Tokyo Olympics 2020: Cox Caleb Shepherd's calming influence on champion women's eight

As the New Zealand women's rowing eight celebrated their gold medals atop the world championship podium, one beaming face was - literally - the odd man out.

Last time the Kiwi sporting public saw coxswain Caleb Shepherd, he was the diminutive fellow between Eric Murrray and Hamish Bond at the 2014 Halberg Awards, where the legendary pair won supreme honours.

After dominating their specialist event for five years, Bond and Murray had moonlighted into the coxed pair, where Shepherd helped them to a world-best performance and a world title.

Turns out he's more than just an undersized passenger.

That championship pedigree has now helped the women's big boat to their first gold medal and early favouritism for next year's Tokyo Olympics.

"After [the Rio Olympics], they changed the rules, so coxswains were gender neutral," Shepherd told The AM Show. "I've been with the men previously - for about 6-7 years - and then jumped in with the women this year.

Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, with Caleb Shepherd
Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, with Caleb Shepherd. Photo credit: Photosport

"It's completely different, to be honest. The race is longer, so tactically, it's quite different, but I found the women fantastic this year.

"They're good listeners and they work really hard."    

The Kiwi women - who included the champion pair of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler - rattled home over the final 500m at Linz, Austria, to overhaul fast-starting rivals Australia for the world crown and qualify a boat for Tokyo.

With New Zealand's men struggling by comparison - none of their coxed crews earned Olympic berths - Shepherd was understandably happy to switch allegiances.

"Both [men and women] have merit," he grinned, diplomatically. "But I've had a fantastic year with the women.

"There was a bit of an adjustment period. At the start of this year, we were still rotating - a week with the men and a week with the women, and we kept swapping - so that was really beneficial."

Stroke Jackie Gowler noted Shepherd's steady influence on the team.

"He's very calm and composed, which I think is really good for us," she told The AM Show. "Internally is quite… it's there anyway.

NZ women's eight celebrate their world title
NZ women's eight celebrate their world title. Photo credit: Photosport

"He's really good at keeping us all internal and just within our boat throughout the race."

Now that they've finally reached the top of the dais, Gowler is sure the eight can push on to contest the Olympic gold in 12 months. 

"We can just take a lot of confidence from that," she said. "We were so process-driven this year and it's so rewarding when it pays off like that.

"We did have some confidence going into this regatta. We knew it would be a lot of pressure, because you had some spots to make for the Olympics."