US degrees, success for 'puny' pair

16:00, Nov 09 2012

Considered too small to row at a senior level in New Zealand, two Christchurch brothers have found success at famous rowing universities.

Sam and James O'Connor are at Oxford and Harvard respectively, picking up high-quality educations as well as padding their rowing CVs with all sorts of accolades and titles.

The Christ's College old boys both rowed at age group level for New Zealand but having left school had a choice to make- education or rowing.

With no guarantees of success in a New Zealand Rowing programme placing a huge emphasis on size, the decision was a tough one.

As it turned out, they could pick both, just not in New Zealand.

"There's a unique and pretty awesome system [in the United States] of college sports," James, 22, told the Harvard Magazine recently.


"Back home, at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘do I want to row really seriously or do I want to go to university and study?' Here you don't have to make that choice."

Neither of the O'Connor brothers are small lads but neither fitted into New Zealand Rowing's "ideal" size criteria, father Peter told The Press.

Sam, 24, is 185cm and 86kg and James is 188cm and 84kg, but compared with Mahe Drysdale's 201cm, 99kg frame, they are on the small side.

They've now proved size isn't everything and obviously can create impressive boat speed.

Before Sam graduated from Harvard last New Zealand winter, he and his younger brother helped the Massachusetts Ivy League university to win last year's Head of the Charles race.

They also beat fierce rivals Yale again and were undefeated in the dual-meet season.

James, a psychology major, is now the captain of the rowing crew at Harvard this year while Sam has moved across the Atlantic to the UK.

After finishing his engineering degree, Sam is now completing his masters at Oxford while also trying to force his way in to the Oxford crew for the most famous dual race in rowing, the Boat Race against Cambridge.

Peter said his sons were just two of plenty of rowers originally from Canterbury plying their trade Stateside and added that if they all came home, competition for an eight would be huge.

The O'Connor brothers were part of the 2006 eight that won the World Junior Championships in Amsterdam and while the Kiwi crews were discouraged from talking to American coaches, links were made.

Peter had a contact who was a coach at Cambridge University and the contact put the brothers in touch with then-Harvard freshman coach (now associate head coach) Bill Manning.

After some initial concerns, Sam took the plunge and was followed by James a year later.

Both had successful freshman rowing careers before graduating through to the school's top boat.

The Press