US Based Rowers, New Zealand’s Lost Progeny?

New Zealand correspondent Steve McArthur wonders whether more can be done to capitalise on the mass exodus of New Zealand rowing talent heading to US colleges

8 minute read
words & photography Steve McArthur
Published 17.05.19

As outlined in my last article for Row360, the golden era of New Zealand rowing success looks set to end after the Tokyo Olympics. And so I can’t help but wonder, should we continue to exclude scores of talented rowers from the national team while they pursue their tertiary studies in the United States of America?

More than 30% of New Zealand’s under 23 competitive rowers are currently rowing competitively for college crews in the USA. A recent on-line roll call discovered 73 Kiwi rowers currently rowing and studying in the US, although the actual number is probably closer to 90.

Photo Ben Kirsop (stroke), Lenny Jenkins (3), Matt Mesman (2) and Braeden Camp (Bow) – NZ junior quad (4th) Rio 2015 – Just stroke Ben Kirsop did not take a US college scholarship
Credit Steve McArthur

By comparison at the 2019 NZ National Championships at Lake Ruataniwha, 164 of the 771 athletes competing, were aged 19, 20, 21 or 22 (which didn’t include any of the USA based athletes).

Recent results of New Zealand crews at World Under 23 Championships, are reflecting this developing trend. New Zealand have collected just four gold medals in the past four years at the U23 World Championships. While in the period from 2006-2009 (inclusive) there were eleven gold medals awarded to Kiwi crews.

Many rowing nations embrace the opportunity for their athletes to row in US college teams and include them in their national teams when they return home between academic terms. On the podium at the U23 championships, college teammates are often seen embracing in their various national team colours – posing for “their other” team photo.

At the 2017 World U23 Championships, the University of Washington had 21 of its students competing and they took home 17 medals (for a range of countries).

The desire for the elite colleges to win their head to head races and national championships is what drives US college scouts to seek out the best talent from around the world. But it is in fact American football, in a roundabout way, that has precipitated a huge number of female rowers to head to US colleges to row.

American Football (or Gridiron as its more commonly known in NZ) is behind the rise in women’s rowing at USA colleges. This traces back to 1972 and the enactment of “Title IX” or as it was re-named in 2002 the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.” Colleges had to level out the scholarships given between the men’s and women’ sports. Either by offering more women’s sporting scholarships or reducing the amount of scholarships offered to males.

College Football (Gridiron) teams have rosters of 100 or more athletes, with the majority of them on scholarships, college sports administrators needed to find an equaliser. Rowing was a perfect fit, with a squad of 60 required to provide the numbers for competitive crews.

Photo Texas teammates from different nations embrace at the world championships
Credit Steve McArthur

In the last thirty years the number of colleges with female rowing programs has grown from less than 15 to more than 140. The number of female athletes has exploded from less than 400 to more than 7,000 in college rowing crews over thirty years. Rowing has been an easy route to a scholarship at an American college.

High School rowing programs in the USA couldn’t keep up with feeding the college demand and to fill their appetite, rowers from all over the world were needed.

While the USA have been a dominant force in the world of women’s sweep rowing, linked with the rise in numbers participating at college. The same cannot be said for the men as 2004 was the last time the USA men won an Olympic Gold medal. This must be of concern their governing body as USA athletes now make up less than half of the major colleges men’s elite rowing crews.

The class of men’s rowing at the top colleges has improved, with the seats in the top eights filled by world class international oarsmen. The American rower has to be world class just to make their college’s top eight. This is effectively increasing the standard of the top American college rowers.

An example of the positive impact of this on the USA was when the American eight claimed gold at the World U23 Championships in Poland last year. The US’s gold medal drown at senior men’s level is perhaps a reflection of how the athletes are managed after college.

In the past it could be argued that just those that were not of New Zealand representative standard took up these scholarships. More recently American colleges have been targeting, with equal vigour, rowers of the finest ability both male and female. For example, seven of the 2016 NZ Junior boys eight are now rowing in the USA.

While other major rowing nations have softened their stance on allowing their citizens who take up American college scholarships, to represent their country. New Zealand remains the last major nation to make national representation while at College in the USA, almost impossible.

New Zealand teenagers (and their parents) are torn between taking up a scholarship and missing out on four years of representing their country, or staying in New Zealand keeping the hope alive of representing NZ while they study.

A strong argument is that anyone that rows competitively as part of a high-performance team (at club or above) will succeed well above average, in business and with their own personal life. Regardless of where or even if they attend university.

Its not all plain sailing at an American college, in some cases the education will cost the rower more than in New Zealand. There have been a number of New Zealand athletes return after just one year, others change colleges. There is a narrower degree choice and the degree takes four years to complete compared to a three-year equivalent in New Zealand. With the timing of attendance being delayed after the NZ High School year end. students will have a degree 18 months earlier when completed in NZ.

Certainly, Rowing NZ haven’t closed the door to Kiwi college students and have welcomed a few athletes to the elite team, after graduation. University of Tennessee rower Erin-Monique O’Brien and Washington Huskies Kirstyn Goodger & Phoebe Spoors have all raced for elite New Zealand teams, since returning from achieving a American college degree.

