Rise issue 11 cover

Life: one adventure after another

Former Olympian Rob Hamill talks about his struggles, his triumphs and a surprising source of energy.

The words 'give up' have left to make way for the word 'passion' in Rob Hamill's lexicon. Without passion and energy, the rowing champion wouldn't have been able to compete in the Olympic Games, take the silver medal at the World Championships, win Commonwealth gold, and spend 41 consecutive days in a kitset boat – all in the name of adventure.

And Rob accepts set-backs as all part of the process. Not only does he accept failure, he embraces it. And you can bet that each time Rob explains this to roomfuls of captive adolescents, they're listening.

Getting to a world-renowned level of rowing success wasn’t easy, even with Rob's formidable levels of physical and mental energy. "At my first rowing race [in November 1983], I remember getting a good thrashing halfway through the race. I felt such complete exhaustion and pain: just complete depletion of all ability to keep moving," he says. However, Rob and his team came through – just in time. "Somehow we managed to pull it together and win the race. It was such an ecstasy to win. I ended up collapsing, but still surviving."

It was that first taste of victory, and the thrill of overcoming physical exhaustion, that whet his appetite for the sport. Having first played volleyball, then rugby, previous to his foray into rowing, Rob was drawn to the teamwork involved. Not only did he appreciate the unity of working with an eight-person crew, he was also attracted to the challenge it presented him as an individual. "Eight of us working as one was a wonderful feeling. Working in a crew of eight could also create problems. The better you got, or the better you perceived yourself to get – that created issues. The last thing I wanted was to be that issue. That spurred me on to train harder and not be the weak link."

Thumbnail - Rob Hamill

Overcoming monumental personal challenges

After rounding off his novice year by a team win at the National Championships at the Whakatane Rowing Club, Rob briefly considered resting his oars for good. A conversation with single-sculls Olympian - and electrician work colleague - Gary Reid convinced him otherwise.

"He was my boss," says Rob, with a laugh. "It was kind of good fortune as much as anything. He talked me into carrying on. I picked up single-sculling from there, and decided to plan for world championships, the Olympics..."

He makes it sound so easy. But Rob's passion for rowing only came after dealing with personal tragedy that shook his family to its core.

Rob was 14-years-old when his oldest brother Kerry went missing on a yachting charter around South Asia. It was 16 torturous months of worry before the Hamill family learned that Kerry had been captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Less than a year later, his second-oldest brother John took his own life.

Such a monumental personal upheaval could have debilitated Rob for life; he credits the strength of his parents for helping him through.

"My parents could have instilled a fear complex in me," says Rob. "They could have said, ‘Don't do anything that can risk your life, son.' In a subtle way, they gave me the belief that I could still do what I wanted to do.

"From a parent's perspective, it was a good message. I've got children of my own now, and I do worry. I can't help it, but you've still got to let them find their own place in the world and give them guidance, and be their safety net if they do fall. You've got to try and let them experience life as much as they can.

"When you have suffered tragedy, as many individuals and families do, it would be easy to roll up into a ball and never risk anything again. But what sort of life would that be? It would be yet another life taken."

Rob's commitment to overcoming personal obstacles to pursue passion in all its forms is what makes him a successful public speaker today. Speaking to a multitude of audiences, from school children to business-people, he espouses the theory that life is ripe for the picking, squeeze as much into it as you can.

"Passion can motivate you to achieve most things in life, almost anything. Sheer, raw talent isn't necessarily the driving force to pursue something. It's the desire to create that talent, to develop that talent that ultimately wins out. But you've got to go on that voyage of discovery first."

Learning to excel – even in the face of setback

That isn't to say that he thinks it's all smooth sailing from there, or that wholehearted pursuit guarantees instant success. In fact, he remembers some of the races he didn't win as among the best in which he's competed. Knowing that he held his own, that he had tapped into every one of his energy reserves, was enough to sate the need for glory. He may not always have been the first to glide over the finish-line, but he had made sure his competitors worked to claim the title.

It's that sense of dealing with all consequences, whether perceived as positive or negative, that drives Rob to excel in every aspect of his life. Learning how to deal with losing, rejection - failure in all its forms - can actually fortify a person's character and ambitions. He thinks this is especially true during a time in life when people are most vulnerable to criticism and humiliation - adolescence.

"Children avoid humiliation. We all do, but I feel it's at its worst stage when we're in school. That's critical to our development, I think, because it can hinder us significantly if we let our peers affect us. I've got this thought that it's OK to fall over, as long as you get back up again. You will never fail as long as you get back up again. The worst scenario is for a kid to not attempt anything so as to avoid falling over."

