At the top of her sport and destined to row for New Zealand at the Olympic Games, Lucy Strack suddenly forgot how to scull. She fought for eight months to wipe away the mental block in her path, but has instead just conquered a completely different challenge.
There’s a stark brutality to rowing.
It’s a sport synonymous with suffering - the gut-busting effort, the screaming muscles, the visceral burning of lungs, the shutting down of the senses when there’s 100m to go and it’s all on the line.
Lucy Strack, once among the country’s top lightweight rowers, has a more romantic view.
She sees a strange kind of beauty in the complex sequence of movements required to propel a boat through the water.
To her, the rowing stroke is an artform - the rhythm, the timing, the pleasing syncrony when you have a crew working together in unison. The moment when the physical propulsion of the boat evolves into a feeling of transcendence.
“It looks like a sport that you just put these big, gangly powerful engines into a boat and ‘say ready, steady go’, but there’s a finesse and art to a stroke,” Strack says.
As a lightweight in a sport of giants, it was Strack’s technical proficiency that saw her excel. She was an enthusiastic student of the sport, and prided herself in her mastery of rowing’s biomechanics.
“I knew how to get a boat moving really fast,” she says.
That was until she forgot. Or at least, her body forgot.
Strack got what is commonly known as ‘the yips’.
As she was approaching the height of her career, Strack’s perfect stroke inexplicably fell apart. She lost all form, all timing, all rhythm. She lost the ability to create that “free speed”.
Soon after that, she lost her rowing career and any chance of representing New Zealand at the 2016 Olympic Games.
But this story isn’t just about what she lost, it’s about what she found next.
SEAN HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES
SEAN HAFFEY/GETTY IMAGES
Stretching along the upper west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway showcases the island’s diverse geography. The road cuts through vast lava fields of hardened black rock, which takes on an other-worldly form as it glistens in the late afternoon sun. High above the lava fields looms Mauna Kea - a dormant volcano and the island’s highest peak. On the other side, the luminous blue of the Pacific Ocean offsets the moody landscape.
Strack, though, has no interest in the vista.
From the wheel of the two-door jeep she’s haphazardly navigated around the streets of Kona for the week, she sets out her priorities.
“We’re looking at gradient, road condition and wind pockets,” she says counting them off on her fingers.
The infamous stretch of road forms part of the gruelling 180.2km cycle leg of the Ironman World Championship in Kona. Later, the athletes return on foot to the searing asphalt of the ‘Queen K’ highway for the run leg.
Two days out from the event, Strack, who is competing in her first Ironman world championship, is driving the course to familiarise herself with the conditions and the landmarks. She has already biked the course, which extends all the way up the coast to Hawi on the north-western tip of the island, earlier in the week, but she is keen to take another look to ensure she has a good handle on what she will encounter on the brutal bike ride.
It is one thing to study the maps and the gradient charts, but it is another to see the hills, feel the oppressive heat of the sun radiating off the lava fields, and experience the dreaded Ho`omumuku headwinds.
Strack estimates it’ll be a good hour’s worth of climbing in the energy sapping heat and humidity on the way out to Hawi. It is these humbling conditions that have earned the Kona Ironman, which is in its 40th year, the reputation as the world’s toughest one-day sports event.
Even when confronted with the realities of what she is about to put herself through, Strack is remarkably serene about what the weekend has in store for her.
“I think this is probably the most relaxed I’ve ever been before a big race,” she says.
Kona wasn’t even on Strack’s radar at the beginning of the year.
She only took up triathlon on a whim after a friend peer pressured Strack into entering the Port of Tauranga half ironman with her. Despite having barely trained for the event, Strack ended up among the top finishers and qualified for the long distance triathlon world championships in Canada.
The next step was a full Ironman - a 3.86km swim, a 180.2km bike ride, and marathon to finish - which she ticked off in Taupō earlier this year. The night before that event, Strack wasn’t even sure if she would be able to finish the day. She had done all the training and prepared well, but so much of Ironman racing is a venture into the unknown - would she get her hydration and nutrition right? Was everything going to sit okay in her stomach? How would her body cope with the stress of operating at threshold for 10 hours?
