­ta­tors. Eighty me­tres to go meant just eight more strokes, eight more times to haul their 12’ 6” willow oars – sil­ver ferns sten­cilled on their ma­hogany blades – through an ag­o­nis­ing arc; 50m meant five…

As their heart rates edged to­wards 200 beats-per-minute, Cole was see­ing stars. Collinge’s jaw and hips ached. Joyce re­mem­bers ev­ery­thing had gone grey as they crossed the fin­ish and he wasn’t sure what had hap­pened. But they’d won eas­ily, by nearly three sec­onds from East Ger­many, with Switzer­land third.

“No­body re­neged on the power they

could give,” re­called Cole, “but we were all un­con­scious ba­si­cally; we were all in se­ri­ous oxy­gen debt. That’s why no one said any­thing at the fin­ish for at least 30 sec­onds.”

Even­tu­ally Cole found his voice. “Hey, you bas­tards, do you know what you’ve done? You’ve just won an Olympic Games gold medal!” he shouted from the bow. At the other end of the boat, all a shat­tered Joyce could think was, “For fuck’s sake, War­ren, shut up.”

Too ex­hausted to row, they drifted to the pon­toon where Robert­son helped them from the boat, while Dickie’s fa­ther, Mau­rie, a Taranaki farmer, hung from the judge’s tower nearby, whoop­ing. A photo taken well af­ter the fin­ish shows the crew all still in a state of col­lapse, lean­ing on each other, only Dickie imp­ishly beam­ing in the front.

“The Olympics were such a fan­tas­tic thing,” said Cole. “In your wildest dream, you never ex­pect, as a sports­man, to be on the play­ing field for a gold medal. And we were. And I thought, ‘Je­sus, we’ve got to do some su­per, su­per, su­per thing to win a gold medal’ – and we did some­thing su­per, su­per, su­per.”

At the press con­fer­ence af­ter­wards, some­one noted Joyce’s black socks, worn to pre­vent chaf­ing in the boat, and, given the Black Power move­ment sweep­ing the Games, asked whether there was any sig­nif­i­cance in wear­ing them at the medal cer­e­mony. “Ex­actly the same sig­nif­i­cance as the fact we’re wear­ing black shorts and have a black shirt on,” replied Storey smartly.

It was New Zealand’s first-ever row­ing gold medal; the only gold for the coun­try at Mex­ico; and Dickie be­came, and re­mains, New Zealand’s youngest Olympic gold medal win­ner.

Back in Auck­land, heav­ily preg­nant Paula Storey was stay­ing with friends, wait­ing for the race commentary to come over the ra­dio around 6am.

“And I said to them, ‘ I can’t stick around and lis­ten, I’ve just got to get out of here.’ I had a re­ally old Hill­man Husky sta­tion­wagon and I hopped in and the ra­dio of­ten didn’t work but I went down the road, turned it on and I could pick it up. And I sat in the car lis­ten­ing to the broad­cast, and I heard that he’d won. I switched it off and went back and they al­ready had the Cham­pagne ready.”

Nine days later, she gave birth to their first child, Dud­ley Jnr. Even though his Olympics were over, Storey wasn’t al­lowed to re­turn early to New Zealand. By the time he touched down in Auck­land, his son was five days old.

Cel­e­bra­tions in Mex­ico were muted. The fan­cied eight wilted to fin­ish fourth, the loneli­est Olympic plac­ing, leav­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors em­bar­rassed given the em­pha­sis they’d put on the big crew com­pared to the four. Even when they re­turned to New Zealand, gold medals around their necks, out­sized som­breros on their heads, there was lit­tle hoopla, these be­ing the days when All Blacks trudged back to half­way, emo­tion­less, af­ter scor­ing a try,

rather than cel­e­brat­ing ex­ul­tantly. The crew re­turned to their jobs, Dickie to school to sit his end- of-year ex­ams.

