Local hopefuls Billy Stairmand and Eve Macfarlane may have missed out on medals in Tokyo but a one-time “scrawny kid” from Te Mata has made the Olympic dais – and helped create a little history.
A plucky Billy officially finished a very creditable ninth in the men’s surfing, while Eve’s quadruple women’s scull crew finished second in the B final.
Meanwhile diminutive Caleb Shepherd – also in rowing – made it all the way into the medals as coxswain for the Kiwi women’s eight who last week took silver in an outstanding performance that created history on two counts.
This was not only New Zealand’s first female crew to win an Olympic medal in the eights but Caleb also became the first man to win a women’s Olympic Games medal after steering the crew to second place – just 0.91 seconds behind the Canadian eight.
His medal was only made possible because the International Rowing Federation and International Olympic Committee changed their rules to remove gender constraints for coxswains back in 2017, soon after the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
So in front of eight great New Zealand women – but at the stern of the boat – sat Caleb making Olympic rowing history.
The now 28 year old attended Te Mata School as a youngster and played rugby for Raglan where, his mother Sherryn Olsen recalls, the jerseys looked more like dresses on Caleb’s small frame. “He was such a scrawny kid,” she told the Chronicle.
And she didn’t believe it when the director of rowing at Hamilton Boys’ High School – where Caleb started coxing as a boarder – predicted her son could have an international career.
But he’s been “all over the world” since then, she adds proudly.
Among his accolades, Caleb’s won gold as the cox for Hamish Bond and Eric Murray in the men’s coxed pair at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam, and two years later came sixth with his team in the men’s eights at the Rio Olympics.
For some years Caleb regularly posted on Facebook his highs and lows as a Kiwi coxswain aspiring to “chase the Olympic dream”.
Since he won silver, Raglan Notice Board has been awash with congratulatory messages from family and old friends.
“Massive” congratulations were also posted to fellow rower Eve Macfarlane, who has now represented New Zealand at rowing in the past three Olympics.
Her quadruple finished fourth in their heat then went to repechage, finishing third and out of medal contention. In the B final they came second to rank eighth overall in the event.
Now also 28, Eve is a contemporary of Caleb’s who has relished a lifestyle of flatting with fellow high performance athletes in Cambridge during weekdays, while returning in her downtime to a tiny home in Te Mata with partner Chris Morrison – a former New Zealand under-23 rower himself before suffering a back injury.
Chris has since changed tack by turning his passion for woodwork into a fledgling business building tiny homes.
Hometown hero Billy Stairmand reckons he had the time of his life as an Olympian, despite striking the most difficult of opponents and not medalling as he had hoped. “The travel, the Olympic Village, the greeting to the NZ team, the family vibe, the opening ceremony and the competition … there have been so many amazing things.”
He and team-mate Ella Williams from Whangamata bowed out in their third rounds, ending the Kiwi campaign. It was one day before the finals in 1.0m-1.5m messy waves affected by onshore winds from a typhoon.
Billy was up against defending world champion Italo Ferreira of Brazil and put it all on the line, attempting a gigantic forehand air. “Yeah, that punt, damn I wish I landed that!”
He reckons that wave gave him “heaps” of speed and he knew Ferreira was especially good at airs so gave it a go. “I wasn’t gonna do a cutback to get a 3-point ride.”
Unluckily it didn’t pay off, but Billy remains philosophical.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t beat the World Champ, but I had one of the best days of my life. I became an Olympian,” he says, up against world champs. “I love a good challenge … And I hope I did New Zealand proud.”
*Wellington swimmer Lewis Clareburt who made two finals at his debut Olympic Games traces his whakapapa back to Motakotako Marae in Phillips Rd.