She’s one of our most inspiring athletes – an Olympic gold medallist, World Champion, Toyota Brand Guardian, and one hell of a good woman. But as Emma Twigg prepares for her final Olympic campaign, she reflects with Kelly Bertrand on an incredible career, her other role as mum to Tommy and how her ‘why’ has changed throughout the years.
This story is brought to you by our fabulous partners, Toyota New Zealand.
Kia ora Emma! How are you today?
I’m good! I’m back in New Zealand after being away for a while, so I’m just getting back to my real life and doing a bit of training again.
I don’t know how you do it with a kid. I don’t have one and I can barely look after myself!
[Laughs] I’m lucky I have some good helpers. I wouldn’t be able to do it by myself. Full respect to people who do!
So is it a pretty laser focus on the Paris 2024 Olympics right now?
Yeah pretty much, we just had the qualification regatta for Paris which was our World Champs – we got the boat qualified which is the first step! So now I just have to keep myself fit and healthy. There’s lots of lasts that I’ll be ticking off on the way – it’s exciting but it’s also daunting.
You reckon this might be your last Olympics, then?
Yeah. I think five is enough! This cycle is a short one, it’s normally four years but because Tokyo was postponed it’s only three. For me it’s a great thing, I don’t know if I could have hung in there!
Are you still jazzed about rowing though? Do you have the same love for it?
As I’ve gotten older I appreciate what I like about it more – I figure it out more and more. I think I like training more than I like racing, when it comes to racing I get nervous and there’s a lot more on the line. I also love what you can do as an athlete and use your voice to impact people for the better. I’m very grateful for that – and it’s going to be a big change for me when I transition into something different!
Is it fair to say then that, from when you were younger to now, the things you love about being a professional athlete have changed as you’ve gotten older? Does your ‘why’ change a bit?
Totally – my ‘why’ has changed significantly since the start. When I was really young it was all about the medals, and that was my measure of success. So when I didn’t get that, I felt like I was a failure. But as you go through your career more you really appreciate the opportunities you do get – the travel, the experiences, the people – and those things become even more important than the immediate successes. And even more so now, I look at our group of athletes now and I’m the oldest, and I used to be the youngest! The three-month trip to Europe is so exciting for the young ones, you’re living the dream – and now I’m like, ‘ooh, can’t wait to get back to my own bed and my family!’ Your perspective on things changes a little bit.
But there’s different challenges for me now, it’s my fifth games so it’s all about how I get my body there in one piece, as well as mentally, as well as parenthood.
Yeah, keeping yourself in that mental headspace when you have so much else going on must be a real ride.
I’ve actually got better at managing it as you learn from mistakes, and I think now I’m better at leaning on people -when you’re younger you kind of feel you just have to get on with it and find a way. Whereas now I’ve learnt that you’re not going to get to the finish line by yourself – you need to draw on all the resources that you can. And of course now it’s all about having a good night’s sleep with a 17-month-old!
What does pulling on that Silver Fern mean for you now?
There’s been a lot of reflection about that recently – I mean, I just went to my last World Champs, potentially – so I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’ve been wearing that Silver Fern for the last 15 or so years. I’ve been to five Olympics and people dream of going to one! I wish I knew when I was 18 just how significant it is even just qualifying for an Olympics. Now that’s coming to an end it sinks in even more.
What made you want to be a professional athlete in the first place?
I always wanted to represent New Zealand from a young age. When I was young there wasn’t much of a pathway in other sports like hockey, which I played. It seemed like the Olympic sports were more supported and more well-funded. Now, it’s almost flipped on its head. But representing New Zealand was always the goal, as well as trying to make a living out of it – and to do what I loved!
It must be incredible to look back and see the huge changes women’s sport has undergone since you first started!
It’s a bittersweet thing for an ageing athlete! There must be some women in those professional sports where they’re like, ‘damn! I was five years too early!’. But I feel pretty lucky to have had the support I have had and to have done what I’ve done, but then you look at some of the men and the security they have into their retirement – hopefully in another five- or 10-years’ time that’ll be different too.
Alongside the financial realities, what has been the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Like with anything in life, it’s dealing with the lows. There’s always going to be times when you don’t achieve what you want to, you’re knackered, you’ve pushed things too far. There have been a few moments in my career where I’ve had to navigate what I’ve deemed as failure, but it’s been down to the people I’ve had around me who have helped me deal with that. There’s never perfection – maybe athletes are just wired to try and find it, so you’re always looking even though you know it doesn’t exist!
Do you have a mantra or a piece of advice that keeps you going?
There’s one that’s stuck it’s ‘persistence beats resistance’. It’s very applicable to sport!
When you’re not training, what are you up to?
Just chilling out with my wife Charlotte and son Tommy. We love to go and have a nice coffee, spend time by the ocean or get out into nature. Nothing too fancy, just being present – Char prompts me to be present because it’s so easy to think about what’s about to happen or all the stuff you need to do, but it’s all about being with her and little Tommy.
He is so adorable.
Yeah, he can be. His favourite word at the moment is ‘no’. It’s been a wild ride with him! It used to be ‘more’! but now it’s ‘no!’ and it’s not so cute!
And tell us a little about being a Toyota Brand Guardian – I mean, what a title!
Right? They’re so incredible to work with, when I went down to their head office in Palmy it was actually like a big family. I love that, and also the cars. We’ve got a hybrid Highlander and a hybrid Corolla and we absolutely love them. The economy on them is epic! And also, I’m so lucky I have people like that backing me and helping me do what I do. I’m so fortunate!