Sullivan hangs up his oars

23:15, 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's retirement announcement today marks the premature end to an amazing career, forged largely against the odds.

From the first day he turned up at the Picton Rowing Club as a rank novice from Queen Charlotte College, only to be told to go away and try something else because he was supposedly too small, to his rejection from the New Zealand rowing selectors this year - it always seemed he has faced a few more hurdles than others along his path to rowing greatness.

It began at schoolboy level out of Queen Charlotte College under the expert tutelage of the man who initially suggested he try another sport, Dave Bugler.

In 2005 Sullivan turned on the most outstanding display of rowing in Maadi Cup national schools' championship rowing by winning three gold medals in just 45 minutes on Lake Ruataniwha.

Despite that performance, he was left out of the New Zealand junior team. However an appeal launched by Dave Williamson from the Marlborough Rowing Association, strongly supported by The Marlborough Express, saw he and fellow Queen Charlotte College rower Daniel Karena added as a double scull crew. They went on to win a bronze medal at the junior worlds in Brandenburg in Germany in 2005.

The fact he won six consecutive world titles, starting with a hat-trick of under-23 crowns followed by two elite titles, then Olympic gold and in between four World Cup medals, shows just what an amazing athlete he is and how his determination and competitive spirit triumphed over setbacks.


Sullivan won 11 Maadi Cup golds as well as 15 gold medals at national club champs.

He's also a life member of the Picton Rowing Club, has a street named after him alongside Queen Charlotte College and in 2013 was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to rowing.

Sullivan and his Olympic gold double sculls partner Nathan Cohen broke the mould of international rowing. Both oarsmen with smaller physiques, being almost dwarfed by some of their opponents, they often stormed home from the back of the field, leaving the fast-starting big grunters in their wake.

The duo provided one of New Zealand's most famous Olympic victories in London which netted them the People's Choice award at the Halberg Awards.

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

Rowing New Zealand insisted he return to full training earlier than Sullivan was ready for 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. After all, he and Cohen bounced back from not even making the A final in a leadup World Cup regatta to win gold at the Olympics, so he knew how to peak for big events.

It seems almost inconceivable that RNZ officials had never sat down with the Olympic champion since London, worked out a plan and asked what they could do to help him be at peak form to defend his title.

RNZ chief executive Simon Peterson said their high performance manager did have a meeting with the Olympic medallists but Sullivan said he was never asked what he needed to get him back up to speed.

Former Wairau and New Zealand coach John Robinson guided numerous crews to national and world titles plus a London Olympic bronze and now coaches the Nelson Rowing Club and he was "flabbergasted" Sullivan was not selected this season.

"Personalities come into it and I don't think personalities should come into anything like [non-selection]. He has probably been one of our greatest rowers of all time. You can't have one rule for one and another rule for another rower. Joseph is obviously an exceptional talent and to be thrown out at 27, it just seems a waste."

Despite recent disappointments, Sullivan still got to realise his dream. "[I'm] probably a bit disappointed about the way I've been treated [since London].

"I didn't really feel wanted. It's been a hard slog to get [to world and Olympic champion] but in saying that, I got to where I wanted to be, an Olympic champion. I'm pretty stoked with that."

The Marlborough Express