The Olympics are all about bringing sportslovers from different nations together: and not just as adversaries on the field.
New Zealander Gay Horan has been coaching Thailand’s Olympic gold-medal rowing hopeful, Phuttharaksa Nikri, since 1996. “I read a newspaper article in The Nation about a girl called Phuttharaksa who wanted to row and had no one in Thailand to coach her, or anyone else for that matter.”
Horan swung into action, and the following year took the Thai rowing team to the Southeast Asian Games held in Jakarta. “There were 45 rowers and only me who knew anything about the sport!” she says. Nevertheless, Thailand won one gold – snared by Phuttharaksa – plus two silvers and a bronze.
Horan came to Thailand in 1996 with her husband, Geoff, a former Olympic rower himself who now works for McConnell Dowell, and their two sons, aged six and eight.
Australian-born Horan started rowing in 1974 when she was aged 14, and went on to win over 22 state and New Zealand provincial titles. She represented Australia in 1981 and 1982 at the (then unrecognised) world lightweight championships, and won both years.
She moved to New Zealand in 1983, where she married Geoff, and changed her citizenship in order to represent New Zealand in the women’s open coxed fours in 1983. “This is my 26th year in the sport,” she says. “Pack [Phuttharaksa’s nickname] is 26 years old!”
While Horan says coaching in Thailand is challenging, she says it’s not because she is foreign. “I think I am respected for my ability and experience, although it is never said.”
Rather, it can be frustrating to work within bureaucracies that aren’t supportive of athletes. “The people supposedly running the sports organisations don’t really understand the sport at all and are not really too concerned about the athletes in general.”
Another problem is financial. “I have to spend a lot of my own money. I am later reimbursed, but sometimes the money can take 12 months to come through. Without an understanding husband, there could be no rowing coach in Thailand!”
Horan has certainly had her work cut out for her. “I have had to be not only a coach, but an English teacher, boat repairer, team manager and promoter of the sport. And, I forgot, weight trainer! That sort of experience has got to help in anything I do for the rest of my life!”
“I am also a wife and mother… don’t forget!” she adds.
But despite the hard work and the difficulties, Horan loves living in Thailand. “I don’t ever get homesick! I love to play golf to relax and I love the food and the weather.”
Horan has also had experience coaching in Papua New Guinea, where her husband was sent to work for five years. “I was in the Papua New Guinean triathlon team to the Arafura Games and was also fitness and strength coach to the South Pacific Games swim team, and the national cricket team.”
As for coaching in New Zealand, Horan describes it as “difficult. All sports are still rather male dominated, so being a woman coach there is not without some difficulties.”
Horan harbours hopes that the profile of women’s sport in general will improve. “The women train just as long and hard as the men ,with very little recognition.”
In the meantime, Horan is taking Phuttharaksa through her paces in the lead up to the Games. “She’s a lightweight and unfortunately there won’t be a lightweight single scull for women until the next Olympics. But it is marvellous that Thailand has a sculler in the Olympics for the first time.”