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In the first of a series of podcasts interviews, proudly brought to you by Briskby, Tom Mackintosh is interviewed by Zak Seridarian.
Mackintosh is an elite rower for New Zealand, a dedicated athlete, a champion in his field and now, since his team’s unbelievable feat at the Tokyo Olympics, a gold medallist!
Mackintosh is also generous with his time, a great person to talk with and is full of passion and dedication to himself, his team, and his sport. He is gracious and respectful of his fellow competitors, and grateful to his friends, family and teammates for their support.
In our podcast, he talks enthusiastically of his feelings in that stunning final victory, what it takes to win a race in the men’s eight and the sheer single-mindedness one must have to emerge victorious at the elite level.
We discussed circular economy in Sport and how a platform like Briskby could help aspirational athletes as well as ordinary sport lovers.
Listen to the interview and get a peek into what Mackintosh’s Olympic world looks like.
Or watch the interview:
Below is the transcript for those who enjoy reading:
Normally, the idea is to build up to a crescendo. To hell with that. You’re a gold medal winner!
How many times a day do you look at it (your medal)?
It’s just currently hanging up on the wall in the kitchen. So, when I get a cup of tea, I’ll have a glance at it.
How do you feel when you look at it, has it settled in?
I feel good.
It still is very surreal. I certainly don’t think it has settled in yet. It hit home a wee bit when we got welcome home back to New Zealand. That was a pretty cool experience. I never really thought it would happen but it did. And here we are!
You’ve won medals before, this is clearly a crowning achievement for you, isn’t it?
It is, yes. I’ve competed at U23 at world champs and elite world champs. This is my first medal at elite level. So yes, it’s certainly a crown on the achievement. I’m just stoked we managed to execute our race on the day that happened to be an Olympic final and we managed to cross the line first!
You beat your main competitors in the finals, the Germans and the Brits is that right?
And the Dutch as well.
To be honest, everyone had an opportunity to win.
The Dutch had won our heat, so they were looking strong. USA were just behind GB in their heat. And Team GB have shown consistent form throughout the season. So, when we were lining up in the final, looking across at every crew, it was anyone’s game. Anyone had the opportunity to take the gold medal on that day.
How are the tactics as the race develops? Do you have a cox in the eights?
Yes. So we have a cox and he calls our race plan. It’s his job to be the eyes and ears for us coz we are maxing out physically. We can’t divert our attention to the other crews otherwise you’re not putting all your focus in your boat. Our coxswain, Sam Bosworth, tells us where we are in the race and how we’re tracking. About 1K into the race he said, “All right boys, you’re in the lead here” and when you get a lead in an Olympic final and you’re feeling good, is it’s just a massive confidence booster. In rowing terminology, we took three seats so that’s three people and I could see in the peripherals we were in the lead and it just gave that massive confidence boost. We just kept pushing away and managed to hold off the sprint from the Germans and the Brits, and we crossed first.
How much does your training really kick in there?
You do get a big sense of excitement and adrenalin when you get in the lead but, it’s important not to get ahead of yourself coz this is the men’s eight. It’s not a men’s one. You cant do things on your own. If you start pushing out of synch with everyone, then that really upsets the rhythm and the boat speed. With that, you’re not going to get the speed return you want. Although you’re working harder, your probably not going to be going any faster.
It’s important to be staying in the rhythm and just keep doing what everyone around you is doing. Trust everyone in your crew. Everyone knows how to put their oar in the water and take it out, and swing on it. And we did just exactly that.
When you eight guys in unison, moving like this there’s nothing quite like it. It’s just such an awesome experience to be a part of that and achieve that rhythm in the final.
Everything works together. You trained. You drilled. Then you’re in your zone. Can you feel that kind of connection? Do you have a certain point you fix your gaze to?
Visually, I would just be looking at the back of Hamish’s head (Hamish Bond) coz he sits in front of me. But for rowing, you got a lot of cues that sort of indicate that you’re in the zone. I got visual cues. Do things look tidy, in terms of the oar coming into the water.
I’ve got an audio cue. That’s mainly at the finish of the stroke when the oar’s coming out of the water and you can hear it go ‘schoook, schoook.’
Then there’s the mental and physical cue. You can feel the boat, you can feel the momentum of everyone in the boat.
When everyone is in unison, although we’re rating about 38 strokes per minute, it’s fast and it’s hot there’s a lot of energy everywhere, time slows right down and things just become a lot easier when you’re in unison. You can really be considerate of each stroke, you think about how you are going to put your oar in the water swing on it…
With the unity comes a sense of ease and best rowing races you will ever have will also be the easiest ones. Not physically the easiest but mentally. It’s a bit more relaxing.
How hard do you train? How many hours do you train?
Rowing is unfortunately one of the sports where you can’t turn up on the day and expect to just get fitter. You do need to just put in a massive amount of kilometers and aerobic training on the waters.
