Overcoming Challenges

The Club Squad Stories Behind West End Rowing Club’s Successful 2021 New Zealand National Championships Campaign

If you followed the results at this year’s NZ National Championships on Lake Ruataniwha you would have noticed the black and white team from West Auckland on the podium frequently. The club squad medal count included two golds, one silver, and four bronze medals in the club and senior grades while West End’s elite and RPC athletes earned three golds and two bronze medals in the premier events. The road to the podium for any club athlete is often met with many challenges that must be overcome and West End’s athletes are no exception.

One Athlete… Four Medals

West End’s most decorated athlete on the club squad this year was Harry Fitzpatrick. As a club graded school leaver, Harry’s nationals campaign included earning a gold in the Senior 4-, silver in the Senior 1x, and two bronze medals in the Senior 8+ and Senior 4x events. This was no easy feat for a young athlete considering that this year’s racing had the extra challenge of a condensed schedule due to a Covid-19 Alert Level change that delayed the regatta. Harry reflected that “…having four A finals was an absolute blessing, but when the regatta was postponed at the start of the week due to Covid [Alert Level 2 on South Island], I knew that finals would be condensed into one day and it would be a very challenging day.” 

One of the strengths about club rowing is the support network an athlete joins into. Harry didn’t navigate these results on his own and admitted “I had sought advice from a more senior and experienced rower in the squad on how to handle my off water recovery between races on the day. Her advice really helped me be organised and efficient between my finals, meaning that I was able to do everything I could to get ready for my next races.” His teammate’s advice certainly helped under the circumstances, noting “I would feel the pinch of lactic acid set in earlier and earlier in every race that I did that day” and knowing how to properly manage his recovery helped tremendously.

When asked about his four medals, Harry reflected his most memorable race was “…our gold medal in the Senior Coxless Four. It is indescribable being able to be first to cross the line in a boat full of athletes who had worked tirelessly all season to try and get the best result possible. Being able to win alongside a fellow ex-St. Peter’s College rower was amazing as well.” 

Mens Senior 4- is: Marcus Winter, Lewis Brown, Sean McHugh, Harry Fitzpatrick. Finals day at the 2021 New Zealand National Club Championships, on Lake Ruataniwha

When considering his most challenging race Harry admitted “my most challenging race definitely has to be my final in the single, at the end of the day. It was my fourth race of the day and to say I was on tired legs would have been an understatement… I vividly remember thinking throughout the middle of the race that I was not going to be able to make it to the end, but I could see that I was closing in on people in front of me and I knew there was a medal up for grabs. At this point in the race I started having flashbacks of all the hard miles I had done in the single throughout the season, and that gave me a lift to keep going through the final part of the race. When I finished the race I could barely see or move anything and all I knew was that I had medaled and that it was all worth it.”

Many of this year’s club squad athletes who were school leavers, including Harry, missed out on championship racing last year when the 2020 Aon Maadi Cup was cancelled due to Covid-19. Although nationals were almost cancelled due to Alert Level 2 and the schedule became quite challenging, the athletes were grateful to have the racing opportunities and memories associated. According to Harry, “…being able to give my best performance possible alongside my fellow club members was something special that I missed out on during my final season at school, due to the cancellation of Maadi” and he is certainly grateful for his experience at West End this year.

Back In The Boat… The Return To Rowing After Ten Years of Retirement

While Harry faced the challenge of four A-finals in one day, another athlete on the squad faced competing at a national championship after ten years away from the sport. Chris Smith began his rowing career in Ireland at his university in Belfast. When Chris discovered rowing at his university, he instantly fell in love with the sport recounting “university rowing in most European countries is the heartbeat of the sport and it was an amazing experience over the years, culminating in travels around Europe to compete, competitive finishes at London HoRR and an Irish Championship – not to mention the lifelong friends that were made and the buzz around the rowing community in different countries coming together.”

Once Chris finished his university degree, the decision of whether to continue the sport or not was made for him when he moved to an area with no waterways or rowing clubs. It was at this time and the ensuing years that he took up rugby instead of an oar. According to Chris “rowing became something that I had loved but almost accepted I wouldn’t do again, with work and life leaving little time in between.” 

