Blenheim rower Kobe Miller took full advantage of his first outing in the black singlet of New Zealand, relishing his trip to the world junior championships in Japan earlier this month.
Not only did the strapping sculler excel on the water at the Tokyo-based course, he was also able to mix his first taste of international competition with a chance to experience the culture of the host nation.
Miller, 18, was part of the 14-strong New Zealand team, selected after week-long trials in April, who competed from August 7-11 on the Sea Forest Waterway Regatta course, venue for the 2020 Olympic regatta.
He teamed up with 16-year-old Christchurch Boys’ High School rower Scott Shackleton, a Maadi Cup stand-out this year, in the men’s double.
The duo made a patchy start to the regatta. After placing third in their heat they moved to the repechage, eyes firmly fixed on an overall top eight placing, at the minimum.
Unfortunately a technical issue left them trailing the field by some distance soon after the start. However, they didn’t panic, putting in a big move in the latter stages to get their bow ball across the line first and earn a spot in the A/B semifinals.
Again they made a rough start, and once more they recovered, but this time the effort had taken its toll against a class field. A fifth placing, behind eventual medallists Germany and Italy, meant the Kiwis narrowly missed a spot in the six-boat A final.
However, they made no mistake in the B final. Inspired by a good luck message from Marlborough sporting legend Joseph Sullivan, Miller and Shackleton went to an early lead, then hung on to beat a strong crew from the Netherlands and claim seventh position overall.
“Our goal before we went there was to finish top eight,” said Miller, “and while we were pretty disappointed to miss a place in the A final, especially since the other three New Zealand crews made the top six, we had to revise our focus, especially since the men’s double was the biggest class at the regatta with 24 entries.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking, but so enjoyable to cross the finish line first.”
Miller was hugely impressed with the course and relished his chance to sample it prior to the big show next year.
“It was the best course I have rowed on. The set-up was really nice, the facilities were amazing.”
Miller said there was always a bit of wind affecting the racing. “It would mostly be a tailwind, sometimes a small headwind … it was very rare to get a side wind though,” he added.
“One of the struggles at the Olympics will be the heat [between 34-38 degrees, with extreme humidity, when Miller was racing] but apart from that it will go really well. There are plenty of excellent viewing areas for spectators, with more stands to be built for the Olympics.”
The custom-made venue is situated in Tokyo Bay between two reclaimed islands. It has been specifically constructed in a former shipping channel to cater for an eight-lane, buoyed course with wind and wave protection along all sides. Miller said other features were a bridge going over the course at around the 600m mark, plus a succession of low-flying planes coming and going to and from Tokyo International Airport.
The Central Rowing Performance Centre member and a South Island representative last year was hugely impressed with the ever-helpful and polite attitude of his hosts in Tokyo, both at the rowing course and during his build-up time in Kyoto.
“We went to a shine and learned about the culture of Japan … we also did some meditation with a monk who had meditated for 17 years, they put a lot of time into finding peace within themselves.
“We also went up the tallest building in Japan, to the 42nd floor, and sampled the local cuisine. They are very good at treating visitors to their country well.”
The former MBC student, who won several South Island titles and two Maadi Cup medals, is taking a gap year now, working with his father in the Ezi-Mow business and has plans to study sport science at Otago University next year.
On the rowing front he has his sights firmly set on a making the NZ under-23 trials, then another shot at international rowing.
To that end he hopes to drop his 2km erg time under six minutes and work on both his sculling and sweep oar techniques, intent on keeping his future options open.
Given his progress in 2019, chances are that we will see the 195cm, 90kg youngster “back in black” next year.