Quite well, as it turned out. Strack finished second in her age-group (25-29) in the Taupō event, just missing out on an automatic qualifying spot for the world championships in Kona.
She was so close, she reasoned, that she may as well have a crack at qualifying in the Cairns Ironman in July, where there were two spots up for grabs.
Languishing back in fourth place, 22 minutes behind the leader as she set off on the run in Cairns, Strack’s mind turned to failed dreams. She thought about the injury that had cost her a seat in the lightweight double sculls for the London Olympics and the abrupt end to her rowing career in 2014, which killed off her Olympic dreams once and for all.
This, she told herself in those moments, would be another doomed sporting dream.
“I had this brief period where my mind went to a pretty dark place. I was thinking ‘you always just miss out, you just missed out on the Olympics and now you’re going to miss out on Kona’,” she recalls.
In reality, it can take years to build the endurance base needed to be successful in Ironman events. Strack knew this, but it is hard to find perspective when your competitors have a 5km headstart on you.
Strack very quickly “pulled my head in” and over the next 42.2km chipped away at the field, mowing down two of her age-group rivals to finish in second place two minutes behind the leader.
“It was amazing, I actually finished the race having no idea what position I was in because of the staggered start. The feeling of finishing the day is just unreal anyway, but the thought of making it to Kona was incredible,” she says.
“I wanted it, and I wanted to see it happen, but there’s no way I would have thought it was achievable a year ago.”
Strack had no idea what she would do after rowing.
For nearly a decade her life had a singular focus: making it to the top of her sport.
“I had never thought about what I wanted to do with my life, I had studied part time here and there doing certificates in web design and interior design and decorating, different bits and pieces but never knew what I wanted to do,” says Strack, who was 25 when she walked away from rowing.
“We’re encouraged to study, but how prepped people are for the real world, I don’t know.
Strack says she was lucky she had the expert guidance of former Silver Ferns captain Bernice Mene to help with her integration into the “real world”. After the devastating end to her rowing career, Strack was set up with a role at the Pinnacle Programme - a mentoring and leadership programme for talented teens in all fields.
“That was the most amazing transition out of sport, getting to work alongside and learn from a woman like that,” says Strack, who has just started a new job as a partnership development manager with Auckland Rugby.
“She [Mene] got it, and she knew that I was coming out of sport fresh into a working environment and she helped me develop and helped me find all the opportunities that I needed to thrive in those different areas.”
While Mene helped her get settled in her worklife, there was always a nagging sense of dissatisfaction for Strack with the way her rowing career ended. It would only be a matter of time for her competitive instincts to resurface.
Those closest to Strack will tell you her near-instant success in Ironman events is no surprise.
Julia Edward, Strack’s long-time partner in the lightweight double, says her best friend has always been the “ultimate Ironwoman”.
When you meet Strack, you notice there is a lightness to her. She’s the type of person who brims with positive energy - she’ll smile at strangers, laugh heartily at bad jokes and doesn’t get upset by life’s minor irritants. But Edward says there is also an underlying grit in Strack. Along with that lightness comes the ability to push herself to dark places.
“She has this amazing endurance. She has always been such a great trainer, we could go for a 30km row and from the moment we pushed off to the moment we got back to the dock she would give it everything the whole time,” says Edward.
One of Strack’s former coaches at Rowing NZ, Mike Rodger, recalls a time when the national squad entered a cycle road race event in Te Awamutu as a cross-training exercise. Strack, not content with sitting in the peleton, took out the race, “in a bloody good time as well” according to Rodger.
Although a rowing race is just seven minutes - compared with the 10 hours Strack’s “little diesel engine” chugs away in an Ironman race - the 28-year-old says the training for each of is remarkably similar: racking up lots and lots of kilometres.
Under the tutelage of legendary rowing coach Fred Strachan at Dunedin’s North End rowing club, Strack was conditioned to hard work from a very young age. She took up the sport when she was still in year 8 at St Hilda’s Collegiate after begging to join the “older kids” on the water.
There were no lightweight categories at Maadi Cup level those days (“they do now, but I’m anti that,” says Strack) so Strack would compete against young women much taller and stronger than her. Her diminutive frame never held her back.
