Otago University currently tops the list for rowing at university in New Zealand. The team boasts decades of dominant performances at the New Zealand University Rowing Championships and a number of these rowers have advanced  to all levels of international competition – seven Otago rowers raced on the New Zealand under 23 team this year while three more alumnae raced to World Championship silver in New Zealand's women's eight.  

Otago is one of nine universities that compete at the NZ University Rowing Championships each April, just six weeks into the academic year in the southern autumn. Events for championship, intermediate and tournament and novice level athletes garner points towards the team awards. Tournament grade is for those who have only ever competed at the university championships. The novice rowers earn twice the points for medal winners to encourage the bringing in of new people to the sport each year.

The novices competing aren’t just in it for a relaxing paddle though. Racing dominates the Kiwi mindset at all levels of the sport. “New Zealand doesn’t do recreational rowing very well,” says Glen Sinclair, head coach for Otago University Rowing and vice-president of New Zealand University Rowing Council. “It’s really either all or nothing – but that’s something that is accepted in New Zealand.”

 “We actually think starting as a novice at university is perfect,” says Sinclair, “and if the athlete wants, we can help them to move ahead pretty quickly." Fiona Bourke was one such novice a number of years ago and from her first season sculling at Otago, she has continued her journey to become World Champion in the double sculls in 2014.

The full 2015 Otago University team. © Glen Sinclair

Otago is known for its strong women’s programme. Although the Otago University Rowing Club was formed in 1929, women first joined in the 1970’s. They now account for 65 per cent of the 120 member team and have captured nine consecutive New Zealand University Rowing Championship titles in recent years. The men, however, haven’t been idle. They set a record with eight straight victories of the Hebberley Shield in the men’s eight at the same regatta (2002 to 2009).

The Hebberley Shield is one of the great traditions of New Zealand university rowing stretching back to 1928. Since then the race for university men’s eights has been contested 74 times. Otago sits in second place overall in the points tally with 25 wins, behind the University of Canterbury who have won 29 times. Canterbury and Otago have a traditional rivalry that also includes an annual dual boat race each May.

A newer tradition with tremendous significance to Otago is The Ashes trophy. The trophy contains some ashes from the former Otago University Rowing Club building that burned to the ground in 1999. The Ashes is awarded to the overall team points winner at the New Zealand University Rowing Championships, an honour claimed by Otago University for the past 16 years.

“The trophy has an old wooden oar coming out the top of it,” explains Sinclair, “and is to be painted in the winning club colours. The aim of Otago University Rowing is that it is only ever painted once and in one colour!”

The second semester of the year (during New Zealand’s winter months and into the spring) is considered the 'international season.' A number of students will race each year as members of New Zealand’s junior, under 21, under 23 and university teams , while an Otago crew usually flies to China each August for an international regatta and cultural exchange. Otago’s senior men also participate in an annual series with Russia’s St. Petersburg State University in mid-September.

Like many university rowers, it is not just about their skill on the water. “We generally find that the athletes that are doing really well in their rowing are also achieving highly academically,” says Sinclair.

“The club’s vision,” says Sinclair, “is to create the ultimate rowing culture that leads to success at all levels for our members. We believe that when we are living our values and ticking off the strategies that we have in place, then we will achieve our vision. While winning is fantastic and we do like to win – that is hopefully the end product of everything else we do on a daily basis.”

World Rowing will take a look at different university club programmes to find out what makes them unique. If you think your university should be profiled, please contact us and tell us what sets your team apart:  media@fisa.org