Robbie Manson is in the midst of a breakthrough season in 2017. With back to back wins in the two World Cup regattas he has attended, and a smoking world best time of 6.30.740 to boot; it would be fair to say he is off to a dream start in his debut in the single scull.
Such is the rate of Manson’s rise in the solo boat, one could be forgiven for labelling him an overnight success. But, as everyone who knows rowing will attest, success at the top level of the sport is anything but easy. I sat down with Robbie to get his view of his rowing journey so far, and how he feels about his new status as the man to beat in Sarasota.
Robbie Manson’s first foray into rowing came relatively late by New Zealand Rowing standards...
“My first proper race was as an U17 novice in the four at Canterbury Champs in Twizel. We won that race and I remember thinking at the time that winning felt pretty cool. I had raced once before then in a quad at the Marlborough champs, but I had only been rowing for two weeks so that was really hard. I remember thinking back then that I really wanted to scull, and not sweep, but because I was a late starter the only novice event in my age group was the four and it happened that there were three other novice guys to row with so that’s what we did.’’
An early affinity for sculling has shaped Manson’s development as a rower. A mere three years later he would be selected for his first world championship event, in the U23 Men’s double, in which he would also win his first world title. From there it was on to the London Olympics in the Men’s quadruple scull, with the cycle dedicated to the double scull, taking him to his second Olympic Games. But after four years in the double and a disappointing performance in Rio in 2016, the switch to the single scull has provided an exciting new challenge for Robbie…
“We went into Rio with a really good chance to win a medal. We did everything right in the build-up, but just didn’t get it right on the day and things went wrong for us at the wrong time. That was pretty devastating, but I decided that I wanted to come back stronger and try a different boat class”
The decision to go for the single was an ambitious one, with the incumbent Mahe Drysdale winning his second Olympic Gold in Rio, adding to the legacy of great New Zealand single scullers. But with the support of friends, Manson made the call quickly…
At the Olympics you have a lot of time to think and reflect, especially once the racing has finished. I spoke with a good friend of mine Axel Dickinson who was the team reserve, and I told him that I wanted to go for the single next year, and I also spoke with a former coach who I know well and trust, and the response I got from them both was really positive, in fact I think they both had more faith in my potential than I had in myself, so that gave me confidence. When I came back (after Rio) my sole focus was on doing the single.”
While some find the single a lonely experience, the change has been refreshing for Manson, empowering him with the autonomy to take a personalised approach to moving the boat.
“I’ve always enjoyed the single and actually like being on my own when I’m rowing, I can really focus on what makes the boat go well as you get that immediate feedback. I also like that fact that it’s all on me- If I go well its 100% me, if I don’t it’s also 100% me.”
Since making the switch, progress in the single has been swift. Having sealed selection in his boat of choice in March, Manson’s training turned to preparations for his racing debut at the second world cup regatta in Poznan, Poland. Racing in the Rowing New Zealand winter series regattas, Manson had some indication of his potential. However, going into the regatta, and his first experience in the unknown of international single sculling, expectations were mixed...
“When I was selected in the single my expectations were that hopefully I would make the final, and If I do really well I might get a medal and that would be amazing. The hard thing was I had never raced anyone before, so I guess I didn’t have huge expectations to begin with. After the winter series racing, it turned out I was going lot faster than I expected. That raised my expectations and I believed I was capable of winning at the World Cups. But still you get there and you do feel the nerves and start to think ‘wow this is going to be really hard, but I hope I can win”
Winning may be one thing, a new world best time with a winning margin just shy of 8 seconds is another, and came as somewhat a surprise…
“I was looking at the weather during the week and I knew it was going to be good on Sunday but I didn’t think it was going to be that fast. Just before I got on the water the women’s pair broke their world best time by a second, and I said to Noel as a joke ‘does that mean I get to start one second closer to them in squad racing now?’ I wasn’t going out there thinking about trying to set a world best time, I looked at my splits twice during the race, once in the first 500m and I was slower than world record pace, and then again in the last 500m where I was going faster. I looked at the board when I finished thinking I might have done around 6.35 or so, then I saw 6.30 and my first thought was it had to be a mistake. Then the full results came out and it started to sink in but I didn’t really realise the significance of it initially.”
