Note to Windermere Cup spectators lining Montlake Cut Saturday morning: In the final race, the guys with the black oars are really good. The eight New Zealand rowers who will face Washington and Columbia in the 29th annual Cup’s showcase have aspirations of an Olympic medal.

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Note to Windermere Cup spectators lining Montlake Cut Saturday morning: In the final race, the guys with the black oars are really good.

The eight New Zealand rowers who will line up to face Washington and Columbia in the showcase race of the 29th annual Cup have aspirations, even expectations, of being in Rio de Janeiro next summer, lining up for a shot at an Olympic medal.

“This crew has been working together for years to be their country’s Olympic eight,” said Washington men’s coach Michael Callahan. “They’re like a national project.”

Windermere Cup

Saturday, Montlake Cut

Schedule: 21 races, beginning at 10:20 a.m.; women’s Cup, 11:35 a.m.; men’s Cup, 11:45 a.m.

Closure: Montlake Bridge closed 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

It’s been a successful one so far. Last July the New Zealand eight, with just one new face in the lineup, won its second straight under-23 World Championships in Varese, Italy.

Two weeks earlier, to gauge their world-stage readiness, they competed at World Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland, a senior event (no age restrictions) and rowed against a dozen elite-level eights. The young Kiwis finished fifth.

“New Zealand is one of the best and most organized rowing nations in the world,” said Callahan, who had seven members of UW’s current roster competing for various countries at last year’s U23 Worlds. “They topped the medal count at the (senior) World Championships last year.”

New Zealand won nine medals overall; six were gold, four won by women rowers.

“That’s the highest level of rowing in the world,” Callahan added. “They beat Great Britain and Germany and the U.S. in the gold medal count. That’s astounding for a country that has just a few million people.”

New Zealand won five rowing medals — in pairs or sculls, three of them gold — in London at the 2012 Olympics. A Kiwi men’s eight last medaled (bronze) at the 1976 Montreal Games; they won gold in Munich in 1972.

New Zealand’s first opportunity to qualify for Rio happens later this year at the World Championships in France. Caleb Shepherd, New Zealand’s coxswain, likes his boat’s chances.

“I think they’re pretty good,” Shepherd, 21, said. “We’re still finding our feet at this level, but we’ve made some good inroads early. Hopefully we can keep chipping away, making those one percent improvements and it will equate to making it.”

Shepherd, who coxed a New Zealand pair to a gold medal at last year’s worlds, joined the junior national team at 16. He and seven of New Zealand’s rowers have trained as a unit for two years.

Shepherd and New Zealand third seat rower Shaun Kirkham, both natives of the North Island town of Hamilton, have shared boats at various levels for eight years. “We all get on really well,” he said. “We’re strong technically, and our experience together really helps with that.”


•The UW women rose to No. 4 this week after winning two of three races vs. No. 2 California last week. Three races (varsity eight, second varsity eight, varsity four) contribute to the overall team score in women’s collegiate rowing, which is how the NCAA title is decided. The Huskies will row against No. 3 Virginia in the women’s Cup race (set to begin at 11:35 a.m., followed by the men at 11:45).

“I’ve been trying to get them to come out here for two years,” said UW women’s coach Bob Ernst, who noted he has three times tried to hire Virginia coach Kevin Sauer. “It’ll be a really good test for us. It’s risky, but how can you hope to be the best if you don’t take some chances?”