Repeat golden quest over for Joseph Sullivan

IAN ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 05/06/2014
Joseph Sullivan
Reuters

GOLDEN GLORY: Joseph Sullivan, front, celebrates his London Olympics victory with Nathan Cohen.

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Joseph Sullivan always thought he was going to row to Rio.

But the dream of defending his Olympic gold medal in 2016 disappeared when the 27-year-old announced his retirement from rowing today.

Sullivan is joining the New Zealand Fire Service and will start a 12-week training course later this month, instead of training towards a second gold to add to the one he captured at the 2012 London Olympics in the men's double scull with crewmate Nathan Cohen.

Left out of the New Zealand team in the two seasons following his Olympic triumph, Sullivan told the Waikato Times he felt he didn't receive a fair chance from Rowing New Zealand to prove himself again.

He took a break after the 2012 Games and selectors felt he wasn't worthy of a place in the team for the first World Cup of 2013, before getting a late reprieve as a single sculler while Mahe Drysdale was on a longer break.

He couldn't get anywhere near his best form in the single and ruled himself out of the world champs team, before returning to the summer squad for the 2013/14 season. But Sullivan was again looked over for selection this year, pushing him to take another break that has now led to retirement.

"I guess the fact that Nathan and me as a crew split, there wasn't the confidence in me on my own," Sullivan said.

"Then there was a breakdown in 2013, when I was told I could have a break through til January and that kinda disappeared and I was expected back in November.

"I guess in hindsight I should have taken a sabbatical and stayed well away like Mahe did."

Sullivan said since late 2013 he had been "extremely focused on getting to Rio".

"But I guess the hurdles and having to try and prove myself again wasn't really where I thought I should be. I had a final meeting with selectors over the weekend and I couldn't see that anything was going to change in the immediate future.

"I thought that there'd be a lot more trust - I had a pretty good track record."

He also thought he was in a much better place this year.

"I had the motivation back after deciding not to go to Korea last year. I took some time off and found a whole new drive and motivation and was really focused on getting to Rio.

"I felt I was where I needed to be. It probably wasn't where I needed to be. I did kinda feel like it was different situations for different people.

"And I think that's probably the thing I'm most disappointed in."

Sullivan leaves behind a remarkable record of success. He won three world under-23 gold medals and world championship gold with Cohen in 2010 and 2011 before completing the three-peat at the Olympics in 2012.

He admitted that not having the chance to extend that record has been mentally taxing.

"There's been some really dark days," Sullivan said.

"I guess when you think you're somewhere and you feel you can do that, and then someone else is looking down upon you and saying 'no you can't do that, we don't think you can' - that's quite a blow."

But he said he's found a new drive with the NZ Fire Service.

"It became a new focus and something I thought I could make a positive change in - for myself and to give back a bit more."

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He said that while he was disappointed his rowing career ended - while not ruling out further top-level sporting pursuits in kayaking or cycling - in an unsatisfactory manner, he didn't want to dwell on the negative.

"I'm pretty happy with where I am now. I look back at my career and I'm stoked with what I've achieved.

"I've got no regrets with what I've done. I've had to work hard - I've been knocked down plenty of times and overcome that, got through and really proved myself. Not to anyone else but more to myself.

"The dream that I had, no one was going to stop me."

FULL INTERVIEW WITH IAN ANDERSON 

Q: How tough was it to decide to hang up the oars?

A: It's taken a while to fully come to that decision. I was extremely focused on getting to Rio, but I guess the hurdles and having to try and prove myself again wasn't really where I thought I should be. I had a final meeting with selectors over the weekend and I couldn't see that anything was going to change in the immediate future

Q: Did you feel you got a fair crack then?

A: Nah.

I guess the fact that Nathan and me as a crew split, there wasn't the confidence in me on my own.

Then there was a breakdown in 2013, when I was told I could have a break through til January and that kinda disappeared and I was expected back in November.

I'd been down to watch some of the trainings and I think they may have taken that as me pissing around.

I thought that there'd be a lot more trust - I had a pretty good track record.

I was very aware of where I was and where I needed to be come Rio - I thought I was tracking ok. I guess they didn't.

I knew I was going to be behind the eight-ball, but I felt I got told one thing and another thing happened. I wasn't in the crew I thought I was going to be in, which was where I was going to kick in and get going again.

To be put into the single as a reserve was a big knock to the motivation.

Q: Which crew were you hoping to be in - the quad?

A: Yeah. I guess in hindsight I should have taken a sabbatical and stayed well away like Mahe did.

Q: Did you think you were back to form this year?

A: I thought I was definitely in the mix this year - I had the motivation back after deciding not to go to Korea last year. I took some time off and found a whole new drive and motivation and was really focused on getting to Rio.I felt I was where I needed to be. It probably wasn't where I needed to be.