Ten years later and now living in New Zealand, Chris found his work/life balance and location in Auckland aligning himself to consider rowing again and he decided to reach out to local clubs to find out if he could come back to the sport. Chris reached out to the West End head coach Nick Dawe and recounts that “Nick was great when I contacted him and it was the way he spoke about West End that really made my mind up to come here. The Club Squad were immediately welcoming and while I told Nick that my chances of being in competitive shape this season were low, I was loving being back in the boat and rowing again.”

While Chris originally thought it might be at least a year until he would be able to race legitimately he found that the program allowed him to achieve well beyond his goals for the season. “The way things worked out, the season ended with a gold medal around my neck at Nationals and that was above the wildest dreams of what I imagined when I phoned Nick last July. It’s down to the hard work and passion of the coaches and the rest of the squad and I’m looking forward to that continuing next season.” After winning the Men’s Club 8+ this year Chris will have an exciting year ahead of him as he takes on the senior grade at next year’s nationals.

Men’s Club 8+ is: Jerome Barrack, Germain Hellriegel-White, Jesse Homer-Pilcher, Niko Kumarich, Chris Smith, Adam Ford, Martin Benfell, Nathan Smith and not pictured is coxswain Harry Molloy. Finals day at the 2021 New Zealand National Club Championships, on Lake Ruataniwha

Escaping The Pandemic Overseas… Thriving In A New Country

Chris, Harry, and the rest of the club squad were very fortunate that New Zealand was able to have a full normal racing season and the ability to train as a team. Some of our club members can tell you firsthand that was not possible throughout most of the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, one West End member left her family, friends, and country behind to move to New Zealand on her own and specifically join West End so she could have a top-level rowing and racing experience this year. Charlotte Berry is a current student at Harvard University and moved to New Zealand in August having never been here before. Charlotte recounted that in June 2020 “Harvard announced that the next school year would be conducted entirely remotely, and I had to reconsider my academic, athletic, and personal goals for university. I could now attend school from anywhere, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take advantage of my citizenships.” 

Although Charlotte was raised in America, she was fortunate that her father was from New Zealand and therefore she was able to enter the country. Charlotte’s father rowed for almost a decade in New Zealand while growing up here and Charlotte says “I had always loved hearing his stories about summer training and long rows on the Waikato… and it was impossible to deny that New Zealand was responding to Covid-19 far more efficiently than the United States. So, I came to New Zealand in August 2020, just in time for the beginning of the club season… In America, I had only ever raced eights or coxed fours, and I had only picked up sculling oars a handful of times. Racing in New Zealand felt radically different than any racing I had done at schools in America. It has been amazing to row in every kind of boat… [and] learning how to scull competitively has made me a more capable athlete physically while taking on multiple races in a day has strengthened me mentally. I loved the diversity of the West End club squad community of uni students, working adults, and school leavers.”

Before arriving at West End, Charlotte would have described herself as a sweep rower only and the thought of racing a single or sculling in a team boat may have been a reality in a different dimension. At the start of the season she couldn’t have imagined a scenario where she would earn a medal in sculling at a national championship. Looking back on her experience racing at NZ nationals Charlotte reflected “competing in the club quad at North Islands and Nationals was especially memorable. At Nationals, we had to race in the repechage round and although our heat race had felt unfocused, we won our repechage by lengths of open water, and entered the final confident in our ability. Our first 1k was strong but not fast enough, and we found ourselves in fourth place at the middle of the race. The quad didn’t give up as we approached the third 500 with determination. When I heard our bow seat call that we were competing for first place with less than 500 meters to go, I found that hard to believe given where we had been in the race so far. We crossed the finish line in third place, only 0.55 seconds behind the gold medal crew.”

After a full season and racing experience including a very close bronze medal race she will likely never forget Charlotte says “I’m incredibly proud of our crew, and thankful for the community at West End for being a family to me in this corner of the world. I’m also so grateful to coaches of West End for always encouraging me, pushing me out of my comfort zone, and showing me that I could take on any kind of boat and any kind of challenging regatta.” 

Women’s Club 4x is: Amy Patten, Grainne Walsh, Charlotte Berry, and Marieke Richards. Finals day at the 2021 New Zealand National Club Championships, on Lake Ruataniwha

Going on one-hundred and thirty-seven years and counting, West End Rowing Club is a proud supporter of club rowers in Auckland and helping them achieve their goals now and in the years to come. Ake Ake Kia Kaha!