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Thursday, August 3, 2000

Rowers delight in training amid cattle and crocodiles

 Man-eating crocodiles, deadly snakes, wild bulls and wilder cowboys -- Canadian rowing's pre-Olympic training site in Australia is going to make Fanshawe Lake seem more idyllic than Thoreau's Walden Pond.

 Relax, women's rowing coach Al Morrow advised at a reception for the rowers last night. Rockhampton, a town 1,500 kilometres north of Sydney near the Tropic of Capricorn, is a rowing dream.

 The fact is, he assured, it's the best site outside of the one the host nation will be using and came as a result of the old boy network and pre-site scouting. Aussie head coach Brian Richardson was Canadian head coach until after the 1996 Olympics and when asked what site he'd use if he had second pick, named the small cattle centre up near the Great Barrier Reef.

 Another Canadian figured in the Canadians getting the training quarters all to themselves, Morrow suspected. Alex Baumann, a former Olympic gold medal winner, is now a member of the Queensland sports ministry. Rowing Canada's Alan Roaf went to have a look, some rowers tried it out and it was a go.

 Yeah, but what about the crocodiles everyone's talking about? Is this Crocodile Dundee country?

 "I think the locals were having us on," said Chris Davidson of the lightweight fours, who was among a group of Canadian rowers who scoped the area out. "We can row for miles above a dam and there are some, but they're very small fresh-water ones. Below the dam, where the sea water comes in, there are the larger ones called salties, 12-14 feet long and 500-600 pounds."

 Some 140 tickets at up to $100 were sold for the fund-raiser/appreciation night at the Galleria, said London Rowing Society president Michael Murphy, and the only marine life was in the hors d'oeuvres. As usual, the enormously successful rowers had the look of champions six weeks before the opening ceremonies in Sydney.

 Triple Olympic gold medallist Marnie McBean set the tone.

 "Our bags are packed and our passports in order," she told the audience.

 Veteran eights medallist Alison Korn was one of those who checked out the training camp site and pronounced it perfect, if rustic. Rockhampton apparently is the beef cattle centre of Australia and there's a wild west feel about it.

 "We were in one restaurant where they actually had bull-riding," she said. "There was an empty row of seats right down near the action so we settled into them. We were covered in mud and manure in seconds. The locals got a pretty good laugh."

 The team, the women from London and the men from Victoria, leave for Australia Aug. 15 and will train at Rockhampton until Sept. 8, before going down to Sydney. The training site is warmer and drier than Sydney and far enough from the ocean to preclude the temptation to sunbathe on the beach.

 "There's not much to do but that's not a bad idea," Korn said. "The place we're staying is like condominium apartments. With laundry facilities," she added with the sort of relief all athletes do.

 The lightweight fours -- Iain Brambell, Davidson, Gavin Hassett and Jon Beare -- won't mind the warmer climate at the training site. Weight is always a consideration since they must average 70 kilograms, with nobody over 72.5 kilos.

 "It's merely a part of lightweight rowing," Davidson said, "another element of being a professional lightweight. Sure we envy the heavyweight guys at times. I look forward to the day when I never have to look at a scale. But it's not really a problem. I'd say we're all about a kilo over right now but once we're there, that can be gone overnight."

 Lightweight men's coach Volker Nolte says the dammed river at Rockhampton permits as much as 50 kilometres of non-stop rowing. And he says the local yarns about the fearsome salties are a myth.

 "But the snakes . . . " he smiled.

 A good place for an intense rowing training camp, clearly. Who wants to stray far from the dock?