Nikki Mills (Payne) and Lynley Hannen paved the way for other more famous New Zealand women's rowing duos, including Philippa Baker and Brenda Lawson, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell, and Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles.
Mills and Hannen were the pioneers though. They competed in the women's pair, in which they won the bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. They finished second in their heat, won the repecharge and were a comfortable third, behind Romania and Bulgaria, in the final. They rowed outstandingly in the final, their time of 7min 35.68s giving them a five-second cushion over the fourth-placed East Germans.
That result revealed how much the New Zealanders had improved. They got to the Games because of a second placing in Lucerne, not long before the Olympics. In that race they were still 14 seconds behind the East Germans. To turn around that margin so quickly was a tribute to the New Zealand pair, and to their coach, Harry Mahon.
The Hannen-Mills medal was a shock. Though they'd won the national pairs title impressively for two years, they were overlooked for Olympic selection in 1988. So they headed for Europe where, under Mahon's guidance, they improved steadily, beating nearly all the world's leading pairs.
When they were belatedly selected for the Olympics, they were working as gardeners in Switzerland, saving for a Greek islands holiday.
The New Zealanders were still novices internationally in 1988. In one pre-Olympic race, when the starting instructions were given in French, Mills ended up with Hannen's oar in her back. They did not have settled positions in the boat, swapping regularly. They talked during a race more than other pairs. In their heat in Seoul they stopped rowing when they heard a finishing beep, not realising it was the East German team's finishing signal.
No-one was prouder of the New Zealanders' efforts than Mahon. “Lynley and Nikki had two big disadvantages at these games,” he said. “They were the most inexperienced of the top teams, and also the lightest. The wind affected them more. But they had good temperaments and when they needed to, they raced their best.”
After their Olympic medal, Mills had a couple more years of international competition. She competed with Hannen in the pairs at the 1989 world championships in Bled, Yugoslavia, and had a busy time of it at the 1990 world championships, at Lake Barrington, Australia, competing in the eights and the coxless fours.
At domestic level Payne won 14 New Zealand titles for the Hamilton club. There were eights titles in 1986, 1989 and 1990, fours in 1989 and 1990, coxless pairs from 1986-90, quadruple sculls in 1988 and 1989, and double sculls in 1988 and 1989.
Nikki, now married to former Waikato rowing coach Peter Mills, eventually became a doctor.
Nikki's Games History
Olympic Summer Games Seoul 1988