They never raced to­gether again. Three races, three vic­to­ries. Dickie and Joyce went on to win gold again at the 1972 Mu­nich Olympics as part of the eight that fi­nally tri­umphed, with Dickie also win­ning a bronze with the eight at the 1976 Olympics. Collinge and Storey won sil­ver at Mu­nich in a cox­less four. Cole was part of the coxed four, which fin­ished sixth.

All of them re­tired from in­ter­na­tional row­ing in the fol­low­ing years be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to keep go­ing, spend­ing months in train­ing camps and at re­gat­tas without in­come. “In 1972, I came home and had no job, no money, an old car and two chil­dren,” re­called Collinge. “I had to buy a phar­macy be­cause no one would em­ploy me be­cause I was away so much.”

Dud­ley and Paula Storey were forced to sell their house that year so Dud­ley could train in Christchurch be­fore the Olympics. “I don’t think I’d had enough,” said Cole of re­tir­ing, “but it was just eco­nom­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to keep go­ing.”

For most New Zealan­ders, the 1972 Mu­nich eight’s vic­tory is New Zealand row­ing’s stand­out his­toric mo­ment. That race was tele­vised, as was the medal cer­e­mony where, in un­for­get­table scenes, some of the crew were in tears as “God De­fend New Zealand” was played for the first time at an Olympics. (Pre­vi­ously it had been “God Save the Queen”.)

Mean­while, the 1968 coxed four’s im­prob­a­ble gen­e­sis and ul­ti­mate achieve­ment have been largely over­looked, de­spite their win mark­ing the start of New Zealand row­ing’s in­cred­i­ble Olympic Games record over the last half cen­tury. (Row­ing is New Zealand’s most suc­cess­ful Olympic sport.) Although the 1972 gold-medal boat sits in Auck­land’s Mar­itime Mu­seum, the 1968 crew’s boat was sold to a row­ing club to re­coup costs, and ended in splin­ters af­ter a road crash. All that re­mains are the oars each crew mem­ber re­ceived, the rud­der Dickie nabbed, and the sticker with the boat’s name, Aotearoa, that Collinge peeled off.

Just what made the un­likely crew cham­pi­ons is hard to pin­point. While train­ing in Mex­ico be­fore the Games, an im­pressed on­looker asked coach Rusty Robert­son what made them so fast. “I don’t know,” ad­mit­ted Robert­son.

As Collinge de­scribed it, the crew was a bit like a bum­ble­bee fly­ing – logic says it shouldn’t work, but it does. How­ever, it went much deeper than that, said Collinge. “It’s not how good you are or how strong you are or how brave you are, it’s that won­der­ful mix of people. It’s just this magic thing that hap­pens, and on that day we were in­vin­ci­ble.”

There was an el­e­ment of want­ing to prove the doubt­ing of­fi­cials wrong. There was a de­sire to make six months of sac­ri­fice and hard­ship worth­while. And there was a com­plete trust in their crew­mates’ equal de­ter­mi­na­tion to win, said Joyce. “You be­come so close to these guys, they’re so much your friends, that you’re just not go­ing to let them down. So you daren’t not per­form.”

The lack of recog­ni­tion for the 1968 coxed four didn’t con­cern Joyce. “Every­body re­mem­bers the Mu­nich eight, but no­body re­mem­bers who was in it. So I can choose to put my black blazer on and strut about the place and be the big Mu­nich oars­man, or I can choose to keep my mouth shut and no­body knows who the hell I am – which is good. I’d far rather just get on with life.”

Joyce was com­ing into Ōtaki when he heard. Collinge was vis­it­ing a friend in Waikato Hospi­tal when the news reached him. Cole was home in Hamilton when a friend phoned. Paula Storey pulled over just past Cam­bridge to an­swer the call from Taupō po­lice. Si­mon Dickie, they told her, was dead.

The pre­vi­ous day had been spent aboard Dickie’s boat on Lake Taupō as planned – fish­ing, en­joy­ing the sun and each other’s com­pany.