Manson followed up the win in Poznan with a second victory in Lucerne, firmly establishing himself at the head of the men’s singles fleet. It would appear he has it all worked out, but the singles game can be more complex than other boats, with race tactics and mental strategies coming into play…
“I think the single is definitely different (to the double) where tactics are concerned. I come from a New Zealand culture where we just try to go as fast as possible from A to B, whereas I’ve noticed in the single, other nations will go out very fast from the start to try and sit in front and gain maybe a mental advantage. I have just been going in to row my own race with a plan to just keep going and not slow down, and row through people without trying to do anything differently. So, it is just interesting kind of learning what other people do and how to race, every race overseas I felt like I learnt something new”
When asked how he feels about heading into the world championships as the favourite to win, Manson makes it clear he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“Obviously there is a bit of pressure, but I’m going into the world champs like every other regatta I have done so far, I don’t think of myself as the favourite. I look at the guys in the field, like Ondrej, Angel and Damir etc, and to me they are the ones to beat, I want to go out there and have my best race and I think if I do that then I am capable of winning. I don’t go out there thinking of myself as the best or the favourite.”
After 7 years competing in elite rowing, 2017 is shaping up to be Robbie Manson’s year. When asked about obstacles and setbacks in his career, Manson shrugs them off as an inevitable part of sport, to which his response has always been to return from adversities stronger and better. Yet, five years ago he was preparing to give the sport away, fearing his decision to come out wouldn’t be accepted, and the potential backlash too much to endure. Fortunately, this was not the case, and the reveal has only added to Manson’s enjoyment of the sport..
“I had it in my mind that I couldn’t row anymore, and that everyone would take it really badly, mainly because I was so insecure about it myself. But it turned out it wasn’t even an issue. I would say that coming out has made me happier off the water, I am more comfortable being myself, I enjoy the rowing environment more. I don’t have to hide anything or worry about people finding out. I am the same athlete on the water, I’ve always been competitive and determined to win, but off the water I am happier.”
Rowing is fortunate to have retained Manson. With Rio silver medallist Damir Martin, former world champion and Olympic medallist Ondrej Synek and Cuban sensation Angel Fournier-Rodriguez all lining up to take him on in the seasons pinnacle event, the stage is set for the Men’s single scull to feature as one of the most anticipated races of the years pinnacle regatta. With his drive to succeed and confident approach, there is no doubt it will be hard to stop Robbie Manson on his mission for gold.
The Rowing World Championships takes place in Sarasota-Bradenton, USA from 24th September to 1st October.
Name: Robbie Manson
Rowing Club: Wairau
Started Rowing where/when: Blenheim rowing club, in 2006.
Sporting Idol: The Kiwi Pair (Hamish Bond and Eric Murray) for their consistency and dominance.
Proudest Achievement on the Concept2 Indoor Rower: This year I have done 5.52 on the erg for 2k, this is the first PB for me in four years, so I am glad to be making progress on the erg again.
What sculls do you use? Concept2 Skinny sculls, I immediately felt comfortable with the Concept2’s when I began using them, it’s not often you try a new piece of equipment and immediately prefer it, but that was my experience with my Concept2 sculls.
Greatest quality as a rower: I think my technique, I may not be as physically strong as some of the other guys but I think my technique works in my favour and that allows me to rate higher for longer.
Who would you thank for your success? I’d thank my coach Noel as I feel like he gets the best out of me. All of the support staff at Rowing New Zealand, there is a big team that help with everything from injuries to nutrition so I would thank all of them. My mum of course, she is my biggest supporter, and I have a group of good friends who have always offered me support and confidence when things aren’t going well or even when they are, they know who they are.
One thing you are embarrassed to admit… I love Disney movies. My favourites right now are probably Moana and Beauty and the Beast- I just watched that on the plane. I didn’t sing along on the plane, but I do enjoy a sing along to Moana.