“[Strachan] is just an absolute guru and and taught me how to use my body and the efficiency of my stroke to keep up with the raw power and the grunt that some of those other rowers can just kind of fall back on,” she says.
Despite success at Maadi Cup in her final years of high school, doors didn’t start to open up for Strack at a national level until her second year of university, when she decided to join then-boyfriend and Olympic rower Jade Uru in Cambridge to put herself in front of the Rowing NZ selectors.
Her breakthrough came in 2010, when she was paired up with Edward in the lightweight double for the under-23 world championships. That same year, Strack and Edward made their senior debut at the world championships in Karapiro, where they were a shock qualifier for the ‘A’ final.
In a week of stunning results and memorable scenes for the New Zealand team in their home regatta, the sight of the two excited youngsters giggling away as they fronted a media on the grass embankment following their brilliant qualification row was among the most heartwarming.
Edward says that season the pair formed a strong bond.
“For us, best friends travelling the world together, it was such a cool time as a young athlete. We didn’t want to be separated - we wanted to be the double that was going to go right through to the Olympics,” says Edward.
They were on track to do so in 2011 when they qualified the boat for the London Games, before a bad pelvic injury disrupted Strack’s build-up to Olympic trials. She ended up losing her seat to Louise Ayling and Edward, not for the last time, was forced to leave her good mate behind.
“It was devastating,” says Strack.
The following year Dick Tonks took over Rowing NZ’s entire women’s squad, instilling a new sense of energy and enthusiasm in Strack.
Tonks, who now heads the Canadian high performance programme, has the reputation among rowing administrators here for being “difficult” and “abrasive”, but Strack wasn’t at all intimidated by the prospect of coming under the watchful gaze of the coaching legend.
“I was pumped, I was so excited to have Dick as a coach. My high school coach, Fred, he is such a hard arse. He would make me train and train and train, and sometimes not even say a word, but he would be on my stern the whole time. And I knew that Dick was like that as well,” she says.
“Dick doesn’t tell you how to row, he teaches you.”
“There’s coaches that will sit with the microphone and talk and talk and talk, but people are responding to what you tell them to do, rather than learning what moves a boat themselves. And I think that is one thing that high school rowers aren’t learning any more, is how to move a boat.”
It seems slightly paradoxical that the highly personable Strack would respond so well to the gruff, uncommunicative style of Tonks. But if there’s anything she loves more than a natter, it’s a challenge.
Tonks’ methods were unorthodox.
For nearly two months the women’s squad was split off into eights crews and rowed “square blade” in order to drill into the team balance and boat control.
When a rower completes their stroke, they will feather their blades upwards as the oar comes out of the water. When you row “square blade” they keep the oar square to the water, making the boat much tippier and harder to control.
“To have a whole crew of eights rowing square blade is incredible. As a crew to row square blade and not tip over, you all have to drop out at the same time, your rhythm has to be perfectly in sync, you can’t break your knees early,” explains Strack.
“It’s skill-based, so it was a summer of really intensive technique-based work. And some people broke, and people blew out. It was all about being consistent. And if you could get through the week and be consistent, then you could consider that week a success.
“I loved the challenge of that.”
That summer set Strack and Edward up for their strongest season. They won gold in the opening World Cup event in Sydney, before collecting bronze in Switzerland and finishing fifth at the world championships in Korea - their best performance at a world championship event. They were flying.
That confidence carried through to the following season for Strack, when the youngster - a 55kg bundle of pep and energy - stroked the Southern RPC women’s eight to the national title in the summer of 2014.
By the end of the year, her career would be over.
It was funny at first.
When Strack bunny-hopped off her seat one day during a routine training row on Lake Karapiro, she and Edward initially laughed it off.
“I had got completely out of sync. My seat is on a slider, and my seat stayed up here and I ended up back here,” Strack demonstrates.
“It gave Julia a hell of a fright but I didn’t think much of it, I was just like ‘that was weird’ and a we had a bit of a chuckle and carried on.”
That amusement turned to confusion when Strack again leapt off her seat a couple more times during the session. Still, when the pair returned to the shed at the end of training, they didn’t think it was anything more than a scratchy day on the water.
