Joseph quits rowing

23:39, Jun 04 2014
Joseph Sullivan
GLORY DAYS: Joseph Sullivan, left, and Nathan Cohen grit their teeth on their way to Olympic gold in London.

Olympic rowing champion Joseph Sullivan sent shockwaves through the sport by announcing his retirement today at the young age of 27.

Citing disillusionment, feeling unwanted and tired of banging his head up against a selection brick wall, the Picton star and the only Marlborough sportsman to have won Olympic gold, has flagged his dream of defending the Olympic double sculls title he and Nathan Cohen won in such spectacular fashion in London in 2012.

Despite being one of this country's greatest-ever rowers, just 27-years-old and with plenty more competitive juice left in his tank, Sullivan has struggled to find favour with Rowing New Zealand's (RNZ) selectors and High Performance wing since his London Olympic triumph.

Joseph Sullivan
AT THE TOP: Joseph Sullivan, third from left, won the title of Marlborough Sportsperson of the Year for the third time in 2012. He is pictured with his family, from left mother Elaine Sullivan, grandfather Michael Sullivan, and father Mike Sullivan.

Although angry at first at being left out of this year's squad, Sullivan said he had put the rejection behind him and was ready to move on.

Far from being ready to quit competing at elite level he was in the process of exploring other sporting options, kayaking heading the list.

He has also been accepted into the New Zealand Fire Service after a rigorous selection process.


Desperately in need of a break following the Olympics to freshen up both physically and mentally, Sullivan took a while to find form after London. A disappointing international season in 2013, replacing Mahe Drysdale in the single scull, didn't help his enthusiasm or motivation.

This year he planned to launch his assault at another gold at Rio in 2016. However, the New Zealand selectors decided otherwise and left him out of this year's squad to contest the World Cup and World Championships altogether.

Sullivan said he was not even in the backup group covering for injuries.

Speaking to the Express, the Picton ace, said: "I've decided that I've been rowing for 14 years now which is over half my life so far. I have achieved really what I had wanted to out of rowing and with these [non-selection] issues that are going on, I really thought it was an opportunity to take on a new sport. [I'm] probably a bit disappointed about the way I've been treated [since London]. I kind of thought they [RNZ] could have been a little more understanding with how things work. I don't really feel wanted. It's been a hard slog to get there but in saying that, I got to where I wanted to be, an Olympic champion. I'm pretty stoked with that."

In hindsight, Sullivan said he should have taken a longer sabbatical instead of competing in the single scull while Mahe Drysdale took a break.

Rowing New Zealand insisted Sullivan return to full training earlier than he was ready and also tried unsuccessfully to stop him competing in the annual Coast to Coast multisport event, despite them having no objection to Drysdale doing it.

Although not at his best at the March national trials, Sullivan was confident he would have been firing on all cylinders when it got down to the real business.

"I was quite comfortable where I was at this time of the year.

"Throughout my whole rowing career I probably didn't go as well over the New Zealand summer and at the Nationals but I can step it up for the World Champs which I find more important. With RNZ it kind of felt as though you have to be at 100 per cent all year round."

RNZ officials had not sat down with him since London, worked out a plan or asked what they could do to help him be at peak form to defend his title, Sullivan said.

Rowing New Zealand chief executive Simon Peterson acknowledged Sullivan's exceptional contribution to rowing, a contribution recognised in the 2013 New Year honours list when he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

He said the Rowing New Zealand High Performance manager, Alan Cotter, sat down with all the London Olympic medallists after the event and discussed a plan for the next period of time.

"Joseph's been part of the programme since London. We took him to Europe last year so there's no question that we wanted him.

"At the end of the day when it came to selection he didn't make it," Peterson said.

"I challenged him on whether he needed to retire and he wanted to make the decision to give himself some clarity. It's his decision and it's sad to see him go. He might come back in a couple of years. He's certainly young enough to do that."

The Marlborough Express