Athlete of the Month - February 2012
Trying to squeeze a bit of bragging out of Joseph Sullivan is not easy. The 24-year-old New Zealander sees himself as pretty average when it comes to rowing. But behind the modesty is a two-time World Champion who fought his way onto the New Zealand team as a junior and then continued to fight through two consecutive under-23 titles to stay on the team. Also as an under-23 athlete he once jumped straight off a 24-hour flight from New Zealand and substituted into the senior double at the World Rowing Cup. His boat finished a very credible fifth.
For these qualities Joseph is World Rowing’s February Athlete of the Month.
World Rowing: How did you first get started in rowing?
Joseph Sullivan: At high school one of the senior guys told me I had to start rowing. I was quite good at cross country and athletics and he picked me out. I’d seen rowing and through it’d be pretty cool.
WR: Being from Picton (a small sea-side town), where would you train?
JS: When I was a novice we would train on the harbour and get swamped all of the time by fishing boats. Then we started training on a nearby river, the Wairau River, about half an hour away.
WR: You’ve called yourself the ‘smallest heavyweight in the world’. What are your vital statistics?
JS: I’m 182cm and 82kg.
WR: Have you ever been pushed to become lightweight?
JS: No, it’s never been an option and I never wanted to, even at high school. I always rowed against the heavyweights.
WR: Where do you think your strength in the sport lies?
JS: I don’t know! [Laughs] I’m a bit stubborn. People have always told me I’m too small and I like to prove people wrong.
WR: Is there something that you can outdo your teammates in?
JS: Not really. I’m the slowest in the team on the erg and I can’t lift as much [weights].
WR: You’re a similar height to Nathan [doubles partner, Nathan Cohen] how was it when you first started rowing with Nathan?
JS: It was good getting in the boat with Nathan. We balance each other out. Where he’s weak I’m strong. He’s got a longer stroke and is more consistent through a race. I’m more a starter and a finisher.
WR: Both you and Nathan are smaller than some of your competition. Is there something in your style or technique that you may do a bit differently to adapt?
JS: Yes, definitely. We row a bit shorter than most crews and we can rate a lot higher which is a benefit for us as we have the opportunity to change speed more quickly than other teams. I heard that at the World Champs we rowed at about 38 [strokes per minute] and then 45 at the end.
WR: You have talked about it being hard to break through to the national team because of your height.
JS: It’s more that they said that I wasn’t compatible with other athletes. That other people would struggle to row with me. As a junior I ended up in the single as a reserve for the four.
WR: When did you move to the national training centre in Karapiro and become part of the national team?
JS: After juniors I stayed around. I was coming up to Karapiro for winter anyway. I then started at university there.
WR: Do you train much in the single or always in the double?
JS: We do quite a lot of training in the single with Nathan and Storm (Uru) and Peter (Taylor). I get my ass kicked. I struggle with the distance. I’m more into my short sharp pieces.
WR: What’s a typical day like at the moment?
JS: I get up at 6am and we’re on the water by 7am doing 20km to 30km some days. We do weights twice a week and in the afternoon do a shorter row or erg. I was studying but I’m taking a year off to focus on the Olympic build-up. I’m doing a photography course as a hobby.
WR: What’s coming up for February?
JS: The New Zealand National Champs. I’ll be racing in the single, double and quad for my Regional Performance Centre. So I’ll be competing against Nathan. I usually come off second-best [laughs].
Joseph talks to World Rowing from the shores of Lake Karapiro where he is racing at the 2012 New Zealand National Championships in Part II of February’s Athlete of the Month interview.
World Rowing: This week you’re competing at the New Zealand National Championships, how did you prepare for this regatta?
Joseph Sullivan: We got released [from national team training] last weekend to come back to our RPC [regional performance centre] teams who we will race with at nationals. I’m competing in the men’s double and men’s quad.
WR: Do you consider this an easy week, or stressful?
JS: Probably a bit more relaxed than other weeks, but come finals day I’ll be more focused as we’re going for the best possible results.
WR: And what happens next on the training programme?
JS: On Monday we’re back into squad training. Then there are selection trials the following week, so it’s very stressful then. We don’t know what trials will involve until the day. We never know what the selectors are going to do.
WR: What about your training schedule, do you know that day-to-day?
JS: We know the weekly plan and if we disagree greatly we’ll have a meeting with our coach [Calvin Ferguson]. The major training blocks are dictated by Dick Tonks [head coach].
WR: What’s been the hardest workout this month?
JS: We were in a pretty hard training block over January. It was over 200km per week and then a four-hour cycle ride. March is not as hard [in training] as we have trials.
WR: How do you prepare yourself for a race?
JS: I don’t do anything special. I warm up, chill out, listen to music. I know what we’re going to do so I don’t need a pep-talk. Calvin is accommodating in how we do things. I don’t pay any attention to what our competition is doing. I don’t look at other times [in the heats] as conditions are always changing. Nathan [Cohen, doubles partner] does. I put my trust in his plan for the race. During the race I don’t look out of the boat at all. I totally trust Nathan’s calls.
WR: So do you take any interest in the off-season on what your competition is doing?
JS: I’ve never really been one to follow what the others are doing. I like sticking to what I’m doing. I think others on our team do follow what’s happening, but that just stresses me out.
WR: With so much travel to Europe to race, when did you have your last winter in New Zealand?
JS: Five years ago. I don’t miss it, it’s quite good going summer to summer with just a bit of winter.
WR: In our last interview you mentioned that you were good at sprinting, what would be your ideal race distance?
JS: About 200m. I don’t leave everyone behind, but I consistently do fast times. Nathan’s pretty good at sprinting too.
WR: Do you have any sporting heroes?
JS: When I first started rowing it was Rob Waddell. While I’ve been rowing it’s been Mahe [Drysdale]. He always has the ability to back himself, to make a plan and stick to it and he doesn’t let anyone faze him. But the whole New Zealand team is inspiring, everyone is so highly competitive.
WR: And who’s the most famous person in your cell phone phonebook?
JS: Mahe! [laughs]
WR: Do you have a favourite quote?
JS: “It’s not the most talented person that wins the race, it’s the person that gets knocked down the most, but keeps getting back up.” And “It’s not the size of the dog, it’s the size of the bite in the dog.”