Sullivan goes from Picton to Olympic champion

JONATHAN MILLMOW IN LONDON
Last updated 02:15 04/08/2012

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The pride of Picton Joseph Sullivan was oblivious to the fact he had rowed himself to an Olympic gold medal.

When he got the "yip" and "go" call from his double sculls partner Nathan Cohen with 500m left in the final, Sullivan kept his eyes steady and rowed for his life.

It wasn't until a couple of strokes after the line that he looked up at the massive screen in the main grandstand and realised he and Cohen's paralysing finishing burst had in fact been a winning one over Italy and Slovakia.

"I didn't actually know what was happening, I was just listening to Nathan, he was making all the calls," Sullivan said.

"He just said to 'push' and I pushed . I didn't even realise until we had crossed the line and I looked up at the big screen that we had won the race."

Sullivan stood in his boot and raised his arms in ecstasy, no doubt remembering his journey from Picton to Olympic champion.

When he began rowing in the harbour he was often swamped by fishing boats but soon found better luck on the Wairau River.

His thoughts were with his hometown shortly after having a gold medal draped around his neck that surely takes him past Lance Cairns as Picton's most famous resident.

"I think it will be pretty special for Picton," he said.

"The way the community was behind me was just insane. I couldn't ask for a better place to grow up, the community was close and everyone knew each other. It's pretty special and I hope I made them proud.

"The emails and Facebook have been insane, quite overwhelming. I just about had to stop looking at it because it just brings too many emotions to play. I really needed to keep focused and get it right. It's been unbelievable support from everyone and I couldn't ask for a better place come from."

Sullivan is no overnight sensation. He is a four-time junior world champion, two-time elite double sculls world champion with Cohen and now an Olympic champion.

Cohen is the senior partner and has a longer more consistent stroke while Sullivan's is shorter and faster. Because of their size (comparatively small) they row shorter than most crews and rate higher which gives them the opportunity to change speed more quickly than their rivals.

Their speed has been on show all week at Eton Dorney but it takes belief to let an Olympic final go up the river without you and then chase it down like they did.

"We have trained over and over and over for that last 500m," Sullivan said.

"We have gone through so many race plans. I think we had the confidence that if we were in the mix heading into that last 500m we would give it everything we had and it worked out."

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Cohen, 26, and Sullivan, 25, came together in 2010 and seem to go together like bacon and eggs.

"I came into it, probably a bit relaxed, and he's (Cohen) taught me to be more consistent and train with more intensity," Sullivan said.

"He has helped me lot in my rowing career and to get me to this day today, I can't thank him enough.

"We're not the biggest guys in world and I think we showed today anyone can do big things, you don't have to be built for it, you just got to have the heart and the head to push hard and get through."

Cohen, a modest Southlander, and Sullivan had a healthy rivalry during their junior days and both credit Rob Waddell's epic single sculls victory in Sydney in 2000 as the inspiration to embark on a rowing career.

"This is something I dreamed of when I was young and watched Rob Waddell win gold in Sydney and now the same thing comes to fruition. It's just insane," Sullivan said.

Sullivan's triumph was witnessed first- hand by his parents Mike and Elaine.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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