The 20-year Kiwi connection enhancing our rowing reputation around the world


Sparks Rowing

  • 550-600 students a year
  • Camps in four continents; North America, Australia, Europe, Asia
  • Three camps levels
  • Sparks biggest provider of camps in the US

It’s 5.45am in the middle of winter and the lights are already on at Otago University Rowing Club.

A bunch of teenagers from countries all around the world are about to head out on to the harbour for their first row as part of the Sparks rowing experience.

It’s a full immersion initiation in Kiwi rowing, where boat launching means getting your feet wet in the icy water down at the OURC boatramp.

That alone is a new experience for most, having only ever pushed off a dock.

Eighteen-year-old Katie Zeller is here from Switzerland.

“They have a Sparks Camp [back home] and I was looking at that and then I fell upon the New Zealand one, and I decided to go for it,” she says. “I talked to my parents about it and they're like, ‘Well, if you really want to go, find a way to raise the money.”

So she did. She found sponsors and generated enough fundraising clicks rowing a marathon on the erg to find the $US9,000 to get here.

Katie, who’s training to be a nurse, lives in Chateaux d’OEx, a town of about 4000 people near Lake Geneva.  She wants to be good enough to make the Swiss national squad and eventually get to the Olympics.

Katie Zeller in bow seat of a Sparks quad on Otago Harbour. She normally does her rowing at the Vevey Club on Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Andy Chefetz, also 18, couldn’t come from a more different background. He lives in New York’s Upper West Side, right by the Lincoln Center and went to Middlesex High School in Connecticut.

He’ll soon be at Brown University hoping to study medicine and his dream would be to row on the Varsity Crew.

“I think I've definitely improved here physically and mentally,” says Andy. “It’s been very nice rowing in a college type setting at the University of Otago, I think that's been a big help.”

Andy Chefetz stroking a double with Reece Rosen, their first ever attempt at sculling. Andy’s off to Brown University next month.

The camps try to equip kids with some of the skills to achieve their sporting goals but in no way claim to be a guaranteed pathway to elite rowing.

“We don't attempt to sell it as that,” says founder Ryan Sparks, a former rower who ended up coaching at Yale University. “The people who are coming are more interested in the experience of being with the Kiwis, being here in Dunedin in the winter, seeing New Zealand and the beauty it has to offer.”

Ryan fell in love with Dunedin when he attended Otago University in 2003, and he also grew to admire the rowing culture in New Zealand.

“I think the point of sport is to learn how to be more happy. We see a lot of kids from higher performing US secondary schools, whereby there's a ton of pressure on them to perform, and some of them are high performers, but they don't have a great relationship with performance, and I think the Kiwi relationship with performance is healthier."

Ryan says just look at the number of young Kiwi rowers getting US college scholarships.

“There's a reason for that. They're more autonomous. They're more confident. They have a greater range of ability, based on how they're developed as athletes and based on your culture, which is incredibly healthy-sport focused.”

The chance to upskill comes with rowing alongside some of the athletes at Otago University. And getting mentored by world-class coaches and support staff.


It might be chilly but the water’s great this time of year for the Sparks camp rowers and the Otago University students they get to learn with. Photos: SHARRON BENNETT PHOTOGRAPHY


Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.