At twi­light, they’d re­gath­ered at Dickie’s for a bar­be­cue, good red wine and to de­bate plans for next year’s big get-to­gether. Around 11pm, they said their farewells, a lin­ger­ing pro­ces­sion of hugs and hand­shakes stretch­ing over 20 min­utes and the length of Dickie’s drive­way. “Happy Christ­mas… Have a won­der­ful New Year… see you soon… send me your credit card de­tails so we can book that hol­i­day…” It had been another fab­u­lous day.

The next morn­ing, on Wed­nes­day De­cem­ber 13, they de­parted in var­i­ous di­rec­tions, only for their jour­neys to be de­railed that af­ter­noon by the news that Dickie, 66, had fallen from a bal­cony at his home and died.

When he’d left school, Dickie be­gan guid­ing visi­tors to Taupō, and in 50 years had es­tab­lished an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful hunt­ing, fish­ing and tourism busi­ness, lat­terly with his wife, Adi, mak­ing friends around the world. At his fu­neral a week later, hun­dreds of those friends filled Taupō’s St An­drew’s Church, spilling into the vestibule and out­side. They sang tra­di­tional hymns, “Who Would True Valour See” and “I Vow To Thee, My Coun­try”, and in­canted the “Lord’s Prayer”, “… the power and the glory…”

Collinge and Joyce gave re­flec­tions, on Dickie’s un­canny abil­ity to ex­tract the most from row­ers, and the ex­tra­or­di­nary friend­ships that evolved between the 1968 Mex­ico crew.

“That’s how I’ll re­mem­ber Si­mon,” said Collinge. “Full of fun, great com­pany, just a mem­o­rable, won­der­ful man – a man that com­pacted two lives of achieve­ments into one amaz­ing life.”

Af­ter­wards, the crew joined row­ers from Dickie’s old school, Wan­ganui Col­le­giate, to form an hon­our guard with oars out­side the church as the pall­bear­ers passed though, bear­ing Dickie.

Two months later, the re­main­ing crew and Paula Storey gath­ered at Lake Kara­piro dur­ing the na­tional row­ing cham­pi­onships. Plans for their 50th re­union would likely be scaled back, but, given re­cent events, they agreed it seemed more im­por­tant than ever they should cel­e­brate what hap­pened at Mex­ico City’s Vir­gilio Uribe row­ing course on Oc­to­ber 19, 1968.

“It’s got to hap­pen,” said Cole. “Even if all we do is sit there all night and toast ab­sent friends.” +

“No­body re­neged on the power they could give,” re­called Cole, “but we were all un­con­scious ba­si­cally; we were all in se­ri­ous oxy­gen debt.”

The crew, pho­tographed on De­cem­ber 11, 2017, in the gar­den at Si­mon Dickie’s Taupo house. From left: War­ren Cole, Ross Collinge, Paula Storey (stand­ing in for her late hus­band, Dud­ley), Dick Joyce and Si­mon Dickie.

When the crew gath­ered last De­cem­ber at Si­mon Dickie’s house to cel­e­brate the 49th an­niver­sary of their vic­tory, they toasted their suc­cess and re­mem­bered crew­mate Dud­ley Storey, who had died nine months be­fore. From left: Ross Collinge, Si­mon Dickie,...

The New Zealand coxed four show off their gold medals af­ter the team’s vic­tory at the 1968 Mex­ico City Olympic Games. Clock­wise from top left: War­ren Cole, Ross Collinge, Dick Joyce, Dud­ley Storey, Si­mon Dickie (in som­brero). At 17, Dickie be­came, and...

The crew at their 48th re­union in Novem­ber, 2016. From left: Si­mon Dickie, Dick Joyce, Dud­ley Storey, Ross Collinge and War­ren Cole. It was the last re­union with all five present.

The crew on the pon­toon be­fore re­ceiv­ing their medals (from left): Coach Rusty Robert­son, War­ren Cole, Ross Collinge, Dud­ley Storey and Dick Joyce, with Si­mon Dickie in front.

The New Zealand crew (top), in a state of col­lapse at the fin­ish of the race.

Si­mon Dickie in a Mex­ico ’68 Olympics T-shirt, on the last day of the crew’s re­union in De­cem­ber 2017. Right: Dickie’s Mex­ico coxed four gold medal.

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