Andy Hay sat down with head coach Michele Munro and athlete Oscar Ruston to talk about the challenges and rewards of the U21 programme.


Oscar Ruston wouldn't have realised it at the time but Year 13 at Gisborne Boys' High School was preparing him perfectly for life in the Under 21s.

Work commitments meant his coach of three years, Luke McKenzie, could now only spend a day a week with him.

"He was such a good guy and role model. He taught me everything I really needed to know until my last season where he kind of let me and my doubles partner [Sacha Dewancker] do our thing," says Oscar.

"One day we'd do the single, one day the double, one day the pair and just rotate that over and over again. We'd be training twice a day, every day, just wanting to get better and better. It was probably the hardest, but funnest, ride I've ever done. Just me and me and my mate grinding it out."

That was 2021, Oscar won the boys' U18 single, and he and Sacha were 2nd in the double and 4th in the pair.

Oscar's into his second season in the Under 21s and he's needed all those self-reliance lessons he learned out on the East Cape as a schoolkid.

2021 Aon Maadi Cup Day 1-6974

Oscar and doubles partner Sacha Dewancker after winning silver in the U18 double at Aon Maadi Regatta 2021. 

The Under 21s are very much a test of character and commitment for head coach Michele Munro as well.

She has to balance full-time work alongside running the programme from Wellington for a group of 20 athletes and four coaches scattered across the country.

"The majority of the team this year are full-time university students and a lot of them are working as well and training on their own," says Michele.

"They're trying to juggle a whole lot of stuff. That is really hard on them but at the same time, it's building really good resilience and mental toughness, things that are really important to becoming a high-performance athlete."

The limitations of time together means the athletes and coaches have to come up with innovative ways to create a great culture.

"We've got things like a Strava club app set up so that they can upload all their workouts remotely off their watches or take a picture of their erg screen to show people what they've done," says Michele. "It creates a bit of banter, you know, they might upload a picture as well. It's just a way of keeping them accountable, giving each other some motivation."

The squad will have had four camps by the time they race Australia at Lake Karapiro at the end of July.

And that's where Ocscar Ruston has a huge part to play.

"Someone like Oscar really sets the standard," says Michele.

"Everyone can sort of look up to him and be like, 'Oh yeah, that's where I wanna be'.

Oscar Ruston second from left in the men's senior coxless quad sculls racing at the 2023 NZ Rowing Championships at Lake Ruataniwha


"For some it's their first age group team they've ever been involved in. So it's a steep learning curve."

That includes Jack Pearson out of Dunstan or Maddison Shanks in Tauranga.

"She actually came in as the reserve but has now moved into the squad because of an injury," says Michele. "She's made some awesome changes and really developing and taking off."

The programme is doing plenty of heavy lifting.

  • Very few athletes can make the jump from U19s to U23s and both those programmes have the glamour of a world championship in the northern hemisphere as their season finale.
  • Not everyone will have the opportunity or want to move overseas to a US-based college programme.
  • Plenty of great athletes have come out of our clubs as novice rowers or late developers.

Michele knows there have been setbacks over the last few years for all the age-group squads but hopes the 21s programme will offer even more incentive for rowers to keep striving.

Canada was supposed to be part of this year's event but had to pull out. Michele hopes the regatta can include more Pacific Rim nations in the future.

"There's definitely conversations happening in the background with the hope that we can grow it more, just trying to bring a few more countries in and potentially circulating the competition around a few more countries so there's a little bit more travel involved because that makes it a little bit more exciting and enticing to the athletes."

For now, it's a head-to-head with Australia.

"We have no idea what level the Aussies are at," says Michele. "It's tricky and it's something we've talked about a lot because we don't have any prognostics - the 23s, 19s and elites all work off prognostics from world champ times. We don't have that. All we can do is give it our all."

The final camp will segway into racing. It will be an especially poignant moment for Michele, her coaches and of course, her athletes. The luxury of time together on the water and seeing how they can perform under pressure as a group.

"It's an exciting time. For a large portion of them it's their first international, their first New Zealand Silver Fern row suit," says Michele.

Our Under 21s. Finally getting the chance to hang out together as they help hold Kiwi rowing together as well.

*Following the publication of this article  Oscar Ruston has joined the U23 Team as a traveling reserve.*



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.