A couple of days ago I met a proud father. Peter O’Connor, my friend and colleague from Christ’s College days, told me that both his sons had been selected to go to Henley. An achievement any father could be proud of, especially when you know that both sons, Sam and James, are at Harvard .
Sam is in his sophomore year and has made the Varsity 8 and James is a freshman and, as American rules demand, in the Freshman crew. Both crews were successful at the Eastern Sprints and are now off to England in July for the great social and rowing event that is Henley Royal Regatta. The Varsity crew will race in the Ladies and the freshmen in the Temple. Harvard, and the U.S. colleges generally, have excellent records at Henley and there is a good chance that Sam and James will be in the mix when finals day comes around.
Hopefully they will be among many New Zealanders as Rowing NZ is sending a large contingent of our Elite team as well. Last year the team made six finals and won four of them. This year’s team may be hard pressed to match that as the international entries look promisingly large. The O’Connors will be wearing the crimson of Harvard and many of the New Zealanders will be in a similar colour as the rules of the HRR force national teams to masquerade as club teams to be allowed to enter, and NZ teams row under the Waiariki banner.
Five young rowers from Canterbury are at elite colleges in the US on rowing scholarships. Sam and James are both graduates of Christ’s College and both have represented NZ at Junior level bringing home medals from the world Junior Championships in 2008 and 2009. Anna Dawson is a Rangi Ruru product with a string of Maadi Cup medals and also rowed successfully for NZ at Junior level. She is just completing her freshman year at Stanford . Ben Bowles is a sophomore at Yale and learnt his rowing at Burnside . The fifth is Isaac Holden who grew up in the Waikato and rowed at Hamilton Boys’ and won a silver with NZ at the worlds before moving south last year. He has joined UCal and is in the freshman team.
Now for the tricky question; How should we react to some of the best and most promising of our young rowers going offshore for four years and effectively ruling themselves out of contention for New Zealand teams for at least that long? New Zealand Rowing and the long suffering taxpayer have invested heavily in these young people though Sparc funding, use of sponsors money and large amounts of time and effort from willing volunteers. Do they owe it to NZRowing, which effectively means us, to stay in NZ and to be available for further age group teams over the next few years? Or should they take up their valuable scholarships and head off into the big and exciting world out there?
Some people at NZ Rowing are clear on their point of view. It has been said that “Anyone who takes a scholarship won’t row for NZ again.” I don’t know if this is official and avowable policy or not. Comments often heard around the rowing scene are along the lines of “We have wasted our investment in them.”
My point of view is rather different. We should celebrate winners of scholarships as we celebrate other winners!
There are two arguments for this point of view. The weaker is that if we are concerned about our ultimate competitive aim – the Olympics then what is the problem with sending some of our bright young things off to get four years of fierce training, top competition and broadened experience at someone else’s expense? After four years of being battle hardened in the crucible of US of A college sport they may come back bigger, better and faster, and ready to contribute to our elite programme.
The real argument though, is this: What is the point of sport? I believe sport is about fun and human development. Those of us in positions of responsibility and influence in sport should remember that the young people in our organisations are in sport for themselves, not for us or the organisation. Success for a sports body is helping growing people turn into better and more successful adults. Think for a moment about being 19, and having a choice between staying in NZ, rowing, maybe, for NZ at Under 23 level, and struggling part time to get a degree at our competent but hardly world class universities, accumulating debt to the government and your parents, and contrast it with what these young people from Canterbury have achieved. Four years at a leading university, (Harvard 1st, Yale 3rd, Stanford 16th in a recent ranking.), a chance to compete in some of the great regattas of the world (IRA ’s, Head of the Charles, Henley Royal ), and little debt when you graduate. Which way would you choose?
Surely the choice must be left to the individual without any recriminations from NZ Rowing. Let them go and encourage them to come back in four years and row for us then. Let’s see the success of these outstanding and multi-talented athletes as a success for the programmes that helped to develop them and hope they come back and help us to do it better in the future.
I will be cheering through cyberspace for the crimson crews at Henley this year.