Until it happened again the next day.
The New Zealand elite squad was in the midst of an intense training block in the lead-up to the European season. After the first World Cup meet in Sydney, there is a two-month gap in the calendar, during which the team tune-up for a busy couple of months of competition.
“We had squad piece, which is a 5km trial with the whole squad, and then it happened again in the race,” says Strack.
“From there, the whole stroke just kind of disconnected really, really quickly. Rowing up to the bridge was fine, rowing back I jumped off my seat twice.
“I could kind of sequence up again, but then, I don’t know if it was because I was compensating in some way, but my stroke just started being all funny. The whole point of rowing is symmetry and evenness and I ended up being quite lopsided.”
By now it was clear it was no one-off mishap. Strack was unravelling.
The young rower came off the water in a trance and was quickly hustled into one of the treatment rooms with her coach and medical staff. There she watched on, a spectator to her own consult, as the doctor and team officials threw around a whole bunch of scary scenarios.
The then 24-year-old’s sudden loss of technique was so baffling, her form so off, that the team doctor wondered if there was a neurological cause behind it.
Scans soon ruled out anything serious, but it would be just the beginning of a not-so-merry-go-round of appointments, consultations and examinations for Strack. She was referred to physiotherapists, sports physiologists and chiropractors. Her technique was analysed by biomechanics experts and she was advised by several coaches in the Rowing NZ programme. Finally, after these specialists failed to find a physical cause of her wayward form, Strack was referred to a sports psychologist.
With every new person she saw, she’d receive the same message: “Don’t worry, we can fix this”.
Eventually, the explanation they came to rest on was Strack had the yips.
Feared and dismissed in equal measure, the yips are one of the most misunderstood of sporting maladies. It’s different from choking or a just a poor run of form - when an athlete has the yips, they’re unable to produce the basic motions required to perform their sport.
The condition occurs most often in sports in which athletes are required to perform a single, precise and well-timed action such as golfers, cricket bowlers, baseball pitchers, or shooters.
Although the problem manifests itself physically, most experts believe the yips have psychological underpinnings relating to stress and anxiety.
Clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo calls it a “cocktail” of mental and physical factors.
“It’s hard to know what comes first. Athletes will usually present because they are having a difficulty with their action or a loss of confidence, but it could be something that has been brewing. It could be something else happening in their world that then shows up in their game. So it is all fused together,” says Nimmo.
“The thing is the brain overthinks things. It isn’t the pure organ that you hope it is. Your brain is messing with your body all the time.”
Strack doesn’t like the term ‘the yips’. She’s had plenty of opportunity to reflect on that period and find her own answers. She prefers to say her body stopped doing what her brain was telling it to do. If you dig a little further, she’ll tell you her mind decided to stage an intervention when she didn’t listen to other the warning signs.
“I believe the subconscious is far more powerful than we realise. I think I wasn’t enjoying it any more, my body had been at threshold both mentally and physically for years, and I didn’t have any balance to my life. But I wanted it so bad that I kept pushing and pushing, so eventually my subconscious had to step in and say ‘Stop. Enough’,” says Strack.
Still, it took a long time for that message to really get through.
That winter, the national squad, including Edward, left for Europe without Strack, who stayed back in Cambridge determined to row her way out of the mire.
When the team returned, Strack was still slogging it out at training every day, still searching for a breakthrough. In all, Strack spent eight months desperately trying to unlock that sensation of metaphysical transcendence only rowers know.
It was a confusing, frustrating, and isolating experience for her as her role in the team migrated from athlete to project.
“To turn up to training every day and not know if I was going to be able to row again was terrifying,” Strack says.
She became somewhat of a sideshow on Lake Karapiro, with well-meaning teammates - some she’d mentored in previous years - all eager to help out. They’d offer technical advice - “keep your legs down a bit longer”; “don’t cock your wrist up”; “keep your arm straight”. They too, thought they had the fix.
“I just kept saying to them ‘I know how to row - I’ve been rowing for 10 years, I know how to do this. There’s something disconnected between my brain and my body, and I can’t figure this out’.”
Mike Rodger was Strack’s last roll of the dice.
