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New Zealand on a high for World Championships

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Annabel Vernon | 15:50 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

Annabel wrote this from Karapiro, New Zealand, before the opening races of the 2010 World Championships. Her quadruple scull beat Germany in their heat on Monday to qualify for Friday's final, which you can watch live on the BBC.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I knew it for its rugby, as a destination for many British travellers seeking adventure tourism, and as somewhere my parents went a few years ago and described as being "a bit like Cornwall".

Being from a proudly Cornish family, I knew this was the biggest compliment they could pay any country. So before discussing the rowing, I'm going to first establish: is New Zealand like Cornwall?

There are many similarities. The first thing that struck me is that, like Cornwall, it's a long way from Henley-on-Thames.

To get to New Zealand I saw the sun rise over London, set over the Atlantic somewhere, rise again over the Pacific and finally set in Hamilton, a few hours south of Auckland, on the imaginatively named North Island.

Admittedly Cornwall is a bit closer, being four hours down the A303, but it's still a long way away, OK?

Another similarity: everyone's really friendly, yet they all speak with a very distinctive dialect which is hard to mimic.

Having spent most of my life getting frustrated at anyone attempting a Cornish accent and ending up sounding Bristolian (there's a BIG difference!), I have tried a Kiwi twang but sounded like someone with an Australian dad and a South African mum, who possibly grew up in Jamaica.

The best way to describe it is that the vowels get jumbled, so 'New Zealand' becomes 'Nu Zillund' and our two bus drivers, Pat and Sue, introduced themselves as 'Pit' and 'So'.

But I will put my hands up and admit there is one area in which NZ kicks Cornwall into touch - they sure know how to put on a show.

This is likely to be the biggest and best World Championships I've attended, probably closer to an Olympics than a Worlds in the way it is set up and presented. It's an incredible environment in which to prepare to race, as there is such a feeling of excitement and anticipation.

Boats stay stacked up as high winds cancel the heat races on day one

Boats stay stacked up as high winds cancel the heat races on day one. Photo: AP

They've constructed a 9,999-seat grandstand, and all the athletes' facilities are seriously top-class. The insurance costs apparently shoot up for a grandstand of 10,000 seats and above, which explains the odd number!

With roughly 800 athletes, this is apparently the biggest event in terms of competitors that they've had in New Zealand since the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and the Kiwis are pretty keen to get involved.

They're also gearing up for the Rugby World Cup next year, and you get the feeling that if the All Blacks don't lift the trophy, there could be riots.

There are huge features on rowing in the newspapers almost every day, trailers on prime-time TV, and in the cafes and bars there are table-top competitions to win VIP packages to the rowing upon the purchase of a certain number of pints of beer.

The nearest big town to the lake, Hamilton, is covered in flags of the nations and banners advertising the rowing; and each café has adopted a certain country to 'support'. New Zealand is currently going through what is probably its most successful period in rowing ever, and is boating almost a full team including two eights - not bad for a country of four million people.

Hamilton is even showing a film in the cinema all about rowing, to prepare the town for what is to come. This whole region has, it seems, made an immense effort to get to know rowing - driven partly, I'm sure, by the success of the Kiwi rowers at recent Olympic Games.

I suppose the key is that for us as athletes, obviously our rowing means absolutely everything to us, and racing at the World Championships is a massive, massive deal.
Yet aside from the Olympics, normally we compete in virtual isolation from the rest of the sports-watching world.

The great thing about the Karapiro experience is that the environment in which we are performing finally matches the excitement we feel about our sport and about our competition.

Everyone you meet sees this as a huge deal and a reason to get really excited. My impression is that the Kiwi view of sport is similar to that of the British: they love it for the sake of it and they don't just have time for winners.

In fact, the only grumble I have about these World Championships is the distinct lack of possessive apostrophes in the signage ("Athletes Restaurant"), but I fully admit that if grammatical errors are the worst thing about this event then that's pretty good going.

This week is, I'm sure, going to be awesome and will give me memories to take to the grave.


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