Real Life

This gran's a record-breaking rower at 70

She has taken on the world’s best at indoor rowing.

Timaru gran Shirley Godkin is a world record-breaking rower – and yet she has done so on dry land and without a stroke of an oar. This is because the sensational septuagenarian has achieved a glut of gold medals on an ergometer in the sport of indoor rowing.

And after recently celebrating her 70th birthday and moving into a new age bracket (70-74), she has added to her collection by securing world 5km and 6km records, plus national records in the 500m, 1000m and 2000m at the South Island Masters Games.

Shirley was first introduced to indoor rowing 14 years ago at her local gym as part of a 12-week food and exercise programme in an effort to lose some weight.

“I was certainly no runner and with my rather lazy nature I decided that some time spent on the erg was a little easier than doing circuits,” admits Shirley.

At the end of the 12-week plan, each person had to set a challenge and with the South Island Masters Games happening in her home city, she opted to enter the indoor rowing competition.

The experience went well and after securing several gold medals, she was hooked. Regional success was quickly followed by national honours. So why does the mother-of-three think she is so suited to the demands of indoor rowing?

“I don’t really think I am well suited to it, because I am short at 160cm and not necessarily the right shape for rowing,” says Shirley. “But I have the commitment, strength and determination to do well in it.”

Five years after taking up the sport, her world was rocked following the tragic death of her husband Tony from an aggressive form of cancer. A former New Zealand welterweight boxing champion, Tony had been hugely supportive of Shirley’s rowing, but his death came as a shock.

“Thinking he would have time to recover from his treatment, we spoke about enjoying our retirement together,” adds Shirley. “I made the decision to close both of our businesses to concentrate on his recovery, but just two weeks later, he died at the age of 62.”

To help ease the pain of her husband’s sudden death, Shirley sought “comfort” in the ergometer. She found a coach and in 2010, she started to compete internationally to push herself to a new level.

“It was all a bit of a struggle,” she says of coping with her husband’s death, “but slowly, I was able to introduce a manageable routine.”

In 2012, Shirley, who has three grandkids, won the world title in her then-age group (65-69) in Boston, USA, and she has continued to earn success both nationally and internationally.

She trains up to five times a week. Her sessions can last from anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours and the former Colour Image shop owner has also embraced modern technology to maximise her talent.

She typically trains late morning to join in on “Row Pro” sessions with other indoor rowers in North America. For the past three years, she has worked with London-based coach James Bailey, who sets Shirley’s rowing programme via email.

“I found under James’ training I did improve my 2000m times, which I never expected to,” she adds. “I’ve been able to achieve a few more goals. Now I’m getting older, I just try to maintain my form and endeavour to keep the backward slide to a minimum.”

Her next big goal is to aim for a world record 2000m time of around eight minutes at the World Championships held in Boston, USA, next February.

She remains committed to the indoor form of the sport and admits to only having rowed on the water once nine years ago.

“I suffered for days,” she says of how she felt afterwards. “I thought it was quite similar (to indoor rowing), but it is quite different.”

Shirley has no plans to give up her passion any time soon, but she has to admit it isn’t easy.

“I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with indoor rowing. Sometimes I do procrastinate, but then as soon as I start the warm-up I’m away.

“It is a great sport and the friendships I’ve formed have maintained my interest. There is always a challenge. To keep fit and healthy while enjoying the sport is the ultimate aim.”

Words: Steve Landells

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