Our Rowing Royalty
Fresh from a successful Olympic campaign, New Zealand rowing royalty Gary Hay has returned to Rangi Ruru as Head Rowing Coach. He tells us what makes a successful squad. Hint: It’s the same for high school and international teams.
Those who know rowing will know the name Gary Hay. But they might not know his decorated coaching career began right here at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School. A born and bred Cantabrian, Gary was himself a schoolboy rower and represented New Zealand from 1985 to 1987, competing at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and World Championships.
He then hung up his oars to become a police officer for 22 years, but it was rowing at Rangi Ruru that lured him back to the sport.
“I came back to rowing here at the school and rowing took over my profession, I left the police and went rowing coaching fulltime,” he says.
That was in 2003, and he was a rowing coach here until 2009 before taking up a suite of positions for Rowing New Zealand. He started as head coach for the Southern Rowing Performance Centre and then moved on to New Zealand’s High Performance Centre at Lake Karapiro as a high performance coach.
In 2016 he was named head of the New Zealand women’s rowing programme, and since then he’s been to three Olympics and his athletes have won an impressive collection of international accolades. In 2019 he was named World Rowing Coach of the Year, and at the most recent Tokyo games the New Zealand women’s pair and eight came home with gold and silver medals, respectively, under his tutelage. Despite this level of accomplishment, Gary says school coaching is amongst his career highlights.
“I’m lucky in a coaching sense to have had some success internationally, but I always look back at my school coaching as some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had from a coaching point of view.” He says that is down to “being part of the learning that the students have and contributing to the way they grow and develop as rowers but also as young women. “And they are always so respectful and thankful for the coaching they are given.”
When defining success as a coach, Gary surprisingly says it is not about winning medals. “Some of the best coaching experiences I’ve had or things I look back on with the most pride often aren’t associated with winning. Probably one of the best ones was when the New Zealand women’s pair [Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast] got second at the 2018 World Championships. That was one of the best performances I have ever seen—and it wasn’t a win.”
That’s because, in Gary’s expert opinion, success at all levels of the sport follows on from a strong foundation of support.
At a national level, he says, New Zealand’s success comes from its centralised programme where “the training and environment is always consistent”.
“There’s no substitute for just pure hard work and hard training, but you have good support people like nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and psychologists.
“And that is no different to creating a supportive culture [at Rangi Ruru]. “I often think that why Rangi Ruru is so good at rowing, or why they were the best school last year by some while, is down to the good team environment.”
In fact, he says there are quite a lot of parallels between a school programme and an international programme. “You have to, I think, create a good environment of support and the success will come from that. It is no different to coaching an Olympic rowing team, no different at all.
“Yes, winning medals is good, everyone loves getting up and winning a medal, but I think the success of a school rowing programme should be the amount of students who want to come back again. The aim is when they leave here that they still love rowing.”
Gary also believes that to win, you have to learn how to lose. “The Olympics are seen as being the pinnacle of world sport, and very few medals are handed out, so there’s always going to be those that aren’t successful.
“I have been to three and, yes, at the last two I have come away with medals, but I also know it is quite a hollow feeling [when you don’t]. But, that’s where you draw on that experience: You almost have to lose and learn how to deal with not living up to your expectations and the expectations of others before you can go on and compete successfully.”
Rowing aside, Gary says he has long seen rowing teach students skills they can apply to their lives outside of sport and that will serve them long after high school.
From managing their time to learning about nutrition and physical health to how to care for their mental health. And when it comes to being his best as a coach? He says it’s down to “being encouraging and supportive, being open and honest in your communications and providing a safe environment where rowers can excel.”