John O’Connor has thought deeply about rowing for over 50 years, but it’s the future he’s concentrating on.

 

A young John O’Connor was dangling his fishing line down by the Otago harbour basin when a coxed four from the local rowing club scudded past.

He “thought it looked pretty cool” and kept the sight in the back of his mind until he arrived at St Paul’s High School in 1973. He was ready to go rowing, weather permitting.

If John had to make the call, he’d probably say the harbour was more suited to fishing trawlers than rowing skiffs.

“It was a case of turn up to the harbour, find it was too rough and go for a big, long run somewhere,” says John. ‘‘[Otherwise] the answer in Dunedin was to drive 40 minutes out to Lake Waihola or out to the Henley River at night which meant you were very late getting home.”

And on the days they did get out in town, he remembers the sight of his coach disappearing from view on a wharf in the distance. No speed boats back then from which to correct poor technique,  just some good hard miles, rowing-in bad habits.

St Pauls Senior 8+ 1974 (002)

1974 St Pauls 8+ out Otago Harbour, John O'Connor in 3 seat.

This was clearly a test of perseverance for John, but as the new President of New Zealand Rowing can attest to, he learned plenty of top habits from that time as well.

And his experience of the sport across a whole range of environments has influenced much of the mindset he will bring to the role.

Some of the most formative thinking he was able to do came with some good fortune. He was in the final year of a Bachelor of Science degree at Otago University when his girlfriend Julie, later to become his wife, moved home to Invercargill.

John followed her south, completed a year’s teacher training and was on section at James Hargest College when former Olympic champion Dudley Storey arrived in town on a nationwide road trip raising money to get the New Zealand Eight to the world championships.

“Dudley turned up and started talking rowing and said, ‘Has anybody previously been involved in rowing?’

“And I foolishly put up my hand, and that was the beginning of the end, I suppose!”

John established rowing at James Hargest, took some crews at Southland Girls’ High, coaching out of the Waihopai Rowing Club on the mighty Oreti River.

Hargest became a sculling stronghold and John started to become more and more involved with Maadi.

James Hargest Rowing 2008 (003)

John O'Connor bottom row second from left with the squad from James Hargest High School (now James Hargest College) at Maadi in 2008. 

As a life member of the NZSSRA he’s keen to see some of the great things about the sport made even better.

He proposed a remit which was backed by Ashburton College coach Justin Wall at this year’s Aon Maadi Regatta proposing some big changes for the sport to be discussed and decided upon for 2025.

“It seems to me that rowing has got a little bit out of step with modern thinking in terms of how we bring people into the sport,” says John. “Rowing must be one of the few sports where we throw people in at the deep end and expect them to compete at the full level of competition.”

John believes the sport’s biggest problem, retention, and as a sport that we need to be having some bold conversations such as:

Kids should be classified by what year they are in (Year 10, 11, 12, 13) as opposed to age (U15, U16, U17, U18);

And Year 10 rowers competing at a far less intensive level, and not be invited to Aon Maadi Regatta.

“You say to them, ‘Your time will come when you reach Year 11. You can go to the South Island or North Island Secondary Schools Regattas, but in your first year it's going to be less about competition and more about skill acquisition’.

“What we find is that we've got Under-15 kids who are actually Year 11 students dominating that class. That's one of the things driving the big margins.

Umpiring this year, there were times when I saw Under-15 crews 600 metres behind at the finish.”

John thinks racing U15s across the Olympic distance is counter-productive physically and mentally for young rowers.

“We know that young people develop at different levels and the ones that tend not to develop till later, the skinny, tall, lanky kid where their connective body tissue hasn't caught up with their skeletal development are the very ones we want in our sport.

“And if we give them the message early on that they're not very good at this because we haven't given them time to develop, then we are going to lose them.”

He’d race Year 10s over 500m or 1000. Held starts would go, replaced by quick alignments which would heavily reduce delays at regattas and compress the racing to make it more enjoyable for the crews who repeatedly are left trailing out the back.

The absence of Under-15s would allow room for an under 18 straight four that would give lightweight rowers a chance to get among the titles.

John knows there will be resistance.

“When I was on the secondary schools (NZSSRA), we introduced coxed quads and pushed double sculling right down to the younger age groups, brought in singles except for the Under-15 class. And there was a lot of resistance to that too. But look how it grew the sport. We went from 800-1000 kids at Maadi to double that now. Just because there was more opportunity.”

In some ways he’s back on that basin in Dunedin dangling that fishing line hoping for a bite.

The new president. Trying to set a bold precedent.

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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.