In the Olympic Games at Rio in 2016, eight of Australia’s 29 rowers came from Sydney University or Melbourne University.In London in 2012 it was 18 out of 46. These fine, sandstone establishments have long been the sport’s centres of excellence. It’s where a lot of money goes – because it has to: it takes a lot to feed these people.
Rowers from the two university boat clubs – who on Sunday will race on Sydney Harbour in Australia’s version of Oxford versus Cambridge on the Thames – train ten or more times a week. On the water, on the rower, in the gym. When they’re not training they’re studying, sleeping or eating. And they can eat for Australia. Food is fuel for oft-revving engines. It’s estimated a rower costs $15,000 a year to feed, clothe and move about.
Money and opportunity is one reason Australia’s rowing stocks have come from a relatively small catchment. Yet the sport is looking to spread the love. Talent spotters are heading to swim meets, to basketball and rugby tournaments, to wherever long, strong and athletic people gather.
David Bartholot was discovered like this. Though it was more that he discovered himself.
Bartholot – who on Sunday will row number 4 from bow (front) of the Sydney boat – grew up in Forster on the NSW Mid North Coast with a brother, a single mum, and a father overseas. He went to year 12 at Great Lakes College in Tuncurry and there he ran and swam and ran again. “I liked to keep fit,” he says. “I tried all sports. Enjoyed them all. I was an okay runner, an okay swimmer.” But he was looking for something else. And when he was 18-years-old opportunity – even serendipity – knocked.
On a life-saving patrol on Crowdy Head Beach, a man called Rod Croker approached Bartholot and said words to the effect of, “Son, you are a likely-looking lad. How would you like to try out for our surf boat crew?” Bartholot, you see, stands 197cm and weighs 93kg. Long arms, long legs, good lungs. In surf boat parlance, a perfect specimen.
Yet he was not that fussed. His brother had been a boatie but Bartholot declared that he’d like to try rowing on flat water instead, for no other reason than he’d tried all the sports and he’d like a new way to keep fit.
So Croker made a call.
Enter Phil Chalmers of Manning River Rowing Club. The Manning has produced it’s share of rowing world champions and Chalmers had benefited from their teaching. He was keen to spread the love. He took the boy out for double-scull on Wallis Lake. And it was a bit rocky early. “I had a couple of goes and was wondering what I’d got myself into,” says Bartholot. “I found it quite difficult to stay in!”
His next go wasn’t much better.
But the seed was sown.
He headed to Wollongong University and there was little rowing there. He rang Sydney Uni to tell them he wanted to row. They brought him up for a trial, worked him on the stationary machine over 500m and 1000m. And said to him: “You can do this. You have the physical attributes. But it will be very hard yakka. Your grades have to be High Distinction or better. You must be all-in.”
Bartholot went all-in. He flogged himself, studying and rowing. He won a scholarship. He won the best rookie award. And today he rows for the Sydney Uni eight in the blue riband Australian version of Oxford vs Cambridge. On Sydney Harbour. As people line the shore. As helicopters cover the event from above and police boats keep the flotilla of spectator craft from getting too close.
Bartholot says the race is one of the highlights of the year. “It’s right up there. Everyone looks forward to it. It’s a bit of a grudge match. The two universities produce most of the top rowers. At the uni games you always look out for Melbourne. You don’t want to lose to them.”
Is it like State of Origin? “I guess you could say that,” he smiles. “There’s a little bit of chat before and during the race, though nothing untoward. If you’re ahead you’ll be enjoying it, maybe saying a few things. Across the water you can hear their cox talking. And if you say something they’ll hear you.”
Bartholot has raced in one other Australian Boat Race, in 2016. Sydney Uni’s men’s eight have won the last four races. Their crew contains Olympian Sasha Belonogoff, who won silver in the quad sculls in Rio. Yet the race will be as tough for him as anyone.
“It’s 4.6km long through pretty choppy water,” says Bartholot. “Normally we race in lanes on flat water over one or two kilometres. This is a staying race and we don’t really train for it. But we’re in our pre-season so it’ll be good for us.”
Both crews’ plan will be to get ahead as early as they can and force the other crew to row in their wake. If you’re behind it’s hard to overtake because there’s less purchase for an oar in moving water. Bartholot says his crew is known for slow starts but strong finishes. “If we can hold Melbourne off early we should be able to bring it home,” he says. If fans are lucky the race will be a repeat of the first modern match on the Yarra River when the lead changed three times and Sydney won by less than a foot won.
“But if we hold this race for a hundred years,” says race organiser Chris Noel OAM, “we’ll never see a race that close again.”
Once the race is done Bartholot will head to Canberra and spend a week trying out for a place in the National Training Centre. It’s where Australian Olympic rowers are made. Which means a bit over four years since those first wobbly paddles on Wallis Lake, David Bartholot is trying out to row for Australia. In the Olympics. In Japan in 2020. And he would recommend the journey to anyone.
“If I wasn’t doing it I’d be exercising on the rower in the gym. It’s a good way to keep fit. You also travel. I’ve been to China, to Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane. And it’s nice doing it with a club. It’s more fun than going to gym on your own.
“It’s an ‘all-in’ sort of sport. It’s not something you can really do recreationally. The fitness, the time. But if people have goals to be good at it, as I did, I’d recommend it 100 per cent. I’ve never looked back.”