A big day training for us will be three training sessions a day. Two hours of cardio in the morning, followed by an hour and a half of strength conditioning sessions in the gym, followed by an hour or two of cardio in the afternoon. We might do two of those in a week. Followed by four other sessions where we’re doing training twice a day.
The way our race works, it’s a full noice sprint but it’s also not! You got to sprint out of the start and then clear all your lactate. Then there’s an expectation you maintain boat speed right up until the end and if you’re not really maxing out at the start then you won’t be in a position where you can win the race.
So, you started with the cox four, but you also moved into the coxless four. So you didn’t have the coxswain there to guide you. How different is it to have, or not have, the cox there?
It’s not like a massive difference. It’s definitely something you can adapt to. The beauty of the cox four is it’s seen as a development boat. It’s good if you’re a younger athlete to have a coxswain coz he can gel your crew and make sure everyone is on the same page.
As you progress and get more experience and understanding of how to row and how to gel as a crew, you don’t need a coxswain as much.
The coxless four is quite a cool boat. It’s fast and quite light coz it’s just four athletes rowing. There’s a lot of power in it.
If you’re rowing an eight you have to have a coxswain. There’s no other way coz he has to command the crew. He also steers the boat. That’s a stressful job when you got eight guys hauling on an oar. He’s (the cox) got two strings that move the rudders and it keeps us straight. You couldn’t row an eight without a coxswain.
Have you ever tried to be the cox?
Occasionally after a race if we medal. I might just jump in the cox’s seat and bark some orders.
It’s always a bit of fun. It’s a very small seat so if I can do my knees up by my ears and I’m all crammed in there!
So you wouldn’t do it competitively?
No! For reference, the coxswain needs to be 55 kilos at a minimum. I’m 88 kilos! There’s a bit of a weight difference there.
Wow, we’re talking about really fine details here. This can spell the difference between victory and a silver medal.
It is! That’s exactly right.
On the weight aspect of a coxswain. That one kilo extra on the boat can easily be half a second. That can be the difference between 1st and 4th.
Half a second between so many different places. It’s a stunning feat.
That’s just the nature of the Olympics. This was my first Olympics. I’ve been to some world champs. It’s cutthroat and tight racing. The rowing, especially at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, there was nothing quite like it. I saw races where people were in the lead with 30 meters to go and then they caught a crab, which is when your oar digs into the water and stops the boat in its tracks. So they went from gold to bronze in a space of 20 meters. Or, crews went from a silver with 50 meters to go to a 5th place coz they caught a crab or another crew came through them. Everything is on the line in the Olympics. It’s quite brutal in a way as well coz people have spent a large majority of their adult life training for these events so everyone gives it their everything.
Also, for a lot of people, if you win an Olympic medal it’s life-changing for you especially depending on what country you’re from. You could come back a superstar, a superhero for your local club or sporting niche. Some governments give good financial incentives for athletes. In Singapore, you get a million New Zealand dollars and a house if you win gold! It’s a weird thing!
When you consider the amount of training you do to be able to win that race. It’s merited any reward you receive thereafter. You thoroughly deserve it.
Yeah, I guess we do put in a massive amount of work, and a massive amount of training. I would talk to some friends from high school and you tell them that you could be training up to five hours a day cardio and their jaw hits the floor. It’s just a different way of life. I enjoy it. You get addicted to the exercise. I enjoy rowing. I like the sports. I like staying fit. In that sense, I’m happy competing. Anything else to me it’s just such an amazing bonus.
In the close season, do you find you have to watch your diet? Do you still have to maintain a certain level of fitness?
Certainly, in the off-season between world championships, you need to maintain your diet, stay fit. The Olympic Games is your pinnacle event so you always keep that at the back of your mind. In the off-season we’ll stay training. We consume anywhere between 4000 to 6000 calories a day to help us keep energy to maintaining our training load. In that sense, you can’t really ever switch off.
Although, in saying that, since we finished the Olympics, I’ll be giving myself three to four weeks of just hanging out and mentally resetting. Not always being conscious that I need to eating the right food or getting up early to get the cardio in. I’m setting and letting my body recover.
You’ve also taken time out to continue your education and you’ve set up your own company. You’re very much driven. Is that fair to say?
Yes. It’s probably not the traditional path to get to an Olympic medal or into the elite New Zealand rowing team. There’s a fear for athletes that if you didn’t do trials or take opportunities to make representative teams, you’d be off the selectors’ radar and they might not invite you back for trial, or you might lose fitness. I was also quite aware that, although I enjoy rowing, there is a time when an athlete’s career ends and that may not be by choice. That’s a realistic thing that can happen. I decided I need to have some sort of a backup plan. For me, that was tertiary education. I did a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Canterbury majoring in Accounting & Finance. I realised that if I did fall of pace or get injured then it wouldn’t be such a stressful move going from an athlete to a corporate career or another avenue. Also, it’s good for the mind. If you did full time rowing, it’s a competitive environment and you can get quite caught up and it can be quite stressful. If you don’t have something else to dedicate your mind to then you might not get the performances that you want.
