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Why Olympic rower Eric Murray’s calling it quits

Our Olympic golden boy is leaving on a high.

Throughout his 17-year rowing career, Kiwi star Eric Murray has earned his place as one of New Zealand’s greatest ever sporting legends.

With partner Hamish Bond, “The Kiwi Pair” reached phenomenal success – bagging an astonishing 69 consecutive wins, two Olympic gold medals, eight world championship titles, two Supreme Halberg Awards and 16 world cup victories.

But it’s Eric’s inimitable charisma, sense of fun and down-to-earth charm that has made him one of our most-loved athletes – who could forget that trademark handlebar moustache and enormous smile as he crossed the line at the 2016 Olympic Games?

While the shelves in Eric’s Cambridge home are heaving with trophies, one of his biggest honours – a gold medal from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games – has made its way into five-year-old Zac’s toy box.

This casual attitude towards the treasured possession is perhaps symbolic, because today Eric is sitting down with Woman’s Day to tell us exclusively that the time has come to hang up his oar. Yes, the rowing legend, who turns 35 this weekend, has decided to retire.

With his devoted wife of 11 years, Jackie, by his side, an emotional Eric explains, “I always said as long as my mind, my body and my heart were in it, then I could do this for as long as I like. My mind’s been pretty good, my body’s been pretty good, but it was my heart that was on the fence. So it’s time to go.”

A strong desire to spend more time with his family, as well as the fact he’d lost “the buzz” from winning, contributed to this difficult decision, which was seven months in the making.

“The last few years have been difficult. We made a legacy in the sport and we got to the point where we were always winning, but it was playing on our minds and wearing us down. When we won a race, it was like, job done. We didn’t get that elation any more. Everyone expected us to win, so when we won, we just met the expectation.

“And I really wanted more balance with my family. I’ve missed Zac’s birthdays and Jackie’s birthdays. I would be away for three months every year. Zac is on the ASD spectrum [autism spectrum disorder], so that’s another thing that adds to the mix. He’s a great kid, so easy-going, but that was another thing on my mind. I had to rely on Jackie to be a solo parent and I want to be there for him too.”

While he is known as one of sport’s nice guys, Jackie, 39, tells us that the period since Eric returned home from Rio has been one of their hardest yet. Her husband fell into a “bad headspace” as he agonised over whether to call it quits or to charge on and try for one more Olympic victory in 2020.

While his rowing partner Hamish took up competitive cycling in the downtime, Eric didn’t know which way to turn. And he readily admits that, like many athletes before him, he struggled to cope with the idea of life after sport, confessing, “I wasn’t the nicest person to be around.”

He explains, “I was frustrated – I think it’s poignant at the moment, especially around all the stuff about athletes and depression in the media. It’s important to be able to talk about these things.”

Adds Jackie, “It’s like a medical imbalance. He got so many endorphins through sport and then all of a sudden, it stops. Athletes try and find it somewhere else, which is why so many develop addiction problems. It’s like, ‘There’s nothing for me now, what am I going to do?’ Eric was even making comments like, ‘Well, I’m done. No-one’s going to care.’”

She says her husband’s moods were hard to handle at times. “I’m not afraid to say it, I’m not afraid to publish it!” tells Jackie. “It’s been an interesting time. It’s definitely been a rollercoaster. I always thought it was tough when he was rowing because I was basically a single mum.

“But the last six months, his headspace has been so bad. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I actually preferred being on my own!’ He wasn’t the nicest to live with.”

Trying to balance family life with rowing has long been a contentious issue for the Murrays. As Eric wrote in his and Hamish’s joint autobiography The Kiwi Pair, Jackie was called “selfish” and “inconsiderate” by rowing selectors in 2011 because she wanted Eric to be home for Zac’s birth.

It was only after longtime Rowing NZ benefactors Derek and Judy Jones paid for Eric’s travel from Slovenia that he could make it back to New Zealand, and they’re now Zac’s godparents.

Though he’s happy with the decision to retire now, Eric admits he felt lost since his return from Rio last year. Instead of focusing on just one thing, he tried to do everything, including training with the New Zealand rowing team, beginning work at Laszlo Boats as sales manager, as well as trying to be the best dad he could to Zac.

“I was half-assing everything and I’m not the type of person to do that,” he says, shaking his head. “I found I wasn’t really committed to the training and I was struggling to give enough time to the work I was doing. And I was still trying to keep everything focused on me, me, me.”

While he burnt himself out with a hectic schedule, Eric was also wrestling with his feelings about leaving the sport that’s given him everything – he even met Jackie through rowing. So who is Eric Murray if he’s not a rower? The usually confident athlete couldn’t answer that question.

But after months in limbo, Jackie needed a decision and turned to her parents, who knew exactly what the young couple were dealing with. Jackie’s father, Gary Robertson, was a member of the gold medal-winning men’s eight rowing team at the 1972 Olympics.

“I’m lucky to have the parents I have,” she tells. “When Eric was in a bad way, in this bad headspace, I’d talk to Mum and Dad. Dad knew what Eric was going through and Mum knew what I was going through.”

And it was only a couple of weeks ago that the decision to retire was made, to the relief of everyone in the family. “Well, ask me if I’m happy about it after Eric’s had a winter at home!” laughs Jackie. “Having him around so much more will be amazing. Zac loves having his dad around – he’s so happy.

“But it will be an adjustment for me too. I feel like I know Zac the best – I’ve been the stable parent and I’ve spent a lot of time with him, so for me, it means handing over the reins a bit too.”

But the rowing icon won’t be walking away from the sport completely. He still feels a duty to help the next generation of rowers come through the ranks.

And while family time is definitely the priority, he and Jackie have firmly shut the door on the idea of having any more kids. “One’s enough!” Eric grins. Jackie adds, “I’m 40 in a month. I’m done! It just means we can have a life. I want to enjoy us being a family, and not have a husband that’s tired and grumpy.”

As for new goals, Eric says he wants to focus on his work at Laszlo Boats, though he jokes he could give boxing another go – referring to his Fight for Life defeat against Warrior Manu Vatuvei in 2012.

“Rematch!” he cries. “Wasn’t Joseph Parker looking for someone?” Jackie chimes in with a sly grin. “Let’s see how many seconds that lasts …”

And, of course, this close-knit couple deserve a holiday as they’ve had just three in the past 15 years.

“I’ve always wanted to go to the Maldives!” Jackie tells us hopefully, glancing at her husband. “It’ll be great having a proper break. We made it to Fiji once, but even then, Eric was upset because the resort’s indoor rowing machine was crap.”

But more than anything, Eric says he wants to thank the country for more than 16 years of support. “Hamish and I always looked at the fact we were representing our country as a privilege,” he explains. “I have amazing sponsors – thank you so much as well – but we were so lucky we could do what we did, supported by the taxpayer. So we always tried to do it justice and not take anything for granted.

“So for all you’ve given us and the support you showed, thank you so much, New Zealand.”

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