A perennial rowing debate concerns how to harness top athletes who prioritise getting a degree or are on the fringe of international selection.

On one hand, Rowing New Zealand operates a taxpayer-funded centralised programme at Lake Karapiro which demands complete commitment to ensure success.

The evidence is obvious. New Zealand has delivered 72 Olympic or world championship medals since 2004.

On the other hand lurks a question: Can this system be improved?

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Former world champion single sculler Emma Twigg believes so. She has set up Gramma Consulting with former New Zealand junior rower Grace Spoors, who studied and competed at Washington University.

Traditionally, the transition from Maadi Cup to club level sees a significant drop-off in participation, especially with so few international seats available.

Twigg aims to keep alive the Olympic dreams of those who pursue tertiary education overseas, often through scholarships.

"It's more about advising them on what to do at the right moment. If it was me in 2005 [when Twigg first joined Rowing NZ's elite programme as a 19-year-old], I would say stay and make the most of the opportunities in New Zealand.

"Then there's a level of athlete below that who aren't necessarily part of the New Zealand team, but could benefit from going to the likes of the United States.

"Phoebe Spoors [Grace's twin sister] is an example. She went away, got an education [also at Washington University], had an amazing experience in the eights and developed as a woman. She is now hopefully [at 23] in a position to challenge for a spot back in New Zealand."

Another case study is Lenny Jenkins who won the double sculls with Jack Lopas at the junior world championships last year. He is studying at Yale.

"It's hard for Rowing New Zealand, because they don't want to necessarily be seen promoting that pathway," Twigg says. "But there is value in making these athletes feel like they can come back.

"We've offered to give a database of names to Rowing New Zealand, to keep them informed of anyone overseas."

Twigg knows what it's like as an elite athlete inside and outside the New Zealand programme. After nine international seasons, she sought flexibility in 2014 as the new world champion. She had been offered a place on the one-year Fifa Masters course in Europe to study the management, law and humanities of sport. Her proposal to train outside the national programme, but qualify the single sculls at the 2015 world championships for the Rio Olympics, was declined.

George Bridgewater. Photo / photosport.nz
George Bridgewater. Photo / photosport.nz

The governing body deemed a Games-qualifying year too important to offer such liberties.

The upshot was that the boat failed to qualify. Twigg had to do the job at the Regatta of Death, three months before the Olympics, where she went on to finish fourth.

Duncan Hall can see value in Twigg's scheme.

He was part of the New Zealand junior men's eight in 2008 and 2009, but had to choose between persevering with the sport at elite level or studying overseas.

"It certainly didn't seem like there was room for compromise," Hall says. "In fact, it seemed clear that if you were going to choose something outside of Rowing New Zealand, then any form of relationship with the body would also be closed. Making that decision was incredibly difficult, especially for an 18-year-old.

"Many of my friends decided to keep rowing [to elite level] and that's to be celebrated. I chose to go to Dartmouth College in the US - a really good university that offered a strong rowing programme. Since then, I've lived in San Francisco, New York, and now London, working in advertising.

"There's no chance I would trade my decisions for anything else."

In contrast, an 18-year-old George Bridgewater turned down an Ivy League university scholarship to set his sights on the Olympics.

A lot will finish their degrees and get offered great jobs but, if they haven't been talked to by Rowing NZ, they will feel like their options are limited.

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Seven years later, he took bronze with Nathan Twaddle in the pair at Beijing before heading to Oxford, where he combined victory in The Boat Race with an MBA. He worked as an equity trader in Hong Kong and Singapore for five years before returning home to qualify for Rio in the quadruple sculls.

"Taking a fully-paid scholarship to an American university can be life-changing for a Kiwi coming out of school," Bridgewater says.

"I think it's important to give school leavers the most information possible without putting too much pressure on, because it's a tough decision to make at that age.

"I really wanted to go to the Olympic Games and row for New Zealand because that had always been my dream.

"The Maadi Cup is one of the top sports events in the country, then it [participation] drops off a cliff.

"Retention is helped by the success at Olympic level but rowing's a battler's sport. All the top guys - Mahe [Drysdale], Eric [Murray], Hamish [Bond] - took a long time to be dominant. You can't always identify them at school."

Bridgewater says rowing is as good as any sport for providing avenues to world-class education.

"It's a big Ivy League sport and at universities in the UK. There are not too many big bucks in professional rowing, but you can get a quality education and friends for life. The doors rowing opened for me far outweigh the medals.

"I think you've got to support people doing other things so they come back to the sport for the right reasons. If you try to coerce things, and I'm not saying that's happening, you'd end up with people leaving and feeling resentful."

Twigg accepts Rowing New Zealand's policy is unlikely to change soon but believes she can help the second tier of New Zealand talent remain strong.

"Just because someone takes a certain educational direction, like accepting an American scholarship, doesn't mean they won't be useful in several years.

"A lot will finish their degrees and get offered great jobs but, if they haven't been talked to by Rowing New Zealand, they will feel like their options are limited.

"If an athlete wants to come back and be part of the programme, they will jump through hoops to do so. That's the sort of athlete you want."