What’s the company that you set up? How do you balance the two?
It was back at university in Christchurch. That was to help me fund my representative rowing campaigns. They cost between 4-6K New Zealand dollars and I needed to find a way to front that money. It was awkward for me coz I was training all the time. I couldn’t be involved in traditional 9-5 employment on top of studying as well. So, that was the pegboard company. We sold shelving units to furniture retailers. That company is no more. It got awkward when I moved back up to Cambridge I didn’t have quite the right facilities. But there’s other business opportunities out there. A friend of mine, also a rower, we started to sell cherries in Cambridge or the Waikato region. We’d sell between 1.3 -1.5 tonnes of cherries just before Christmas! It’s a good insight into how a business operates and fresh produce distribution!
You’ve compared different competitions. The Olympics is a unique tournament. Is there a lot of comradery between the athletes?
Yes, I would certainly say so. It’s only athletes who will have this perspective but before racing, you don’t talk to any of your competitors coz you’re in the zone. You don’t want to really interact coz it shows you’re not that focused on your event. But, as soon as the racing is done, although some guys might be disappointed, there’s a really good sense of commandery. I’ll shake hands with everyone. I’ve touched base with guys from the Great Britain crew, a guy from the German crew. We’re all mates and it’s nice catching up with everyone. It’s also interesting to see how they do it. How they got to where they were. Although we’re in the same sports and we do the same thing, everyone came up through a different pathway. It is awesome to see all the different cultures. It’s also great just seeing other athletes doing their thing because although I really enjoy rowing it’s a reasonably niche sport.
Did you encounter some people in Tokyo against whom you’ve competed in some of the other tournaments? Were there any recognisable faces for you?
Heaps. There’s a lot of rowers I’ve faced throughout the years. There’s this one guy, Charlie. We raced each other in Hamburg, in Poland, in Saratoga, Florida, and then in the Olympics. That was cool. Were the same age but we come up through the ranks in different pathways but ended up at the same point.
There’s another cool story; back in Hawke’s Bay, where I live, I was security at a women’s hockey tournament and the Argentinian hockey team came over and there was a player that my friends and I got a photo with. She was our favourite player of the tournament. We had a bit of a crush on her I guess. Then, I was in the food hall getting some pizza (at the Olympic Village), and I looked at her and I thought I recognised her. It was the same hockey player, only eight years later. In that sense, it’s just such a small world. Those are cool stories that make the Olympics so exciting. Although I’m really proud of our gold medals, and all we’ve achieved, that’s what the Olympics are all about. It brings people together and lets them express themselves through their sports and to show the world what they love doing. The world likes watching it. It’s a really cool aspect of it.
Was the Olympics different from previous tournaments due to the lack of spectators because of COVID-19 restrictions? Did you feel there was something missing? Or was the whole event special anyway?
It was certainly different with no spectators. The saddest thing about that was they had all these grandstands and seating which were empty. That was a wee bit unfortunate to see but I think each rower was so stoked that the Olympics went ahead after the postponement. Tokyo 2020, they just did such an exceptional job of organising and administering it. The Japanese people are just such awesome people. Their culture is great. They’re very polite, conscientious, they go the extra mile. In that sense, Japan did a fantastic job. That really was the cherry on top for A, it going ahead, B, they did it really well. It was unfortunate spectators weren’t there but I think everyone had such a great time anyway.
Before, when you said you had to have a certain amount of cash to be able to pursue your sport. Briskby is a start-up that likes to circulate sporting equipment. Do you think that kind of thing would make it easier for up-and-coming sportspeople so that the financial outlay isn’t quite so hefty?
Yes, certainly. Although I had to work to fund campaigns I was also in a privileged position where my family supported me a lot. But not every family is like that. There could certainly be athletes out there that could be exceptional on the world stage but they might have not have got the same opportunity as other people. The craziest thing is, you just never know who the next Olypian is, where he’s living, or what his situation is like at home or his access to sports. If there’s not a financial barrier then young kids could have more access to sports I certainly think that would be beneficial in molding the future Olympians.
The team behind Team New Zealand, they are very supportive of younger athletes. They push, inspire, motivate and create opportunities.
Yes. the New Zealand team competing in the Olympics had such great leadership and good comradery within the crew, everyone pushes each other to the limits I think that’s a fantastic part about our team. We had exceptional support staff throughout our whole journey. They cater to your hand and food. They’re there coz they want for you to succeed. They put a lot of effort into it and when you can pull off a decent performance then that’s the cherry on top. I don’t it gratifies your journey. But it’s nice.
