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More Than A World's Fastest 2000m Time

By Samantha Barry
Posted on October 20, 2018
More Than A World's Fastest 2000m Time

For New Zealand Olympian Robbie Manson, the rower, the Head of the Charles is all about getting back into training after having a month off post World Championships in mid-September. He will be competing in two races this weekend, the Men’s Championship Singles on Saturday and the Championship Eights on Sunday.

For Robbie Manson the social activist, the Head of the Charles is something much more, another chance to raise awareness about mental health.

First the rowing: While he is excited to be back in Cambridge for the event, he’s nervous for his singles race. “I’ve never raced the single here before, so it’s going to be a new experience,” said Manson. “It’s a really tricky course with the bridges and everything. I’m looking forward to it, but I know it’s going to be a challenge.”

While Manson enjoyed his time off, he is more than ready to get back on the water. Following his electrifying world-best time of 6:30.74 in a World Cup race in Poland a year ago, Manson finished fifth in single at this year’s World Championship. He acknowledges that he is in a period of personal growth and learning.

The biggest struggle seems to be balancing enjoyment of the sport with the desire to win and be the best. Manson said that he tends to put a lot of pressure on himself every time he competes, as all athletes naturally do. He is consistently trying to work on enjoying his experience more, rather getting stuck in his own head.

He’s hoping that working on this will help him in securing his spot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. After competing in the men’s double sculls at Rio in 2016, he is hoping to be the single scull rower for New Zealand in 2020.

“Who knows what’s going to happen between now and then, but ideally that’s the ultimate goal,” said Manson. “I’ll be doing everything I can do to be there. I’m still going to try to have some balance in life though and enjoy it at the same time.”

For the next 11 months, Manson will be preparing for the 2019 World Championships, where the first Olympic qualifiers will be determined. Even in times of doubt though, he keeps his spirits up by reminding himself of how far he has come.

“The Olympics always seemed like a far-off dream,” he said. “I guess sometimes when things aren’t going so well I sort of think back and I’ve far exceeded what I ever thought was possible. In that sense, the next breakthrough could be just around the corner.”

While the singles may be his most high stakes race of the day, his spot on the eight means much more on a personal level. Manson and the rest of his team, the German club Bonner Ruder-Gesellschaft, will be competing in the men’s championship eights race for Wir fur Yannic, a non-profit that works with sports team to promote and facilitate mental health education.

According to Manson, the association focuses heavily on working with athletes to spread awareness of issues relating to mental health that are specified within their field. They focus heavily on retired athletes who may be having trouble finding ways to identify themselves after leaving their sport behind. Manson has been open about his own struggles with mental health issues throughout his rowing career.

“Being an athlete there is this idea that you have to be mentally tough,” he said. “I think part of that stems from selection. You feel like you are at risk of not getting selected if you’re not the toughest athlete and you don’t want your opposition to see any weakness, so there’s that sort of ideology that’s built into everyone.”

Coming out as gay in the athletic community also had a huge effect on Manson’s mental health. Initially, he thought that if he came out he would have to stop rowing. He found, however that the rowing community was very accepting, and his career continued to progress. Although coming out was a huge personal milestone for him, his struggles didn’t end there.

“I thought, ‘Oh I’ve come out now, I’m immediately happier,’ but it’s not really like that, it’s an ongoing process like with everything else in life,” Manson said. “I have good days and bad days, like everyone, and it’s all about realizing that, being okay with that and having the tools and strategies to deal with that.”

He views mental health the same way he views physical fitness – taking care of your body is just as important as taking care of your mind. He is also grateful for the tight-knit rowing community he has gotten to know over the years, for having that support system has been instrumental in learning to overcome his battles. Racing as a part of this team reaffirms the validity of Manson, and all other rowers, struggles.

“Whether you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or you’re just living your life, mental health is something that everyone needs to be aware of and it needs to be talked about more,” said Manson. “There is a strength in that vulnerability and those struggles don’t have to stop you from going out and crushing it on the water.”

By Samantha Barry
Posted on October 20, 2018