6 Jul 2017

Sport: Vanuatu Rowing building for the future

2:22 pm on 6 July 2017

If Andrew MacKenzie has his way he will soon be out of a job. Usurped. Not needed.

The Professor of Landscape Architecture has coached rowing crews at state and national level in Australia over the past 15 years.

But, after moving to Vanuatu with his wife, he finds himself with the lofty new title 'Director of Rowing" for the Vanuatu Rowing Association and is now on a mission to develop young rowers and rowing coaches in the Melanesian country.

Luigi Teilemb become the first Vanuatu rower to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio last year, only five years after taking up the sport.

Rio-bound Vanuatu rower Luigi Teilemb.

Luigi Teilemb. Photo: Vanuatu Rowing Association

Andrew MacKenzie has been coaching the elite training squad in Port Vila and said he was impressed by the level of talent on display.

"Technically they're pretty good. They're actually quite solid, they've had a good base," he said.

"Luigi isn't the only one that's got that talent, there's a lot of natural rowers here.

"These rowers are all pretty young, they've grown up in an environment where they spent a lot of time running around as kids so they're all naturally pretty fit and strong and pretty resilient."

Director of Rowing Andrew MacKenzie.

Andrew MacKenzie in Vanuatu. Photo: Supplied / Vanuatu Rowing Association

But after stints coaching at the Australian National University Boat Club as well as leading a team to the World Championships in 2005, MacKenzie admitted his approach needed some adapting for a new audience.

"I guess the big challenge here is that I don't really understand the culture of competition or competitiveness as we might in Australia, so really trying to get them to set their own goals and speak to them has actually probably been the biggest challenge," he said.

"It's no good me coming in and saying "well this is how we used to do it in Australia" or New Zealand's very similar, so then to actually go the other way and say "you need to train this much if you want to compete at this level", you need to really sort of understand where they're coming from.

"The other one of course for these guys is just simple things like nutrition, getting access to the shed.

"I mean we train early in the morning and they've got to be able to get down there. They don't have mums and dad with cars who can drop them off, they often have to walk or ride a bike or catch public transport, so they're the kind of challenges and we've just got to work around those."

The mixed masters quad training in Port Vila.

The mixed masters quad training in Port Vila. Photo: Supplied / Vanuatu Rowing Association


Andrew MacKenzie said when his time in Vanuatu is up he wants to ensure there is infrastructure and personnel in place to keep the rowing programme powering forward without missing a beat.

"There is a lot of goodwill and a lot of energy and enthusiasm but transferring say my knowledge or anybody's knowledge that comes to the country into the new cohort or population," he said.

"So that you're not constantly relying on individuals like me to kind of appear out of the blue and riding that wave while we're here. It's just trying to get something that's a bit more sustainable, it's really important."

Setting goals

The elite training squad don't have any major regattas on the calendar for the remainder of this year but Andrew MacKenzie says 2018 is shaping up as a big one.

Vanuatu are hoping to send teams to compete at the New Zealand National Championships in February and the Australian National Championships in March.

If that goes well the World Championships are in Bulgaria in September and there's also an opportunity to send a crew to the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in October.

Elite training squad member Rio Rilli.

Elite training squad member Rio Rilli. Photo: Supplied / Vanuatu Rowing Association

Until then Andrew MacKenzie said was a case of putting in the hours of hard slog in and out of the water.

"My main goal here is to set up a system of talent identification, coach training programmes and training equipment," he said.

"They're well serviced with on water equipment, so boats and thing, but they've still got a long way to go in terms of off water, like weights training and cross training. (Another focus is) to also give the rowers some sort of measurable, achievable goals.

"It's really difficult here, you can imagine, where they don't actually get to compete unless rowers come to the country or they go to another country and so most of their time they're spending training is really about them trying to set some goals for them in terms of doing local time trials.

"Personal goals in boat speed, and getting them excited about the idea that they can essentially measure their speed as well as in a boat compared to other countries just by doing time trials and doing competitive activities in the lagoon here."

Elite Training Squad member Peter Thor.

Elite Training Squad member Peter Thor. Photo: Supplied / Vanuatu Rowing Association