Was there a specific team you really wanted to beat?
All of them?!
I guess you do want to beat all of them. You want that gold medal around your neck. But, in saying that, the ones we were most aware of, were definitely Germany, Great Britain and the Dutch. They had all shown decent performances throughout the season. Especially the Germans. They’ve been unbeaten for the last three or four years. They’ve only been beaten twice in a five-year period. They were the crew to beat. We knew they were going to be our biggest competition.
And now, you guys are the team to beat! Does that add a bit to what you have to do in your next race?
I’m in an awesome position where the first Olympics I went to, we came home with a medal. I don’t think that’s super common. I am aware that can only go downhill from here! Although I am having a break now, I will need to make sure we’re still on top of our game and not get complacent. In saying that, if we didn’t win at our next event, or Olympic game, although it would be a wee bit disappointing as we had had a gold medal before, I don’t think we race for the medals. It’s nice cherry on top. But if you look at our careers it’s like a cake; the middle’s the icing on top. I’m proud of the cake, and you can still eat cake. I’m still happy with that. And icing on itself isn’t actually that nice either. I feel like the public and our country really love middles! Had we not medalled, I wouldn’t have been as equally happy but I wouldn’t have been devastated. We still got to train together in the men’s eight, we got to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games which had a question mark as to whether or not it will go ahead. We have great comradery as a team. We formed great relationships that will last us a lifetime. I got to watch athletes at their pinnacle event on the world stage in person. I saw some of the best athletes in the world at the Olympic Village and I sort of had pizza next to the best skateboarder in the world! Things like that are awesome experiences. That’s the nature of the Olympics.
The next Olympics are in three years so you don’t have to wait that long. At what age does an elite rower, such as yourself, start to say, “I need to slow down”?
It kinda depends. Some achieve their goals and that’s it for them and they move on to the next chapter. Others want to keep going like Mahe. He’s one of New Zealand’s best rowers. The world’s! He went till he was 40. Hamish Bond was a gold medalist at 35. So it varies. You’ll probably see me in Paris [2024 Olympic Games]. I’ll be 27 in Paris. I’ve still got a few more good years. I enjoy the lifestyle. It’s awesome to represent your country in what you love and coming back home and seeing the smiles on your families’ faces. It’s such an awesome experience. My dad in particular he loves rowing. It’s nice we performed on the world stage. My parents have given me so much throughout my career and life so it’s nice to come home and give them some joy and help them celebrate in our success.
When you see the kids the same age you were when you started rowing, you’re a hero to them now. How do you take that reception? What do you say to them?
It’s so cliche but be yourself. I’ve not actually made it back to my hometown yet. But there’ll be a wee bit of a reception when we get back there. But it is as cliche as it sounds! I dreamed as big as I could, for me an Olympic gold medal. Now I got one! It does show it’s possible. I’m just a guy from Hawke’s Bay, I got a nice family around me and there are so many people around me in the same position that I was. I am excited if can inspire some future kids to do what they love doing and to pursue their dreams.
As a Brit, we have an awareness of Australians and New Zealanders mainly coz of the sporting interaction. Through cricket, rugby. Sportspeople from New Zealanders have always spoken well, appear calm, but extremely competitive, and at the same time humble in either victory and defeat. Talking before about what it’s important about the Olympics, do you think your typical New Zealand athlete embodies that in the way they behave?
I think we are always quietly competitive. Being from a small island nation at the bottom of the world, I guess there’s a sense of a point to prove against bigger nations like GB, Germany. I guess we’re humble in some aspects. Although we did have a pretty big celebration when we crossed the line! I don’t know if that was the most humble way about it.
I guess this is something you can comment on more than I can. You don’t really notice how interact with other nations. It’s easier to see from the outside.
I remember after the race, the Germans and the Brits were, understandably, a wee be disappointed. But that was such an exciting race to be a part of. It was hot, fast. An Olympic final. Although they didn’t get the result they wanted, I think it was just a cool experience. For me, to be a part of that race and to race against the best athletes in the world. I don’t know if that consoles them.
Tom, you are a wonderful representative of your sport, and you’re also a pleasure to talk to. Thank you again for taking the time out and for being upfront and honest in your responses. Thank you very, very much for taking part in this podcast!
Thank you for having me. I’m glad I can share my story and give some insight into what it’s like being a professional athlete, what the Olympic games were like, and my views on what it was all about. The Olympics brings people together. We wouldn’t be discussing this right now if the Olympics hadn’t gone ahead. That’s a cool aspect. You’re a brit in Berlin doing a podcast, I’m a Kiwi in a farm in North Canterbury. How cool is that?!
Re-watch the thrilling men’s eight rowing Tokyo 2020 final to appreciate what an amazing race it was.