Why see a movie with a story you already know the ending to? Or, for that matter, why read a rowing book when you already know how what happened?
The salient facts of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray's scintillating run from 2009 until 2016 in the men's pair are well known, and fairly straightforward to recount; Murray & Bond were undefeated in the event (a 69 race win streak, a numerical record that amused Murray in more than a few ways), captured six world titles (as well as one in the coxed pair), won two consecutive Olympic gold medals in the event (in 2012 and 2016) and gave the internet this; what more is there to know?
As it turns out, there is quite a bit, and in these locked-down days of social isolation and lonely solo training grinds, this is the time to settle down on your couch with this book. Co-written with NZ sports journalist Scotty Stevenson, the book is a ripping read, and certainly had at least this reader pretty fired up.
Beyond being an all-around great sports book, surprisingly it's also rowing's first truly 21st century rowing biography. With all due credit to british rowing historian and journalist Chris Dodd, who has done tremendous work this century in chronicling global rowing's recent history, 'The Kiwi Pair' nonetheless is the first widely available account of 'modern' rowing, training, and racing.
What also makes the book eminently readable is its structure; the book is arranged in sections alternately written by Bond and Murray, and this enhances the read considerably; much of this is no doubt due to Stevenson's steady hand, finding a way to edit and arrange Bond and Murray's accounts so that the story is virtually seamless.
(The book is also tremendously well paced; it's a strong book that can be titled 'The Kiwi Pair,' and run for almost 190 pages before Murray and Bond notch their first win in the pair; the tale is built in the telling.)
Allowing Murray and Bond alternating sections in the book also reinforces something that most likely was common knowledge, but nevertheless comes as a surprise; Murray and Bond are very different people.
For example, here is Hamish Bond on arriving at university:
"Knox [College] was a popular hall with both new and returning students, and its social calendar was a busy one--not that I had much to do with it. I was essentially a fly on the wall[...]. Invitations out on Saturday nights would invariably be politely declined, with an explanation that I had training on Sunday mornings. After a while, the invitations stopped."
Eric Murray had a distinctly different view:
"University life was fresh and exciting and came with the usual freedoms one experiences upon leaving home, namely a shitload of partying."
This is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course, but the fact remains that Murray and Bond are distinctly different people (and athletes), and this is something that they both acknowledge, and don't attempt to soft-pedal, especially when it led to conflict within the crew.
Murray and Bond did not emerge as 'The Kiwi Pair' fully formed; unless you have already been deeply steeped in rowing knowledge, it might be surprising to know that Murray actually raced in the 2004 Olympics, and that Murray and Bond rowed together in a talented, but ultimately ill-fated New Zealand Men's Four in the 2008 Olympics as well.
Neither Olympics was a great success for either athlete, and the book's first big turn, if you will, comes with an invitation from Bond to Murray, after the 2008 Olympics, to try rowing a pair together. The NZ Olympic group had returned from Beijing shattered, their funding had been slashed, and both athletes were looking for a new way forward.
As Murray explains, this wasn't a random come-hither moment, however:
"Out of the blue, I received an email from Hamish. In typical Hamish fashion, it dispensed entirely with pleasantries and simply got to the point. He wrote that he had talked to Dick Tonks and had told him that he wanted to row a pair. He wanted to know if I was interested, and proceeded to outline his suggested programme for the year. This wasn't a message of support from a mate. It was a calculated and rational plan of attack. Hamish wanted to win championships."
The rest, as they say, is the "recent" history we are now all now so aware of. Murray and Bond chronicle the vast amount of training they did together (perhaps not in the depth of detail that hardcore rowers might want to see, but nevertheless), their growth as a crew, and all the the ups and downs of their journey.
As we well know, this journey was mostly "up," as the crew did not lose a race for 7 years. However, there are also a few touch-and-go moments here that really illustrate Murray & Bond's commitment making sure that the foundation for their success was firm enough. Both of their Olympic wins took place under potentially disastrous injury clouds; in 2012, Hamish Bond was nursing a back injury that kept him out of the boat for more time than he had ever missed previously, while in 2016, Murray suffered a fairly heavy-duty bike crash just 10 days before the heats in Rio.
In both cases, the crew rebounded to win; in 2012, despite starting the Olympic season with a "half-broken stroke," in Bond's words, the crew set the worlds best time for the men's pair during the Olympic regatta.
What's remarkable is how both Murray and Bond straddle honesty about their relationship with the profound respect they have for each other, and how well this is captured in the book. Anything less would have likely led to the story to read almost too good to be true, but as it stands, it's as true an acknowledgement of the trust, cooperation, and indeed, forbearance required to keep an athletic partnership going at the highest of levels for the better part of a decade as anything you will read.
The interesting parts of Murray and Bond's path as a pair, for rowing geeks anyway, can be found in their recounting of episodes that are not necessarily reflected on any results sheet. The pair go into some detail regarding their acrminonious breakup with coach Dick Tonks after their first Olympic gold medal in 2012 (and, while most of us are likely hardened to some degree by the notion that many of the toughest rowing coaches in the world are, well, challenging people, this episode takes the cake).
The most fascinating revelation of the book, however, at least to this reviewer, was how large a role the most recent "style revolution" in rowing (for lack of a better term) played in Murray & Bond's development.
To recap; in 2009, Australian Olympian Drew Ginn (himself a two-time Olympic champion in the Men's Pair), posted online his musings about what the most effective rhythm in rowing might be. For Hamish Bond, listening to Ginn's theory was a watershed moment.
"Everything, and I mean everything suddenly clicked for me. As soon as we were back into training, I played the recording to Eric, who was happy to try some of the things Drew suggested. In essence, everything Drew said could be boiled down to a single, defining thought: don't fight the boat. I felt like it could revolutionise what we did."
To this day, both Murray and Bond freely cop to Ginn's influence.
It might seem odd that a book about the Kiwi Pair takes almost 160 pages to get to said pair, then 70 pages more until the "promised land" of an Olympic gold medal, then a mere 38 more to get to the pair's second Olympic gold, but it makes perfect sense; getting to the two gold medals was the sum total of Murray and Bond's experiences along the way, and the lessons of that journey, which they expound upon in great detail, are the most important elements.
Perhaps fittingly, as the elder of the two, Eric Murray gets the last word.
"What we always knew didn't need discussing. We were two very distinct personalities and we found the finest of interesecting lines upon which those personalities could bleed into one. It was on that line that we rowed a boat into history. On that line we became the Kiwi Pair."
It's notable that, save for the title, this is the only mention in the book of their history-making moniker.
How fortunate are we then, for not only did the Kiwi Pair capture our imagination for the better part of a decade, but now we're able to enjoy the full measure of their rowing exploits in this most excellent retelling. Well-rowed, and indeed, well-written.
"The Kiwi Pair"