The New Zealand Sports Foundation and Rowing New Zealand had to work fast after the 2000 Sydney Olympics to hold on to expert rowing coach Dick Tonks.
New Zealand rowing followers had known for some years what an asset the quietly-spoken Tonks was. After one of his charges, Rob Waddell, won the single sculls gold medal at Sydney, the rest of the world realised, too. There was talk of big-money offers from overseas.
Sports Foundation boss Chris Ineson helped to put together a package to ensure Tonks was not lured off-shore. It was money well-spent.
Under Tonks’ guidance, New Zealand became an increasing factor in world rowing over the next decade. At the 2001 world championships at Lucerne, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell won a silver medal in the double sculls and teamed with Paula Twinning and Sonia Waddell for a silver in the quad sculls. The coxless four of Rochelle Saunders, Nicky Coles, Kate Robinson and Jackie Abraham won a third silver.
The Evers-Swindells won double sculls world titles in 2002, 2003 and 2005 and Olympic gold medals at Athens in 2004 and 2008.
Tonks coached other Olympic finalists at Athens and the big pay-off came at Gifu, Japan, in 2005 when besides the Evers-Swindells, he coached single sculler Mahe Drysdale and the women’s pair of Nicky Coles and Juliette Haigh to world titles. Other top rowers to have come under his tutelage have included Hamish Bond and Eric Murray.
There was equally stunning successes for the New Zealand rowing squad overseen by Tonks at the 2006 world championships, in Eton, England, and the 2007 championships in Munich, Germany. Beijing, 2008, marked Tonks’ fourth Olympics, one as a competitor, three as a coach.
The International Rowing Federation named Tonks coach of the year for 2005 and 2010. He was named Coach of the Year in the annual Halberg Awards in 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2009.
Tonks was still competing when he dipped his toe into the coaching waters in the late 1970s. He coached at lightweight level for some years, then took a long break.
In 1989 a women’s four from the Union club in his home town of Wanganui asked for help, which drew him back to coaching. One of the four, Florence Matthews, became his second wife.
His breakthrough came when world champion double scullers Philippa Baker and Brenda Lawson decided to live in Wanganui in 1994 and asked him to coach them.
They won a world title at Indianapolis that year, a bronze at Tampere in 1995 and made the Olympic final at Athens in 1996.
Soon after, Tonks was coaching Waddell, who won world titles in 1998 at Cologne and 1999 at St Catharines, Canada, before his Olympic triumph.
Curiously, during Tonks’ rowing career, he did not appeal as someone who would become a great coach, though he was always serious about his rowing. He took up the sport at 13 but gave it away while at college in Wanganui because other boys were not training hard enough.
He spent 1970 in Dunedin, rowing for the Otago club, and broke into the New Zealand team in 1971. He was in the national squad until 1975 and was a part of the first golden era of New Zealand rowing, though not a central figure.
Tonks won an Olympic silver medal in 1972, as the stroke of a coxless four that also included Ross Collinge, Dudley Storey and Noel Mills. The New Zealanders rowed magnificently, but were pipped for the gold medal by a crack East German unit.
On the domestic scene, Tonks never won a national title. He was a good single sculler, but played second fiddle to the talented Murray Watkinson, and his club was not strong enough to win titles in the fours and eights.
Tonks rowed into his 40s and also competed in veterans’ cycling events.
For some years he combined his work as a night shift worker at the Cavalier Bremworth mill with his “hobby” as a rowing coach. That all changed after the 2000 Olympics, when he moved north to head the high performance programme at Lake Karapiro.
As a coach, he remains more distant from those he trains than did New Zealand’s other great rowing coach, Rusty Robertson. “I’m their coach, not their friend,” he has said. He is extremely modest. Asked about his successes with the Evers-Swindells, he said: “I was just in the right place at the right time.” They view it differently. “We are a team of three, not two,” said Georgina Evers-Swindell.
Tonks’ methods are based on the hard-work philosophy of famous athletics coach Arthur Lydiard. “Miles make champions,” and “The history of New Zealand rowing was built on hard work,” are two often-stated Tonks beliefs. Nevertheless, he keeps up with modern trends and makes good use of video analysis to advise on tactics and technique.
Tonks was made a member of the New Zealand Order in 2003.
Dick's Games History
Olympic Summer Games Munich 1972