In just a couple of weeks some of New Zealand’s most promising rowing talent will compete at the US college championships, the NCAAs for women, and the IRAs for men.

These days it can be a springboard to rowing for New Zealand.
Andy Hay talks to former Ohio State athlete Catherine Shields, the Kiwi who made US rowing history and in her own way helped to open a new rowing pathway.

 

THE BIG ENGINE

“I was always tall for my age when I was young and so everyone was like, ‘You should be a rower’.

It’s probably hard advice to ignore if you’re just about to head to Rangi Ruru Girls’ School.

She could never have known it then, but Catherine Shields had just taken her first steps on a unique rowing journey.

“I started and I didn't actually enjoy it very much,” says Catherine. “But I persisted with it because everyone had told me, ‘You'll make a good rower’.

“And then I like maxed out at five foot eight!”

If you are good enough, you’re big enough.

“I started Under 15. I did a double, a quad, a four and an eight, I think we only medaled in the eight.”

Catherine's memory is spot on, it was a silver medal behind great rivals St Margaret’s and the beginning of a medal run that took her all the way to the top of the sport in the US.

Success had its incentive, but it was the three non-podiums in 2007 that really influenced her decision to return the next season.

“It drove that hunger to continue and to get better. I think that’s what happened over my years rowing in high school, is that it just got better and better.

For the next three years Catherine didn’t miss a podium at Maadi.

2008

Gold: U16 Eight, U15 Four, Silver: U17 Eight, U15 Eight.

2009

Gold: U18 Eight, U18 Pair, U18 Four, U17 Eight, U16 Eight.

2010

Gold: U18 Eight, U18 Four, U18 Pair, U17 Four, Bronze: U17 Eight.

Staggering.

“I've always felt like my rowing has been the right place at the right time,” says Catherine. “There's a lot of hard work that goes with it to get the results, but that’s how I look at it.”

She made the New Zealand Under 19 team in 2009, still competing as an Under 16, the crew winning a silver in the Women’s Eight in France.

And her fledgling international career was starting to get international attention.

“Some [US] schools had started to approach, but it was never on the radar of something that I was going to do when I was too young by their standards of recruiting an athlete,” she says.

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Catherine Shields in the bow seat of the New Zealand U19 Eight that won a silver medal at the World Championships in France in 2009.

So back to Rangi Ruru for her last year of school where she very nearly repeated that five-gold sweep at Aon Maadi. But it wasn’t enough to get a repeat age-group call up.

“I learned a lot from not getting into Juniors that year,” says Catherine. “So I did under 21s, which was really great. It was a lot of fun... but there was still that drive.”

She rowed out of the Southern RPC and was back in the Under 19 team for 2011, winning a bronze in the straight four at Eton Dorney. It was to be a landmark crew for Rowing New Zealand.

The US scouts were queuing up with their business cards.

Frederika Archibald would end up as rowing captain at Harvard, Alice White headed for the west coast and UCLA, Grace Spoors started a family tradition at University of Washington.

THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY WOMEN'S ROWING TEAM (youtube.com)

And Catherine?

“My view then was still very much staying and trying to see how far I could go with rowing in New Zealand. So...the next step, was trying to get a trial for Under 23s.

“When that didn't happen, I was like, ‘Okay, this is the turning point, the door seems like it's closing a little bit here in New Zealand, but I want to see if it's going to open overseas.

“And it did.”

The New Zealand Under 19 Four of 2011 were now all at US Universities.

THE BIG CHILL

The US National Weather Service calls it a polar vortex. An “Arctic outbreak” that’s generated in Greenland, whips through Canada and Michigan, and then forms an epicentre in the Ohio valley where temperatures can dip to minus 20.

“Ohio State University's a Midwest school," says Catherine, "so you spend your whole winter on the ergs, because your river's frozen or your body of water is frozen. So you're doing many, many kilometres a week on the row machine, hoping not to injure yourself.”

