Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Sailing: Rowing champion grinds his way into the America's Cup

Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan, is a new member of the Team New Zealand America's Cup syndicate. Photo / Doug Sherring
Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan, is a new member of the Team New Zealand America's Cup syndicate. Photo / Doug Sherring

Until a week ago, Team New Zealand grinder Joe Sullivan had never been in a yacht race.

By the end of the month the Olympic rowing champion will be in sailing's most prestigious event.

But that lack of racing experience does not concern Sullivan. As one of four "cyclors" on board Team NZ's 50-ft catamaran, his job, he says, is about providing the power for the team, pushing through the pain barrier to push the pedals as fast as he can, for as long as he can. And when it comes to pushing himself to his physical limits, you can bet Sullivan knows what he's in for.

"I feel like when the pressure is on and it's all on the line, that's where I can lift another level. Stay focused and calm when everything hurts like hell," said Sullivan, who along with Nathan Cohen won gold in the double sculls at the 2012 Olympics in a storming finish after being fourth at the mid-way point in the race.

With Team NZ spending much of their campaign in Auckland with only their chase boat to spar against, the Kiwi crew got their first taste of proper match racing in Bermuda last weekend. The team were able to prepare their boat just in time to hit the water for the final day of the official practice racing window. They lined up in three races, winning two.

It was Sullivan's first time experiencing the pressure of powering the catamarans in race conditions and he said there was a step-up in intensity.

"It was definitely a bit more intense, everyone is really switched on and really locked into what we're doing. We didn't have the best of races, but we learnt a lot, which was really good and just to get out there and really cement that understanding of what you need to do and what the boat needs was really good," he said.

Sullivan isn't the only sailing novice aboard Team NZ. Former sprint cyclist Simon van Velthooven, who like Sullivan was one of New Zealand's medal winners at the London Games, is another cross-code recruit. With the Kiwi team installing a cycle-grinding system rather than the traditional handle-driven pedestals, van Velthooven was targeted for his cycling expertise.

"They've been in a lot of races in their time - just not so many yacht races," jokes Peter Burling.

Sullivan can find plenty of similarities between rowing and grinding.

"It's definitely very similar [to the intensity of a rowing final], but it's a bit more on-off. So there are patches where the boat demands a lot of power and you have to give as much as you have and then there are times where you can take it a bit easier, whereas with rowing it is consistently killing you," he said.

"When you're giving it a full effort it's very much the same as rowing."

For Sullivan the big difference is what goes on off the water.

Whereas the Olympic Games is as much about upholding the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship as it is the physical endeavour, the America's Cup is underpinned by grudges and simmering resentment between key players.

Sullivan admits the off-water niggle has been a bit of a shock to the system.

"Being in the build-up I've definitely learned what it's all about and it's definitely a different ballpark. In the Olympics everyone sticks to themselves and tries to get the best out of themselves, whereas with the America's Cup everyone is looking for that little slight tactical advantage over each other and they'll try and do anything to make it happen. In some ways it's quite fun, it adds to it all."

- NZ Herald

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