They were quite often comparing it to where I was before London, and I was kinda looking more at the long-term goal than being immediately back where I was at London.

I think if I'd gone straight back to that I'd blow out - I felt like I needed to ease .. well, not ease ... I needed to jump back into it but I was happy with where I was and how I was tracking.

I did kinda feel like it was different situations for different people.

And I think that's probably the thing I'm most disappointed in.

Q: How hard has it been over the past year and a half, given that your record from Maadi Cup on has been winnings things?

A: It's been extremely difficult. There's been some really dark days.I guess when you think you're somewhere and you feel you can do that, and then someone else is looking down upon you and saying 'no you can't do that, we don't think you can' - that's quite a blow to the mental side of things.

Q: How did you deal with that?

A: I found a new drive after I'd met a few guys from the New Zealand Fire Service.

They recommended how good the Fire Service could be and it became a new focus and something I thought I could make a positive change in - for myself and to give back a bit more.And I didn't want to be stuck behind a desk. The timing worked out as the Fire Service was having an intake and I applied for. Over the past three months I've been going through the processes from cognitive testing to fitness testing. 

It's a very  sought-after career. It's very hard to get in to and I'm stoked - I didn't think I would but I managed to get in on my first try, so I'm extremely excited about that.

Q: Had it been an option you'd thought about previously?

A: No, It just came up at the right time and gave me the focus to move on. It's definitely helped me over this period, coming to terms with what happened and letting it go.

I think if I hadn't got into this I might have been sitting there stewing and still really pissed off at how it all ended.

Q: Have you spoken to Nathan [Cohen] much?

A: Yeah, I chat to him quite a bit. He's been good to talk to and bounce things off.

Finding a new job is very difficult - there's not really anything to prepare you for that side of it, having done rowing for nearly 14 years now.

When I got to the interview stage with the Fire Service, that was my very first job interview - I'd never had one before. I was probably more nervous for that than I was sitting at the start line in London.

Q: When you were thinking long-term towards Rio, was that likely to be with Nathan again?

A: I was aware that Nathan had different things on his mind.

So I was quite happy - I'd done the double [sculls] with Robbie Manson at under-23s so there was always the potential for other crews to achieve the same kind of thing. I felt I could move in to different crews with different people quite easily.

It was a weird kind of summer, being in and out of crews. Coming to trials, it was almost a completely different team than what it had been during summer squad.   

Q: Did you get much of an inkling over summer that you might need to do a bit more, or that your place may be in jeopardy?

A: They always say that anyway.

They've said that my whole career - my place has always been in jeopardy. It wasn't anything new.

They gave me targets to hit before trials, and I hit all those. I thought going into trials I was in a pretty good place to make the boat go fast, but even in the seat race in the double, I never got a seat race in the stroke seat, which I found odd - considering that was what I was a four-time champion in.

So there were things that I found quite confusing.

Q: So obviously not the ideal way that you'd like to finish your own career. But it wasn't like the motivation faded away after winning gold in London?

A: Wining two gold medals would be the ultimate.

There was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be hard - the hardest thing ever is probably to defend a title.

But that was always in my mind and I was always going to be ready for it come Rio.

Q: Will it be hard watching rowing from now?

A: I don't think so, no.

I'm pretty happy with where I am now. I look back at my career and I'm stoked with what I've achieved.

I've got no regrets with what I've done. I've had to work hard - I've been knocked down plenty of times and overcome that, got through and really proved myself - not to anyone else but more to myself.

The dream that I had, no one was going to stop me.

Q: What's the path now with the fire service?

A: On the 30th June, I go into full-time training for three months over in Rotorua.

It's going to be hard work - lots of practical and lots of theory.

I'm pretty excited about it. I met a lot of guys at the fitness test and they seem like a great bunch of guys.

Talking to a lot of firemen now, putting out fires is only about 20 per cent of the job. There's a lot of attending accidents - the Fire Service is now first response, so if we get there before an ambulance, we're the paramedics on the scene.

Q: Is there still a chance you'll do some other sport?

A: I definitely am keen on doing some testing to see if I can get into another sport.

Maybe kayaking or cycling could be fun, but I haven't really closed any avenues - I'd be happy to try anything.

Q: Would that be to an extent were you would want to compete at an international level again?

A: Yeah, that'd be my aim. I still feel I'm young enough and stubborn enough to really give something a crack.

That's how it was with rowing - I decided I'd do something to get to the Olympics and it just happened that rowing came along when I moved up to Picton.

AT A GLANCE - Joseph Sullivan's career highlights:

2012 - London Olympic Games gold, men's double scull

2011 - World Championship gold, men's double scull

2010 - World Champs gold, men's double scull

2009 - Under-23 World Champs gold, men's double scull

2008 - Under-23 World Champs gold, men's single scull

2007 - Under-23 World Champs gold, men's single scull

- Waikato Times

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