The record books may say New Zealand’s first Olympic rowing medallists were Cyril Stiles and Fred Thompson, but to anyone who knew them, they were always Bob and Rangi.
Bob Stiles and his brother Glen were for more than a decade among the leading rowers in the country.
Bob, who won much greater fame because he was part of the coxless pair that won an Olympic silver medal in 1932, took up rowing in Christchurch at the age of 14. When he became a senior, in 1924, he was the stroke of the crack Avon club four that was unbeaten around Christchurch for more than two years.
He won his first national title in 1928, the pairs with his brother. That year he was chosen for the Amsterdam Olympics, but did not attend.
He formed a particularly strong partnership with Rangi Thompson and the pair won the New Zealand title in 1931, 32 and 34. The champion club pair was selected to represent New Zealand at the 1932 Olympics and polished its preparation with some solid training at Petone.
Stiles and Thompson rowed in both the pairs and eights competitions at the 1932 Olympics. In the eight, in which Stiles was in the No 6 seat, New Zealand was fourth in its heat and second behind Great Britain in the repecharge.
Stiles and Thompson finished second in their heat of the pairs.
In the final, they rowed a good race and looked an outside chance to win the gold as they moved away from the Polish and Dutch crews and began to haul in the leaders, Great Britain. About 600 metres from home, the New Zealanders raised their stroke and were gradually gaining on the leaders when a stay on the stroke rigger broke.
The New Zealand boat swung around immediately off its course and the stay dragged in the water. Under the circumstances, the New Zealanders did well to get within half a length of the winners.
The silver medal won by Stiles and Thompson was New Zealand’s first at an Olympics. The New Zealand coxless four won the next, 40 years later.
Back home, Stiles continued to maintain a high profile in rowing and in 1937 he and his brother won their second national title together. It was Bob Stiles’ fifth in all.
In 1938 Bob Stiles helped the New Zealand eight win the bronze medal at the Sydney Empire Games.
Before World War II, Bob Stiles was a builder. He served in the war, rising to the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major, a position that suited him because of his ramrod straight bearing and precise manner.
Some years after the war, Stiles built a single scull boat, the Ngaio. This inspired him to alter professions and he moved from caravan-building to rowing boat-building.
After he retired, his son, Russell, took over the business, before selling it to yachtie Dave Elder.
Stiles remained a staunch member of the Avon club, coaching several champion crews. He played a large part in the rise to national acclaim of Ted and George Lindstrom.
Not long before his death, in the mid-1980s, Stiles got hold of the Tui, the boat he and Thompson had rowed to win their silver medal. He spent several months rebuilding the boat until it looked almost new. The boat now hangs on the wall of the Avon clubrooms.