After missing Under 23s, she’d revisited some of the offers that had come her way in the US and decided on the “Buckeyes.”

The OSU boathouse on the Scioto River could easily blend in with the clubhouse at Augusta National, home of golf’s Masters. It’s rustic swank and if you’re going to live in the freezing cold, probably as good a place to spend winter as it gets.

In her freshman year Catherine stroked the 2nd Varsity Eight to victory at the NCAAs, Ohio State winning the national teams championship for the first time since the competition’s inception in 1997.

Catherine Shields was back in the right place at the right time.

Andy Teitelbaum was Ohio State’s first head coach and hugely influential in building their success. Catherine helped them go to the next level.

“I don't think that when we recruited her, we had any understanding as to the impact or the influence that she would have while she was here,” says Andy.

“She took what was a very good rowing programme and helped to make us very special in the time that she rowed for us.

“It's not only how good she got, but like all great athletes, it's how much better she was able to make the people around her. It's a rare individual who is connected enough to her teammates where she's able to inspire them, who is brave enough to challenge them when they're not meeting the standard but do so in a way where they're inspired and not annoyed.”

Andy remembers vividly one particular moment, a 2 x 6km workout on the erg.

“To do the workout to standard, you have to go faster on your second six K than your first one.  And she went really fast on her first one, like almost 22 minutes flat, which for a collegiate woman is a really good erg score.

“As soon as she finished it, she put her handle down, and she looked at me, and went, ‘Oh, I went too fast’.  I just sort of smiled, and I was like, ‘Do your best’. And sure as heck she went 21:50 on the next one.

“I don't know if she'd ever gone that fast on a single six K.”

In 2014, with Catherine now in six seat of the top boat, OSU went 12 races unbeaten, winning their first 1V Eights title at the NCAA’s. They also won the 2V Eight to secure a second straight national team’s championship.

The next year, Ohio State became the first school to win three consecutive national teams championships, Catherine in the seven seat of the winning 1V Eight

And in 2016, she was back in seven seat when the Buckeyes won the 1V Eight again, the first women’s squad in US history to win three 1Vs in a row.

It’s never been repeated. And Catherine is the only female rower to win four straight national titles.

“One thing I struggle with a little bit is that it's not like I'm doing it in a single, you know, there's a lot of other people around me who contributed to that.”

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CATHERINE SHIELDS, SECOND FROM LEFT, AND HER OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY CREW AFTER WINNING THE 1V EIGHT AT THE 2016 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, THE FIRST WOMEN’S SQUAD IN US HISTORY TO WIN THREE 1VS IN A ROW.

THE BIG CALL

After four long winters in the Midwest, her undergrad nearly done in aviation management, another turning point was looming.

“I was as fit as I was ever going to be,” says Catherine. “I was pushing myself harder than I had ever done, achieving a lot of great results, not only on the water, but on the erg. There was always a thought in the back of my mind of, ‘Could I or would I go back to New Zealand and start that journey again?’

“It was always that, ‘What if’ you ask yourself because being able to put the Silver Fern on and wear that and see how far you can go in that environment is a huge thing.

“It just seemed like no one had done it. I think that because it wasn't happening, I probably didn't reach out.”

And so, Catherine chose the path of doing post grad at OSU, earning her Masters in sports coaching while helping out with the novice and varsity crews.

We’ll never know where that 5’ 8” could have taken her in a black rowsuit.

“I think about it every now and then, if I'd come straight back and what I could have made from it. So not necessarily a regret, but yeah, a what if?”

She’s back in New Zealand now though, based in Christchurch, and close enough to see what’s happening down at Kerrs Reach.

“You know, there's always part of you that is wondering what's happening or secretly telling you [to] get involved again.

“I just have to sit down and have those conversations with people and make those phone calls and see if there is availability and see how you can juggle that with a full-time job.

“But yeah, it's never far from my mind.”

Catherine Shields is just working out the right place and the right time.

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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.