Olympic rowing champion Joe Sullivan is one of five grinders who will be battling it out for a place on Team New Zealand's race boat for next year's America's Cup challenge.

As the Herald revealed in October last year, Sullivan, who paired up with Nathan Cohen to win gold in the double sculls at the London Olympics, had been training with Team NZ under what chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge termed a "loose arrangement".
This month that role became official, with Sullivan named in the Kiwi syndicate's wider sailing team.

To date, most of Sullivan's training with the team has been land-based while he juggles fulltime work as a firefighter in Auckland. But as part of his on-going sailing education, he has accompanied the team on a few testing days on the water in their development boat.

"It's quite nice to be able to see where you're going as well rather than sitting on your bum going backwards," he joked.


Sullivan isn't expected to make an appearance at any of the America's Cup World Series events, where the one-design AC45 catamarans have more of a traditional set-up.

But the balance of the crew will be very different for the race boats that will be sailed in America's Cup in Bermuda next year, with the high tech systems that power the wing and dagger foils requiring more brute force.

While the crew positions for the race boats are yet to be defined, it is likely four of the six-strong crew will be grinders.

As part of his sporting reinvention, Sullivan has undergone a notable physical transformation, adding 20kg of muscle to his frame since his rowing days. He now tips the scales at around 100kg with his training focus shifting from endurance to short bursts of explosive power.

"It's a lot more upper body focused, rowing was a lot more on the back and the legs, but it is still the same hurt and it is still the same pressures and it's just about being able to keep battling through and keep pushing yourself," said Sullivan.

"It's quite a good feeling being able to do it again."

20 Apr, 2016 1:30pm
2 minutes to read

Yes, as strange as it sounds, it was the pain he missed the most when he left rowing.

A disenchanted Sullivan walked away from the sport in 2014 after being left out of the New Zealand team for two seasons.

He wasn't willing to accept his elite sporting days were over however, and looked into putting his impressive endurance base built up through thousands of hours on the waters of Lake Karapiro to use in another arena.

"I was pretty keen to have some time off, because I needed to find the motivation again. I kind of lost that after rowing.

"But I was definitely focused on moving onto something else - I looked into cycling and kayaking but nothing was really set in stone," he said.

While Sullivan mulled over a new sporting direction, the opportunity came up to join the Fire Service, which provided the 29-year-old with the fresh challenge he needed. Then late last year he found himself another challenge.

Team NZ physical trainer Dave Slyfield, who interviewed Sullivan post-London as part of a research project, got in contact put the Olympic gold medallist's name forward to trial for a spot in the America's Cup team.

As Sullivan knows through bitter experience there are "no guarantees in sport".

Competition for a place on the race boat for the 2017 America's Cup challenge will be tough, and he will be battling some seasoned sailors, including Dutchman Carlo Huisman and Italian Gilberto Nobili, who was part of the winning Oracle team in 2010 and 2013.

"The team is always competitive. The group that we have is looking to that end goal - no one is fighting each other, we're all fighting for the success of the team [in Bermuda]."