Rob uses the work of famed inventor Thomas Edison as an analogy for accepting mistakes and moving on. Edison once said of his many experimental attempts: "I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

"He never gave up," says Rob. "He had the belief that he could create [the light bulb]. Even though he had a lot of knockbacks, he must have seen something in at least one of dozens of experiments. Something there must have been egging him on, the little successes among the failures.

"I think it's our role as parents, and as citizens, to endorse mistakes and failures as a good thing, as long as you believe you can do better in the future. That, even if you didn't achieve it now - win the race, finish the project - you could in six months' time. That will help you get back up again and have another go."

It's old-fashioned values like accepting failure and maintaining tenacity that have propelled Rob from recreational athlete to world-class rower, perhaps even more so than gruelling hours on the rowing machine or out in the open sea.

Pursuing personal fulfilment

What's unique about Rob is that he makes passion-pursuing seem so accessible. He believes that, with a few basic ideas, anyone can transform a fledgling interest into something great - as long as they don't expect it to happen overnight.

"We can be impatient - I know I'm a victim of that. I'll want things to happen quicker than they realistically can. We all want our big goals to happen within 12 months. Quite often, we can't achieve what we want in 12 months. But we can achieve something significant in two years."

Which brings him right back to the importance of passion and energy.

"If you've found what you enjoy, 12 months shouldn't be a problem. In that period, you will have incremental successes along the way, even if [in the end] you didn't achieve what you set out to. Those incremental successes should be used as a stepping stone for your desire to keep moving, to keep going, to keep trying."

Rob's message of self-belief and hope is a powerful one for youth across New Zealand. In his own experience, he's found that it's the energy of belief that he relies on above all else.

"If you believe something's possible, it gives you an unquantifiable amount of energy. You know that you're going to get there, that it's going to happen, even if it takes a lot of time."

In his famous 41-day journey across the Atlantic, the world's first trans-Atlantic rowing race, Rob's belief, along with that of his rowing partner Phil Stubbs, got them to the finish days ahead of their closest competitors. Rob recalls the physical exhaustion of the endeavour, but he knew he wouldn't give up.

"It's difficult to explain how much my body ached at times. But never for a moment did I feel exhaustion to the point of giving up. We just knew that if we succumbed to the mind telling us to back off, we wouldn't beat the team just over the horizon who was trying to row faster than us."

Tapping into all sources of energy

Confronting a tiring mind is something we can all relate to. Rob believes that with the proper preparation, we can all bolster ourselves to face inner demons. It's the minute stepping stones that strengthen resolve. Each success, no matter how small, matters.

In regards to his 4,500km race, Rob rejected the ideas of sports psychology and psychobabble, depending instead on basic hard work: getting the boat fittings right, making adjustments here and there, monitoring nutrition, and watching weather maps.

"In each category of preparation, I did a little mental measure of how we were doing on a scale of one to ten; for example, physical training, course, food, technical training, all of those categories. There's no way to get ten out of ten for any of them, but if you're measuring a seven or eight out of ten, you're doing pretty good. But you should do something about a two out of ten!

"It's about using your energy wisely. If you're measuring well in one field, you may not need to put too much more energy into that facet of your preparation. This should allow more energy to be spent on the weakest link of preparations. The idea was to get every facet up to a reasonably-high standard. Only then can you strive for perfection!"

Redirecting his energy

These days, Rob spends more time standing in front of lecterns than feverishly crewing a boat, but he's still committed to self-challenge. When he was first approached to speak, he had to conquer a bona fide case of stage fright.

"The thought of it gave me the screaming heebies," he admits. "If I had wanted to avoid humiliation, I would have never gone up to the stage. As you can imagine, I did make some monumental mistakes."

But, like his days as a competitive rower, Rob didn't let the fear of failure hold him back. Amongst the embarrassment, he used his mistakes as fodder for growth, and he garnered strength from small successes.

"If someone came up afterwards and said, ‘That was so inspiring,' it made it worth it."

His enduring message that comes through all of his speeches was inspired by an unlikely source: the back of a Mainfreight truck. "It said, ‘With passion, anything is possible,'" he says. "I thought that was a lovely saying!"

Energy has carried Rob through his life, though it has transformed along the way. Where once he performed amazing physical feats, now he's part of the WEL Energy Community Trust, promoting environmental awareness, and speaking in front of people of all ages. Wherever his life has taken him, Rob has followed his goals with abandon.

He'll be ready to follow wherever his energy takes him next.