The veteran coach took Strack on towards the end of 2014 as the national team geared up for summer squad trials. Rodger had heard a little bit about Strack’s struggles that year, but it wasn’t until he spent some time with her that he realised the full extent of what she was facing.
“I had heard she was having a few issues with muscles firing incorrectly … I think initially a lot of people were putting it down to a technical thing that she’d just sort of gone wayward with, but yeah, it definitely wasn’t that,” says Rodger, who can recall only one other case of a New Zealand rower suffering from the yips.
“It was quite early on I thought it was going to be a longer-term fix, rather than a shorter-term fix. But we wanted to persevere, we wanted to keep going because because knowing the talent of the person and what she was capable of and her being such a lovely person to boot.
“She was so patient and determined. You just can only admire her character and what she put herself through, because it must have been absolutely devastating for her.”
There came a point, however, when Rodger needed to have some “bloody tough” conversations with Strack about the future.
Rodger never wanted his young charge to think he was giving up on her, but at the same time, he was concerned about Strack’s well-being.
“I remember him saying ‘you’re going through a lot and you’ve been stuck at this for months and still turning up every day, how are you coping?’” Strack recalls.
“By that stage I just wanted to work through it so badly, but I had been working at it for eight months and nothing had changed in that eight months. For my sanity, I had to stop showing up every day and keep bashing away at it.”
And so, on a bright November morning - one of those days when Lake Karapiro turns into a glistening blue ribbon of water - Strack, Rodger and Rowing NZ’s then high performance director Alan Cotter sat down in a boardroom overlooking the stretch of water that had become the scene of Strack’s torment. They all knew time was up.
The hardest conversation was still to come for Strack, who says it was the phone call to her father Mick that she dreaded the most.
Rowing had always been their “thing” - a special shared interest they bonded over. For Strack, it felt like cutting her ties with rowing would also mean losing one of the connecting threads to her dad.
Mick Strack consults his small, red pocket book bearing the insignia of the North End Rowing Club.
The well-thumbed pages of the book - a special release for the club’s 125th anniversary - contain the vital stats of his daughter’s fledgling Ironman career. In it, he has jotted down Strack’s split times in her previous events along with her average pacing, and the times he thinks she will hold in Kona.
He was spot on with his prediction for Strack’s last hit-out before Kona - a 70.3 event in Mooloolaba, which she won - but just a couple of hours into the race and Mick is already reassessing his forecast time.
He checks Strack’s early progress on the bike leg using the live tracking app, and compares her pacing to previous races.
“It looks like it is a tough day out there already for her,” he says grimly.
Having noted the athletes in Strack’s age-group that are ahead of her, he then pulls out some folded sheets of paper and studies their previous performances. Mick concludes Strack, who had been 26th out of the water after the 3.8km swim, is unlikely to make up any ground on the bike ride.
Mick has embraced the Ironman scene just as enthusiastically as his youngest daughter. He’s the self-appointed team analyst, strategist, operations assistant and chief hair braider (Strack’s race day plaits were courtesy of her father). Strack’s mother Mary is in charge of holistic welfare, logistical support and worrier in chief.
“It never occurred to me that people want to do this sort of thing, so I didn’t know anything about this world until Lucy got involved,” Mick says, chuckling as he and his wife take time out in an ocean side cafe to take stock of the morning’s events.
“We kind of happily got dragged along for the ride, really.”
With just two Ironmans under her belt heading into Kona, Strack happily admits she and her support crew are still learning the ropes. During her pre-race reconnaissance drive two days earlier, Strack joked about their unsophisticated approach to their preparations.
“We’ve had to look up a lot of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube this week,” laughs Strack.
“All the gear, no idea.”
They may lack for experience, but Strack and her father are quick studies, have a practical bent, and if they see a better way, they’ll do it. Take Strack’s race day nutrition, for example. In order to ensure they have enough fuel to get them around the 180km bike course, the athletes will strap water, electrolytes, gel packs and protein bars to their bikes, turning their sleek, aerodynamic carbon fibre machines into pack horses.
