Photo of Caleb Antill (second from screen right) at Tokyo Olympics

We chat with ANU's Caleb Antill about his thrilling medal performance at the Olympics 


ANU's Caleb Antill (NOTE: In the photo above, Caleb is second from the right of screen) has just returned from the Tokyo Olympics after taking bronze as part of the Men's Quadruple Sculls rowing event on July 28th, 2021.  Fellow ANU student Luke Letcher also won bronze as part of that team (NOTE: In the photo above, Luke is the tallest member, left of screen).

Here are Caleb's post-Olympic thoughts on a wonderful two weeks in Tokyo!!


Q1. Hi Caleb. You are now back in Australia after that amazing bronze medal performance in Tokyo… Just for the benefit of our student audience, tell us a bit about yourself?

CALEB: G’day I’m Caleb, I’m 26 years old and I’ve been studying at ANU since 2014. I’m a born and raised Canberran and got into rowing through my family. I own an Australian Kelpie named Rusty and still live in Canberra. Currently I have completed a Bachelor of Commerce and am in the middle of finishing my final two subjects to graduate with a Bachelor of science. 


Q2. Because of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the lead-up to the Olympics must have been uncertain at best, soul-destroying at worst for some athletes. What was your Olympics journey like?

CALEB:  The postponement of the Olympics in the middle of 2020 was a very tough time for many athletes across the globe. I watched many of my teammates step away from the sport and had doubts about continuing myself.

As a team at the Men’s National Training Centre in Yarralumla we banded together and showed absolute dedication to performing at our best and stayed on task even with the uncertainty around all aspects of life and the games.

Without the awesome team I’m fortunate enough to be a part of I wouldn’t have been able to achieve such a great result. The campaign was bumpy at best but the 3 other guys in my crew were rock solid and got on with the job. 


Q3. After so much uncertainty, it must have been a huge relief just to make it to the Tokyo Games?

CALEB: Unfortunately, due to our racing schedule we didn’t get to take part in the opening ceremony, however the feeling of walking out into the regatta park was certainly a relief. It was exactly like I had imagined it so many times in my head and almost didn’t feel real. It wasn’t until we completed our first heat race and made it straight through to the final did I realise this was seriously happening and we were serious contenders. 

Q4. You guys were aiming to make history by becoming the first Aussies to win the Men's Quadruple Sculls at the Olympics. How much was that ‘sense of history’ weighing on you pre-race?

CALEB: Although we were aware of the history of the Australian men’s quad at the Olympics and we were attempting to follow a trend of Australia coming 3rd, then 2nd in the last two Olympic games, it was not a focus for us. We made sure we stayed process-orientated and kept reminding ourselves of the things that had worked so well in training. We trusted each other that no matter what we would all be fierce competitors and do our best to win the race; it was more about how we did it together. 


Q5. The Olympic final itself was such a super-competitive, tightly-fought and entertaining spectacle. What goes through your mind during such an epic race - and ‘in the moment’ is it hard to gauge exactly where you are placed at any given time during the race?

CALEB: My job in the crew is to make the calls, so I am talking during the race, going through the race plan as well as telling my teammates where we sat compared to other crews. 

A few things went through my head during the race - but two really stand out. 

Firstly, when the favourites to win the event, the Dutch, took a bad stroke about 500m in and we took 5-metre lead on them, I thought to myself “no worries, got them covered.” Then about 300-metres later, they were next to us again I thought to myself “damn they’ll be hard to beat.” Which ended up being true when they won the gold medal and set the world record in the process. 

Secondly, I remember the guy behind me (Jack) taking a bad stroke with 750-metres to go and slowing the boat down dramatically. I remember thinking “relax” as the guy in front of me practically picked the boat up out of the water and got us back to speed. 

Q6. On TV, Olympic rowing looks relatively ‘effortless’ because the TV framing is quite wide. What goes on in the craft on raceday that perhaps the average viewer doesn’t appreciate or know?

CALEB:  The best crews in rowing make it look completely effortless. Rowing is an extremely technical sport and if you ever see someone try to get in a single for the first time and row, they almost instantly fall in.

So, once you’ve mastered not falling in, you then have to master getting the maximum physical effort out of yourself for around 5-7 minutes - depending on conditions and boat class - while at the same time rowing almost identically the same as your crewmates.  There are hundreds of thousands of strokes behind what you see on TV, that’s why it looks so easy. 

Q7. At what point in the race did you know, for sure, that you hadn’t won the gold?

CALEB: As I said earlier, it was when the Dutch moved through us after their bad stroke early on in the race. I knew they’d be hard to beat. 


Q8. How special was it for you and a fellow ANU’er (Luke Letcher) to win an Olympic medal and stand on that victory podium together in Tokyo?

CALEB: Luke and I have rowed in many crews together, from winning at UniGames in 2015 to Winning a world U/23 championship in 2016 together, it was a very long road for us to achieve this bronze together and we worked very well as a team to make it happen. We both very proudly represent Canberra and to do it together was great. 


Q9. After you had time to reflect, did an Olympic bronze feel like a ‘win’ to you?  

CALEB: The bronze medal absolutely feels like a win to me. Early on in our campaign we made the promise to each other that we would give the best of ourselves to winning the gold medal. Although we didn’t achieve that, there’s nothing I would do differently and no one else I would rather have raced with.  


Q10. Speaking of medals, we had a huge medals haul in Tokyo (17 Gold,7 Silver, 22 Bronze = 46 total). What do you think this statistic says about the health of Australian elite sports at the moment?

CALEB: Going into the Olympics there was some uncertainty especially in our rowing team because we hadn’t done any international racing in 18 months, which I’m sure is the same across many sports in Australia. 
However, we were lucky enough to have an extremely talented team to train against and the quality of each crew pushed each other to be better. 

To be part of Australia’s most successful day in rowing history (28.7.2021) is awesome. The way Australia has handled the pandemic has allowed us to keep training and remain on task therefore producing great results. During our day of racing, we won two Gold Medals (Men’s Four, Women’s Four) and two Bronze Medals (Men’s Quad, Women’s Quad) in successive races. 


Q11. On reflection, has this Olympics experience made you hungry to try for the next one in 3 year’s time?

CALEB:  Absolutely. To have such a positive campaign and come so close to Olympic gold inspires me to keep pushing for Paris 2024. 

Q12. What have you been able to draw on from your university studies which has helped you as an Olympic-standard rower?  

CALEB: Uniquely, I managed to do two years of my degrees full time before I started competitively rowing so it’s made it possible to just keep chipping away at subjects slowly. I’d say many skills are transferrable between sport and study, most notably the ability to think critically about the task at hand.

One of my biggest strengths in rowing is having the ability to analyse my performances or problems in the boat and be able to come up with a well-crafted solution. This is a skill well developed through almost every university assignment I’ve completed.  


Q13. A final question - the best piece of advice you ever received and/or a motto you live by?


"Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can"

(Walter D. Wintle)


Caleb – Once again, many congratulations on your Olympic medal. You are a great ambassador for sport at ANU. All the best and check in with you again soon!


You can follow Caleb’s sporting career on his Instagram @ant_ill   

OR even better, if you see him on campus, congratulate him on his amazing Olympic achievement!