First-time triallists start of a new pathway to putting on the Silver Fern

 

When a group of young Kiwi athletes begin seat racing on Briones Reservoir in California next month, they can partly thank an idea that came to Fiona Bourke 12 years ago for the pleasure... and the pain.

Fourteen rowers and three coxswains will be part of the first ever US-based trial for a New Zealand Under 23 squad. All are rowing at collegiate programs around the US, and all are paying their way to get to Briones for the opportunity.

It’s another big step in Rowing New Zealand’s decision to open the selection door to overseas athletes.

Fiona could see the chance to push that door open when she was in the women’s quad in 2011. The women’s U23 eight that year was going fine but found themselves in a predicament.

“There was an athlete in that crew that was injured, and Anna Dawson was home from Stanford [University] over her summer break,” says Fiona. “There was no reserve selected and they needed somebody to fill in and Anna stood in and more than delivered.”

The crew went to the U23 worlds in Amsterdam where they won a silver medal, with Anna sitting in four seat. And while she never rowed in the Silver Fern again, Anna Dawson had helped put New Zealand Rowing on a new pathway.

“It became really obvious to me then that there were athletes who were exceptional based in the US but weren't getting opportunities because of where they'd chosen to study.” 

Fiona Bourke

Fiona’s now Rowing New Zealand’s International Pathway Lead, and while Anna Dawson may have been somewhat of a rarity in 2011, there are now more than 80 Kiwi rowers in the States.

And in the past couple of weeks Fiona’s been trying to see many of these athletes invited to trial.

The day we talk she’s at the famous Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (a programme which Hamish Bond is currently a volunteer coach). There’s Indiana to get to, Syracuse, Central Florida, the list’s as long as there are ways to row a boat.

“I love being able to connect with these athletes and help understand the challenges they face in shifting abroad" says Fiona. “The programmes over here are incredible. They're all very different to each other. There's a group of programmes that develop athletes better than others but then we also see motivated athletes thrive from places that you wouldn't expect it.”

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Tegan Fookes, University of Central Florida student And former Rotorua Lakes High School rower.

One of those is at the University of Central Florida, home to former Rotorua Lakes High School rower Tegan Fookes.

She's in her third year at UCF on a full scholarship. Getting a trial is a huge breakthrough.

"One of my friends from my old club had texted me and he said, 'Congrats on your trial', and I was like, what? And then I went onto the Rowing New Zealand website.

"I was just so stoked.  I could not believe it; I was literally shaking."

Like a lot of athletes on scholarship she saw the possibility and then acted on it.

"I saw a girl I had raced in my novice season get a scholarship to San Diego State and I was thinking like, 'Wow, I didn't even know that was a thing at that point. But I was like, to do the sport I love and have that whole experience, I have to at least try. So, I just sent out a big email about myself to a bunch of different collegiate coaches over here, and then I just started narrowing them down."

Tegan’s inclusion in the trials proves you don’t have to come from a renowned US college or a huge schools programme in New Zealand to be invited.

“Absolutely not,” says Fiona. “Some of these athletes don't have the same success at high school as some of these big well-established high-school programmes because they are training less in a less-structured environment and have coaches that are part-time or volunteers.”

It might also mean the athletes are avoiding early rowing burnout.

“What we're starting to see is that they come into the programme and it's a nice, gradual, start, and then they start to get over here and things ramp up and they're really stepping on and finding their mojo, which is cool.”

Finding your mojo in the American collegiate system probably means you are focusing on sweep and big boats.

Alice Fahey Nicole Campbell and Meg Flanagan AAC Varsity 8+ Champions

Photo features Kiwis Alice Fahey, Nicole Campbell and Meg Flanagan - Southern Methodist University rowers and American Athletic Conference Varsity 8+ Champions

There won’t be any attempt to blend crews with rowers selected from this trial and those that were selected from trials back in New Zealand.

“You're coming out of two very different types of training [and] phases of your season,” says Fiona.

The US trial would be very boat-targeted as well.

“We're looking to select sweep crews from the US given that this is what they do all year round.”

It’s about maximising the benefits of the US system “to help build athletes that are capable of contributing to an Olympic eights programme as we head towards 2028 and 2032,” she says.

Fiona will be working her way to California pretty soon as athletes start trickling in from across the country on June 7 ahead of a training camp out of Cal Berkley.

The success of this first-up attempt will hinge on maintaining the relationships she’s built with the colleges and their coaches.

“We're going to be really flexible because some schools have finished exams now, some don't finish until the 13th or 14th of June, the women finish with their NCAA Championships on the 28th of May, the men the IRA Championships on the fourth of June. Then Seth Hope has the Harvard-Yale long distance race on the 10th. So, we have to make sure that they're able to fulfil their commitments to their collegiate programmes before they switch their focus to getting into the Under 23 team.”

There is a pragmatic purpose to the choice of location for the trials. Some won’t make the cut and being in California means, with their season over, they’re perfectly positioned to head straight home to New Zealand for the holidays.

"We’re incredibly lucky to have the support of both the Cal Men’s and Women’s teams in delivering this trial," says Fiona.

"Coaches from both teams have rowed at the Collegiate level and simultaneously represented their countries – they understand."

But Fiona knows that whether they get to stay or go, one thing will be true for all.

“We're excited to be able to give people the opportunity...because when these athletes came over to the US, never in their wildest dreams did they think it would be a possibility to ever pull on the Silver Fern in an age group team.”

Kiwi Lucy Burrell Pac 12 Varsity 8+ Champion

KIWI Lucy Burrell (FAR RIGHT) Stanford University rower/student and Pac 12 Varsity 8+ Champion

The trial group:

U23

Women Club/University
Lucy Burrell, West End Rowing Club/Stanford University
Alice Fahey, Star Boating Club/Southern Methodist University
Tegan Fookes, Rotorua Rowing Club/University of Central Florida
Olivia Hay, North Shore Rowing Club/University of California, Los Angeles
Rebecca Leigh, Cambridge Rowing Club/Stanford University
Shakira Mirfin, Invercargill Rowing Club/University of Washington
Mollie Nicol, Star Boating Club/Duke University
Polly Wenlock, Porirua Rowing Club/University of California, Los Angeles

Men Club/University
Max Cossill, Waikato Rowing Club/Northeastern University
Harry Fitzpatrick, West End Rowing Club/University of Washington
Seth Hope, Cambridge Rowing Club/Yale University
Sean McHugh, West End Rowing Club/Syracuse University
Ben Shortt, West End Rowing Club/University of Washington
Matthew Waddell, Waikato Rowing Club/University of California, Berkley

Coxswains
Ella Greenslade, Wellington Rowing Club/Washington State University
Kieran Joyce, Waikato Rowing Club/University of Washington
Lauren Williams, North Shore Rowing Club/Stanford University

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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.

If you have any story ideas for RowingHub hit Andy up: andygohay1@gmail.com