Rowing NZ however, don’t offer an attractive alternative to the USA college scholarships. Despite the Prime Minister scholarship. RNZ inform groups that it may take 6-8 years for a qualification if rowing for NZ while studying in NZ. Teenagers embarking on a university course can’t seem to plan what their week will look like, let alone foresee what their life will resemble in six to eight years. To an 18-year-old, 26 is a lifetime away.

RNZ could pick a NZ college crew or crews both female and male each year from the USA rowers. Don’t mix them with the New Zealand based athletes, but select boats that don’t clash with the New Zealand based crews (yes, the NZ based rowers get priority).

Not only would the athletes remain engaged in the Rowing NZ program (many would have raced internationally for NZ at junior worlds) they would be more likely to contribute gold medals in future elite teams. This is also a good opportunity to further develop the depth of coaching talent as there would be much less time commitment required to coach such international crews.

As all the other countries are also dealing with a tight time frame from when the USA college athletes are available to race at the U23 World Championships, the New Zealand crews that are based in America would only be on level playing field. While the NZ based crews have a significant advantage (something that hasn’t shone though in recent seasons).

Rowing NZ should formalise alliances with key New Zealand universities that offer a program of rowing alongside rigorous academic study, Otago University is the obvious candidate as too would be Waikato University. Take some of the high-performance resource currently allocated and reallocate it to those programs. Together with the prime-minsters scholarship this would be an attractive alliterative to an American college.

Don’t pick any first year university students for the U23 teams, let them study fulltime and put a big dent in their degree, by doing 8 of the usual 24 papers for a degree in the first year, with a plan like doing 1 or 2 papers in the first semester then 3 or 4 papers in the 2nd semester (after u23 worlds).

The focused athletes would turn out a qualification in four years (in reality finishing 9 months ahead of someone the same year group at high school who goes to the USA), those less focused would take a year longer.

Oxford and Cambridge students can achieve making a fast rowing boat at the same time as maintaining high academic standards of a full-time course of study.

Not all great rowers are academics, some are more suited for a trade or the like.
For those that don’t want to attend University, set up two other performance centres one in Auckland and the other either in Blenheim or Christchurch that caters for those athletes.

The funding of New Zealand rowing comes down to performance of the elite team at the Olympics and to a lesser degree elite World Championships. With the sport so highly geared for the Olympiad cycle, administrators seem to be ignoring the opportunities.

So what’s the issue? New Zealand have named two USA college based athletes to race the double at this year’s U23 World championships. Earlier this month Logan Keys was appointed as a US Scholarship Athlete Liaison to manage communications with New Zealand athletes based in the USA on behalf of Rowing NZ. They are getting their act together?

Photo Ollie MacLean (stroke) and Jack Lopas winning the double at the NZ Christmas regatta , December 2018
Credit Steve McArthur

In a press release Rowing NZ pointed out that “Logan will also be responsible for assisting athletes who desire to join the Rowing NZ Athlete Pathway upon their return to New Zealand. This appointment while a step forward, is not aimed at including the USA based athletes in teams until they return after four years away.

The issue is that the double is an attempt to lure two remarkable athletes (both World U23 Champions in 2017) to take a sabbatical from their studies for a year to contest for seats in the New Zealand team for the Tokyo Olympics.

For other American based students looking to wear the black singlet without having a four year hiatus from international competition, put that Champagne back on ice. The door remains closed to other USA scholars.

Considering the performance of individual results of the athletes that are rowing in the USA, it would be easy to come up with two eights worthy of selection for the New Zealand team at the U23 World Championships in Florida in July.

Admittedly there is no seat racing, no testing, no interviews, no data passed on from their colleges, it is just a search of their results and the crews they were on board added to their already impressive rowing biographies.

Boating these crews would not be expensive for Rowing NZ, it would be self-funded as is the bulk of their age-group representative program. Done with some savvy, they could even turn a profit from including these athletes.

Possible NZ Women’s U23 eight with the potential to make the A final at the 2019 World U23 Rowing Championships in Sarasota (all based in the USA).

Possible NZ Men’s U23 eight with the potential to make the podium at the 2019 World U23 Rowing Championships in Sarasota (all based in the USA).

With more than 25% of the New Zealand population born overseas, there are many with dual citizenship and have options to compete for other countries. In 2018 Lenny Jenkins won a silver medal for Great Britain at the World U23 Championships, he also has a World Junior gold medal for NZ in 2016. There is no doubt a few athletes in the list above will go on to compete for other countries, lost to New Zealand.

It has taken far too long for New Zealand to accommodate their rowers that choose to study in the USA, in their representative crews. 2019 would have been the perfect year to accommodate more rowers, with the U23 World Championships in Florida this year. Its time for a sea change.

Disclosure, three of my children (all rowers) are currently attending University in New Zealand, one at Lincoln studying accountancy, two at Canterbury one studying business management, the other law. Two were part of those 164 that competed at the National Championships rowing for the Avon Club. I have degrees from New Zealand Universities Canterbury and Massey. Despite some interest from American universities, we strongly encouraged our children to conduct their studies in New Zealand.