Bringing rowing back to life after rowing
The elite rowing world is extremely tough. As an athlete you can train every day and pour your heart and soul into the sport, but still not make it onto the high-performance team. Those who get ‘cut’ are left thinking, ‘what’s next?’
Rowers in New Zealand and Germany set out to answer this question.
“Initially we decided to throw together a crew for the New Zealand Nationals (rowing championships) for a bit of fun,” says Axel Dickinson, one of the founders of the Barbarians Rowing Club and former rower for New Zealand. “The crew consisted of some of our good mates, all former top-level rowers, who had left the sport prematurely.
“At the time it was just a good excuse to meet up and enjoy rowing together for a week and hang out off the water as many of us had really lost that connection to the sport and the great people you meet while doing it after hanging up the oars.”
Dickinson and his teammates quickly realised these meet-ups could evolve into something bigger.
Dickinson, along with three other New Zealand rowers, had lost their spot at the regional high-performance centre during the 2014-2015 season. The high performance centres lead to national team selection so being cut meant losing their chance to make the national team.
“For most of the guys that was their last season pursuing top level rowing. Feeling rejected by the sport we gave our lives to, it's a tough pill to swallow for any athlete when their career is cut short,” Dickinson says.
Together with fellow teammates, Dickinson set up the first New Zealand Nationals campaign and they kept going from there. Despite early resistance to their movement, the Barbarians were determined and have now been officially recognised as a rowing club by Rowing New Zealand.
While Dickinson was working to forge the post-elite rowing road in New Zealand, a former international rower for Germany, Bjoern Birkner was on a similar quest in Germany. Birkner and several others were cut from the German rowing team in 2017. He decided it was time to focus on his medical exams, but he did not like the abrupt halt in elite training.
“Stopping elite rowing is hard for every athlete. You lose your daily routine, your goals, your standing in society, friends, family. Some athletes lose that from one day to another,” Birkner says.
To combat the sense of loss, Birkner decided to get a group together to race at the Henley Royal Regatta in 2017. They called it the Exit8.
“It is really important to have something like the Exit8,” Birkner explains. “Many active elite athletes that we know like the idea of it, because quitting elite rowing doesn’t mean quitting the sport we all love.”
Members of the German Exit8 and the Barbarians continue their post-elite pursuits, each racing in their own countries and taking trips around the world. Both teams focus on individual training, with athletes living in different cities, or even countries. They come together for races, which gave them a common goal and helped to maintain motivation.
“The idea of life flexibility to pursue a career, family or just explore the globe and have different experiences, while also being able to keep fit and goal-oriented with your rowing is a balance we really strive to hit,” says Dickinson. “As we know rowing can be an all-consuming sport and ultimately that's why people leave it, not generally because they fell out of love for it.”
In 2018, the Exit8 and the Barbarians paths crossed. While preparing for the Henley Royal Regatta, the Barbarians decided to race in two fours, meaning their coxswain no longer had a seat. The Exit8 was searching for a good coxswain and thanks to an Instagram post, they found the Barbarians. The teams met up in Henley, enjoyed a Barbeque together and talked about ideas for growing the movement.
“That was the point we got in touch and learned about our similarities,” says Birkner. “It was great to see that the topic which we had to deal with in Germany was not a German problem at all, but affected every elite rower (or any elite athlete) all over the world.”
Both the Barbarians and the Exit8 are looking to expand and to involve women rowers as well. As Dickinson says, “All too commonly, athletes divorce themselves from the sport entirely due to negative feelings held towards it upon their departure. Those are wounds that are tough to heal particularly when you're dealing with prideful and stubborn athletes, as we know rowers can be. This is obviously more often than not very harmful to one's mental health. The research and our anecdotal evidence certainly backs it up.
“We've found that through the Barbarians we've been able to re-establish that strong network of friends you make through rowing and help reignite their love for the sport again. I'm always surprised and humbled when guys talk about how the Barbarians helped them out of a bout of depression or just a rut they found themselves in. You can't always see who is fighting that battle with their own mind but just knowing it's helped someone really makes it all worth it.”