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The Last Race (short true story)

Murwillumbah rowing team return from a successful Pan Pacific Games (2004) - Steve Buster Johnson on left

This is the story of my very last rowing race (though I did not know this at the time), back in the summer of 2006. The two 'Steves' had never rowed together in a Regatta, yet managed to win the gold medal for the Men's Double against all odds - a great way for me to retire from competitive rowing. 


Pictured left is the team who won the silver medal for the Men's Quad race in the 2004 Pan Pacific Games (I am the tanned individual on the left). At the same games, I also won the silver medal for the Men's Single Sculls (55 to 60 years of age).

"Some things in life are just meant to happen, no matter how heavily the odds are stacked against them.  A prime example was at the last rowing regatta I competed in, before retiring from the sport. It was the last race of the day; the men’s double scull. My crewman Steve was the tallest and heaviest rower in the event whilst I was the oldest and lightest. We had never rowed together other than a quick practice run on the River Tweed to prove we could row in unison and travel more or less in a straight line. With four more-fancied crews from our rowing club having already reserved the best of the boats, Steve and I were left with an old training scull that had seen better days. Though we had our supporters, we would be the first to admit that little was expected of us.


The conditions for the regatta at Iluka, a small fishing village on the mid north coast of New South Wales, were good, though a strong wind had developed during the afternoon, causing delays to some of the races.  In our rush to get the scull into the water, I forgot to attach the lane number to the prow.  With no time to go back and pick it up, we rowed across the harbour in an attempt to catch up with the other entrants, but were soon floundering in the heavy swell. To make matters worse, our scull was taking on water and Steve's weight pressing down on the stern meant that every wave broke over the gunwales. 


We were still more than a hundred metres from the starting line when the other seven boats began to take up their starting positions. Though we risked being penalised for arriving late, Steve and I had no choice but to run aground so that we could bail out enough water to keep us afloat for the duration of the race. I waved frantically to catch the starter's attention and he shouted back words of encouragement that fortunately I could not hear from the safety of his motor boat. While Steve kept the scull pointing into the wind, I jumped overboard and scooped out water with my hands until we were no longer in immediate danger of sinking.  I then climbed back on board and we rowed as hard as we could, straight through a line of moored fishing trawlers towards the small gap that had been left for us in the line-up for the event.


With sixteen rowers straining to keep their boats level with each other, the starter had more important matters on his mind than disqualifying us for not displaying our lane number.  When the siren sounded, Steve and I pulled as if our lives depended upon it.


The rowing course at Iluka is a difficult one, with the harbour wall running parallel to the shore and fishing boats moored at each end. In lane seven, only one boat width from the wall, Steve and I were protected somewhat from the sea swell. We also had an unforseen advantage over the other crews.  With me sitting in the stroke position and taking the brunt of the wind, our scull was riding high at the prow and the waves no longer swept over us. 


By the halfway mark, I looked up and discovered to my amazement that we were lying third.  A shout from Steve made me look to my left, where the scull in lane eight narrowly avoided colliding with the sea wall  as it surged towards us in the maelstrom, its portside oars passing right over ours as the hull rose to the top of a huge swell.


With two hundred metres to go, I yelled out, “Ten more Steve.  Give it all you’ve got.”


I counted down the strokes and when I reached zero I yelled again.  “Sorry Steve, I lied. Another ten should do it!” 


"Bastard!" he shouted over his shoulder, but showing his true mettle, his mighty shoulders took the strain and the boat surged forward.


Utterly exhausted and unable to believe that we had won, Steve and I crossed the line in first position to the applause of the spectators who were lining the wharf.  We were later told that a dolphin had escorted us for the last few seconds of the race. When we were presented with our medals, I wasn't surprised to find that the club's emblem was a dolphin behind a pair of crossed oars.


Like I said, some things in life are just meant to happen."

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