For all the kilometres John Keogh has clocked up in his globe-trotting rowing career, Australia’s new women’s head coach said he still draws extensively from his formative years in Launceston.
“My love of the sport was through experiences I had with guys like Ron “Smirky” Woods and John “Snowy” Bolton when I was 15 rowing with Queechy High School,” said the man entrusted with guiding Australia’s female rowers to the next Olympics.
“All these people shape you in some way and I look back fondly on that time and the people that impacted on me as a young athlete and you still draw upon that subconsciously.
“In fact, I draw an awful lot from Tasmania.”
The Launceston-born 47-year-old father-of-two’s career has come full circle and he admits flying back to Australia to assume his new role did feel like a home-coming.
Having progressed through North Esk and Tamar to national teams and twice finished fourth in lightweight four world championships, Keogh embarked on a hugely successful coaching career.
Beginning at Scotch Oakburn College, he rose through the ranks to lead the British women’s program at the 2008 Olympics and help the Canadians to silver medals in both London (women’s eight) and Rio de Janeiro (women’s lightweight double).
But when the chance to coach his home country came up, Keogh did not hesitate.
“I saw Rowing Canada going down a different path and this came up,” he told Fairfax Media.
“I’d been interested in what’s happening in Australia for multiple Olympic cycles. We are Australians, we have parents in Launceston.
“To come back and be involved made me pretty excited so when I saw the expressions of interest back in June it was probably timely.
“Our kids are getting older and something has always been in the back of my mind about Australia having never really coached for Australia.”
Despite the logistics of moving a family around the world for the second time, Keogh said it was a relatively easy sell to his wife Samantha, daughter Hollie, 14, and son Liam, 8.
“My wife was certainly excited. Her father [North Esk rower Joe Marshall] died a couple of years ago on Boxing Day when we were overseas and that was tough for everybody.
“Our daughter was also excited about moving and our son is pretty relaxed about it and says you can get more Pokemon in Australia than Canada so is very happy about that.
“Hopefully this moving around the world shows our children that there is so much opportunity in the world if you are willing to go after it.
“I’d hate to look back and say ‘I wish I’d done that’.”
Rowing Australia announced Keogh as its new new women’s head coach on September 22 and he said he couldn’t wait to complete the move from London, Ontario.
”I was over here a few weeks ago to meet some staff but it was definitely an exciting feeling as I descended into Sydney again.”
Keogh, who coached Canadian crews to world championships medals in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, said he has picked up valuable lessons from both his previous Commonwealth appointments.
“There’s good and bad that you learn from different federations. GB Rowing is arguably the best in the world and very driven in how the structure is run. There is no compromise which I think is a good thing and they are very good at developing young athletes.
“With Rowing Canada, they do a reasonable job with what they’ve got because there is not a big population that rows which is driven by environmental conditions and a lot of other sports that take people out of rowing like ice hockey.
“That taught me an understanding that you’ve got to do the job with what you have, so you’ve got to be smarter how you row.”
Keogh is setting himself a variety of targets in his new role and is excited by the prospects of an Australian women’s squad spearheaded by Olympic single sculls champion Kim Brennan and drawing on the experience of veteran performers like his fellow Tasmanian Kerry Hore.
“When you start sifting through data, I’m pretty impressed with what’s here and am excited to work with assistant coaches to start developing these athletes further because there are a lot of good athletes in this country.
“We know the results were not what we were after [in Rio] apart from Kim’s but there’s a lot of really good quality in Australia and it’s up to us to develop that.
“It is such a popular sport in Australia. You’ve only got to go to the school regattas to see how good the rowing is at grass roots level.
“We have to work as a team at Rowing Australia with all the state pathways to develop what we’ve got.”
In contrast to some previous national sports coaches and team chef de missions, Keogh will not be setting any medal targets, but expects to be judged in those terms.
“We never really talked about targets but you train to win and we want to see boats perform at next year’s world championships [in Florida].
“We’d like to be looking to field a fairly full team and looking to win medals, that’s why we do this sport.”
The headquarters for the Australian women’s program was announced as being in Penrith earlier this month after a lengthy period examining locations across the country.
Keogh, who officially began his role on October 17, will be based in western Sydney and believes the right decision was made, but could see the irony in his home city having also applied to host the program.
“I know there was lots of interest from around the country to be part of the program and in my own mind I thought Penrith fits all the criteria. It was probably the best fit.
“Launceston would have been amazing. To come down there and have a national team based in the city would have been a fairytale for me, Tasmania and Launceston, but the best set-up is definitely Penrith.”