Following a long association with rowing throughout New Zealand, Oamaru Rowing Club stalwart Stew Mitchell will be Nelson-bound in January, leaving behind a club of which he has become a cornerstone.
Mitchell’s association with the Oamaru Club began in the 1956-57 season, but his first experience of rowing came much earlier when his father, George, took him to the Port Chalmers Rowing Club.
“I think my involvement with rowing started at Port Chalmers,” he said.
“I was probably wheeled in in a pram in 1937. My dad rowed there for a number of years, He was quite an accomplished rower,” he said.
Mitchell reflected warmly on his father’s contribution to the club and remembers the serviceman joining the club after returning from World War 2.
“He rowed there right through the war. Later on I met a lot of guys that said he was the reason they got back in to rowing when they came back from overseas. He was a life member of the Port Chalmers Club. He wasn’t a big fella but he was a reasonably good rower,” he said.
George Mitchell then moved the family to Herbert after buying a poultry farm, and Stew went to the now defunct Otepopo School before attending Waitaki Boys’ High School.
“I was playing tennis at Herbert Tennis Club in the summer, and I played rugby for Shag Point. That was there last year in about 1950, so I then joined Maheno,” he said.
“I started work at the National Mortgage and Agency Co.
“I was still playing tennis and went to town to board and was a bit shy of joining a tennis club in the town, so I got a couple of mates and we joined the Oamaru Rowing Club. We thought, ‘What are we going to do over the summer to keep fit for rugby?'”
Mitchell stroked for the crew, which consisted of Mason brothers Alan and Murray and Graeme Jones.
The team competed at Lake Wakatipu, but Mitchell’s highlight of the regatta was beating the New Zealand under-20 champions with Alan Mason in the coxed pairs.
Shortly after, Mason was approached by coach Russell “Rusty” Robertson at a local bar and, from there, the club began to grow in numbers.
“We had a bit of publicity over that win, it was the club’s best regatta for some years and the great Rusty Robertson had a talk in the bar to Alan Mason and he came on board,” he said.
“That bit of publicity we had helped and some guys from Old Boys, Athies and Blues got involved. He (Rusty Robertson) said, ‘are you guys interested in carrying on?'”
Mitchell cited Robertson’s influence as instrumental in the development of local rowing, and the coach’s belief that an amalgamation of styles would allow New Zealand teams to progress.
“Rusty had this cunning plan. At the Canterbury Centennial Games, the California Bears, who were the USA representative eight at the Olympic Games, and the Aussies came over and raced against New Zealand and Rusty felt that if you could develop a style that was a mix between the Yanks and the Aussies that’d be it.
“He (Rusty Robertson) didn’t coach us in the first year, it was a fella called Ron Brinsdon. He was one of three brothers and then after the last regatta he advised me that he was moving on and I was club secretary in 1957 in my first year of rowing.”
The following year, at the New Zealand Nationals in 1958-59, a young Oamaru four including Bill Smedley and Keith Heselwood produced a major upset in beating a Hamilton crew coached by Bill Eaddy in a borrowed boat at Lake Waihola
“Just that little bit of publicity worked and we attracted some really big guys who went on to represent New Zealand and won the then empire games in 1962 where they knocked over the Aussies,” said Mitchell.
“I think the club had only ever won one medal at the national champs, but in 1959 at Lake Waihola, we won three golds, two silver and two bronze under Rusty.”
Three short years later, an all-Oamaru crew of Smedley, Heselwood, George Paterson and Douglas Pullman won gold in the men’s coxed four at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth.
Mitchell moved on from the Oamaru Rowing Club in 1965 to Blenheim when he transferred jobs as an accountant at Levin and Co but continued his involvement in the sport by becoming secretary of the Marlborough Rowing Association and took up coaching novices the following year.
Mitchell’s novice crew took to the national champs in Wanganui, where they finished third out of 64 starters before moving on to Wellington in 1972 where he was quickly recruited by the local rowing club.
“I was only there for a month at Titahi Bay and got a knock on the door and I became secretary and then president of the Porirua Rowing Club,” he said.
He soon became involved in coaching in Porirua when his stepdaughter, Shelly, asked if he would coach the Women’s Novice Four – Mitchell led the young rowers to the club’s first medal in a decade.
“My stepdaughter came over and asked if I’d coach the Women’s Novice Four in 1982,” he said.
“One of that crew was only 12-years-old, Judith Hamilton, we picked her up halfway through the season, and she’s now on the high performance coaching staff at rowing New Zealand, so I’m pretty proud of that,” he said.
Mitchell also served as president of the Wellington Rowing Association for one year and on the New Zealand Rowing Council during his time in the capital before moving on to Christchurch in 1987, where he became club president and secretary for a time and experienced further sucess at the Union Christchurch Rowing Club.
“I was asked to coach some novices at the Union Christchurch Rowing Club, we won the South Island champs against some bigger crews in the girls’ novice four,” he said.
Mitchell’s next move was to his current home in Kakanui in 1997, an area that he describes as the best in the country.
With the support of keen administrators and parents, the Oamaru Rowing Club’s focus changed to attracting students.
“We looked at getting in to the school rowing,” said Mitchell.
“We got some excellent people on board, some good young rowers involved, we thought, let’s build on the school rowing, that’s the future of the club.”
After 17 years of being associated with the Oamaru Rowing Club during his second spell, Mitchell believes the club is in good health, and insisted that his work with young rowers, regardless of ability, had been some of his fondest memories.
“I think the rewarding factor is working with the youth of today. There’s not many of them that aren’t up to it. They are the future and it’s been a pleasure to coach a lot of outstanding young people.”
By JAMES FORD
PHOTO: JAMES FORD – Stew Mitchell will be leaving North Otago for Nelson in January after a long association with the Oamaru Rowing Club.