The Kiwi Chameleon

From London Gold to an Auckland Auld Mug

2 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Team Emirates NZ
Published 01.07.21

As successful as he is reliable, the Kiwi firefighter, Joseph Sullivan, is hot property. It’s been a big year for Joe. Not only did he become a father for the second time (his wife, Jordyn, gave birth to Izzy in January) but the two-time America’s Cup Winner helped Team Emirates New Zealand defend their title on home water in Auckland. Topping it all off, the New Zealand public voted his sprint finish in the men’s double sculls final at the London 2012 Olympics to be the “Most Memorable Sporting Moment of the Decade”. 

Row360 caught up with the Kiwi legend, shortly before the 2021 America’s Cup: 

What does racing in the America’s Cup feel like?  

It is hard to explain. It is like being in a small Cessna aeroplane flying at a very low altitude. It is extremely quick and quite violent. The boat is getting moved around a lot. It is not like a normal boat on water – you are not bouncing on waves but you’re getting thrown around a lot. And all the time we grinders are at maximal effort for the whole race, which is about twenty minutes long.  

How does it compare to rowing at the Olympics? 

In rowing you know who your competitors are and what they tend to do. But in the America’s Cup you have no idea what will happen on the day. There’s so much unknown in the America’s Cup. Right now, we think we have a fast boat, but we don’t know what Luna Rossa are doing in their boatshed and if they have found something quicker. It won’t be until we have our first race that we get any clue as to who is properly on form.  

The training is similar; two sessions a day, usually weights and grinding. Some long sessions on the grinding machines and then some short sessions. I train with a good bunch of guys. We are always pushing ourselves and trying to beat each other. It’s like doing lots of ergs. We are on the grinding machines pumping out the best numbers that we can and trying to beat each other. Everyone is bloody strong, so it is a difficult thing to be the best and it always comes down to who’s having the best day. We’ve got some big guys in our team who can push out spectacular numbers – the rest of us are all battling together.  

In the America’s Cup, the grinding team is the last to come on board as you don’t really need them until you’ve got a boat to sail. It’s been my full-time job for about a year and a half. Team Emirates New Zealand is a weird one because unlike the other teams we don’t have billionaire backers. We have backers but not who pay the whole budget. Lots of our supplies comes from New Zealand suppliers who help us out. We don’t have a huge budget, but we have lots of support from local businesses which is cool. The support empowers you, but it puts a lot more pressure on us as Kiwis. We’ve got to pull through for all those people who have helped. 

A quirk of the America’s Cup 2021 is your rivalry with Luna Rossa grinder Romano Battisti who won the Olympic silver medal in the men’s double at London 2012. 

Yeah, it is cool to see former rowers like [Matt] Gotrel and Romano get into the America’s Cup scene. Especially Romano for the rematch. We’ve seen each other around the boat park. There is a bit of language barrier, but we’ve chatted on Instagram too. When racing is on – we are back to being competitors. It is a lot of fun. He reckons they are out to get us, and we want to make sure they that doesn’t happen. 

Has becoming a dad changed your outlook? 

Yes, 100%! It has been a crazy time. I started this America’s Cup campaign with no children and now I have two daughters. It has changed how I look at things. It puts it in perspective. 

It has been difficult to balance sailing and family-life. I like to be at home with my family as much as I can, but I know I must give a lot of time to my sport. It is paying the bills and it is what I am passionate about and I need to be there for the team and make sure we win. But it’s been tough leaving a lot to my wife, Jordyn, and putting her in the deep end. She has been extremely impressive juggling everything. 
When you are an elite rower you have to be quite self-centred. You put your sport first and you say no to parties and to events, and you are always training. And it is very much like that in the America’s Cup. You have to be there with the team always working and helping. If we are not training in the gym, then we are in the boatshed emptying bins or doing random jobs. Anything and everything to help maintain the boat and keep it running. There have been a lot of long days and long weeks. It is a big sacrifice not just for me but for my family. I am looking forward to the time when the Cup is over, and I can make up for all the missed weekends.  

For your first America’s Cup in 2016, you were a ‘cyclor’ for Team Emirates New Zealand – that’s winching the sails via cycling onboard – how did that come about? 

Originally when I got hired, the team had no money and we were just going through the motions. I wasn’t even getting paid. The idea of using our legs instead of our arms and so cycling on the boat got floated about. They figured as a rower I’d done a bit of cycling for cross training. We started testing it out. There were a few hurdles to cross. For example, there’s no flywheel and no inertia moving forward because we are moving a hydraulic pump, so the top and the bottom of the pedal stroke are dead. That meant we had to learn to kick our leg through to get a full revolution. It made us very efficient. We became strong at the part where you never even think to move your legs. It was an interesting task. 

We spent about a year developing it and figuring out how to get better at it. We trained in a tent and the boat was built next door. There was a lot of carbon floating around and it was a rough area to be training. The tent was stupidly hot especially in the middle of summer, and we had carbon particles floating around from construction. I wish we took more photos of it because it was an absolute munger of a place to be training.  

We had to keep it all secret. Any little thing that someone sees you doing, and they might work out what you’re designing. There’s a massive recon identity to the America’s Cup. It was our trump card so we couldn’t let it get out. That’s why we were doing all this stupid training in a boiling tent. We’d do the odd massive bike ride around the city, going up and down all the hills, because if people saw us on mountain bikes, they weren’t going to suspect anything.