Strack finds too many of the sweet gel packs and protein bars a bit sickly, so she takes some pureed kumara, loaded up with salt and butter, along for the ride. She purees it herself on the eve of the race, before loading it into ziplock bags, from which she’ll bite out a corner and suck straight from the bag when she needs a starchy hit.
“Some of the guys laugh at me when they see me with these ziplock bags, but hey, it gets the job done,” she says.
On this searing hot day on the Big Island, it is Strack’s hydration and nutrition that has Mary worried the most.
This is the hard part of the race for athletes and their support teams.
Kona is not a spectator-friendly course. For the bike leg, the athletes will complete a small loop around the town before heading out on the long, lonely hike up Queen K highway to Hawi, without any friendly faces to act as a buffer to the harsh environment.
It will be almost another four hours before Mick and Mary will catch a glimpse of their daughter on the course again.
“I must say, I’m always very happy when she gets off the bike,” says Mary.
Earlier that morning, the starting cannon rung out over the island as Strack set off with 685 other female age-group competitors on a 226km test of physical and mental endurance.
Strack had no fears about thrusting herself back into a competitive environment after the fraught end to her rowing career.
The way she sees it, her mysterious psychological block wasn’t induced by competition. It was her brain’s response to a set of circumstances that have long since changed. Long enough, even, to be able to laugh about it now.
She had some lofty competitive goals coming into the race, having set out to break through the 10-hour barrier for the first time and win her age-group. But Strack is learning now what many athletes before her have come to discover about the Kona course - the uniquely challenging conditions make it difficult to match their usual power outputs on the bike.
The frustration is writ large on Strack’s face as she comes into the transition area and prepares to head out for the run. She is sitting back in 36th place, the leader more than 50 minutes ahead of her.
Strack’s run has saved her before, but even over marathon distance she can’t make up that sort of time.
Like her father, Strack will be constantly calculating in her head how she is tracking and where she can expect to be on the course at certain points of the day. In the height of the afternoon sun, she sets off at a brisk pace, gaining two or three places at each check-in.
In the field that has become muddled over the day as the age-groupers settle into their own pace, Strack won’t know if the competitors she is mowing down on the run are her direct rivals or not.
And therein, she says, lies the appeal of the sport for her.
An exhausted Strack crossing the finish line in Kona as the sun was beginning to set. (FINISHERPIX)
An exhausted Strack crossing the finish line in Kona as the sun was beginning to set. (FINISHERPIX)
The sun is setting on Kailua Bay when Strack rounds the final turn to hear the roar of the thousands of spectators who line the final 400 metre stretch along Ali’i Drive to help the exhausted, wobbly-legged competitors home. Many of the spectators will still be here at midnight to welcome back the last of the finishers.
The various scenes at the finishing line are on a sliding scale of heartwarming to horrific. There’s the 60-year-old grandfather who is overcome with emotion, the Scottish woman who does a pirouette as she crosses through the archway, and the Korean competitor who has saved one last burst of energy to leap high into the air as he comes up the chute.
Then there are those that probably won’t remember crossing the finish line at all. With floppy limbs and a far away gaze in their eye they stagger the last, agonising steps, before collapsing to the ground in a delirious state of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Strack is understated, serene, composed. She smiles broadly and raises her arms above her head, pausing only briefly before carrying on down the ramp where a volunteer is waiting to guide her back to the recovery tent.
Over the last 42.2km she has improved to 21st place in her age-group. She is disappointed, but pragmatic.
Strack acknowledges even if she had executed her race plan perfectly, she still would have been no match for the frontrunners. Her mind immediately turns to what she needs to do to be able to foot it with them next time.
“How am I going to get more power in my little legs?” she says in a way that suggests she is already plotting.
Later, over a post-race feeding frenzy of carbs, Strack is asked how she felt as she crossed the finish line. She considers this carefully.
“It felt … freeing,” she says, finally.
Perhaps it was because she knew relief from the pain, exhaustion and dehydration would soon be on its way.
Or maybe it was because for 10 hours, 35 minutes and 12 seconds her mind and body were at one.
Words: Dana Johannsen
Visuals: Abigail Dougherty, Getty Images, FinisherPix
Design & layout: Aaron Wood
Editor: John Hartevelt