Olympic gold medallist Joe Sullivan’s job is to inspire people. And he’s good at it.
The double scull rower, who won a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games with Nathan Cohen, was at Te Mata School and Raglan Area School this week to prove just that.
He showed footage from his 2012 wining race – admitting he was so terrified beforehand that he was sick – and handed around his gold medal to the delight of the children.
“It’s kind of like getting all the presents that you’ve ever wanted all at once. It’s really, really, really exciting,” he told the 80-odd Te Mata School students about winning the medal.
Although now retired from competitive rowing, he had assumed the role of Olympic Ambassador, visiting schools around the country to share his experiences and to spread inspiration wherever he could.
Raised in Picton, Joe decided at the age of 10 he wanted to go to the Olympics after watching the gold medal wins of New Zealanders Sarah Ulmer and Danyon Loader – he just didn’t know what sport would take him there.
He got into rowing at the age of 14. The first year he came last in every regatta he entered. Being highly competitive, he didn’t enjoy that at all, so he trained hard and the next year the first places started to come.
Joe told the Te Mata children that he went to four New Zealand trials, but never got selected for a New Zealand team because the selectors thought he was too short for a rower and they didn’t like his rowing style.
He eventually challenged their decision through the Ombudsman, which deemed it unfair, and he finaly got to represent New Zealand internationally.
“If you’re doing sport and you really want to achieve in it, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” he said.
Joe proved his case: winning about 70 medals over his 14-year competitive career, including wins at the World Rowing Under-23 Champs in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and at the World Rowing Champs in 2010 and 2011.
Rowing took up most of his time, requiring 36 hours training a week with only three weeks off a year, he said. Financially, he relied on his parents and part-time jobs to support him for most of the time until he got some rewards from his wins.
But Joe said the gold medal was worth it.
“It [the gold medal] is very important to me. I have no idea what it is worth, but I wouldn’t sell it for the world,” he told the children.
Now Joe said he was ready to have a life and move on to new challenges. He had a job as a fireman in Devonport, Auckland, where he was putting his tenacity and competitive skills to good use.
“You can dedicate to anything if you can do rowing for 14 years,” he said.