Sisterhood spurs on the rowing Spoors

Rowing sisters Lucy and Phoebe Spoors may be in different boats at the upcoming World Cup regattas, but they have each other's backs. 

Having more than one member of the family representing New Zealand in the same sport may not be anything special.

But having two in the national team at the same time? That's a little more like it.

Rowing New Zealand's elite squad, who have just left for Europe, include not one, but two, pairs of sisters.

Kerri Gowler, who won silver in the coxless pair at last year’s world championships with Grace Prendergast – one spot behind the title they won in 2017 – has her younger sister Jackie for company. Jackie Gowler is no stranger to the elite group.

Then there’s the Spoors sisters, also part of the 12-strong sweep squad, named for the eight and coxless four at the second and third World Cup regattas, in Poland and the Netherlands, over the coming weeks.

Lucy, 28, and Phoebe, 25, flat together in Cambridge and although they’re in different boats, there’s a definite sisterly bond that comes through in their rowing.

“I’m probably a bit nervous for her,” Lucy admits. “I almost felt a sense of over-investment in her. I can’t help it, but I will worry about her.

“When she first arrived, I probably overly kept an eye on her because I know the environment is tough.”

Now Lucy knows she needn’t fret about her kid sister. “Over time, I realised she’s a big girl and doesn’t need me. She can work it out for herself.”

For the World Cup regatta in Poznan next weekend, Phoebe is in the four and Lucy is in the eight - which is the priority boat for Rowing New Zealand.

The sisters’ rowing paths are proof there’s more than one route into the national squad.

In the case of Lucy, she took the traditional track, starting at Christchurch Girls High School, graduating to the junior and under 23 squads, before taking a spot in the elite group.

Good enough to have won gold in the four at the 2008 junior worlds, she clocked up several years in the under 23s, before stepping up to the top flight. She was part of the eight who finished third at the 2017 world champs before, barely believably, missing the A final altogether last year.

On top of that, Lucy - along with Georgia Perry, Sarah Gray and Brooke Donoghue - had the galling experience of missing a spot in the Olympic quad field for the 2016 Rio Games by a mere three seconds at the final qualifying regatta.

Phoebe Spoors training in the coxless four crew before the upcoming World Cup regattas in Europe. Photo: Art of Rowing. 

Phoebe Spoors did things a little differently to her big sister. Three years younger, she too started rowing at high school in Christchurch before opting to follow her twin sister, Grace, to the University of Washington in Seattle.

They rowed together over there – Grace had been good enough to win a world junior bronze title in the four in 2011 – before Grace decided to move on with her career off the water, and hung up her oar.

So Phoebe returned to New Zealand, quickly proved herself good enough through summer squad training in late 2017 and made the national squad last year for their European tour.

Another notable point: Phoebe never made the junior or under 23 national teams, which is unusual.

“I guess rowing was a natural progression for me,” Phoebe says. “Grace and I would go to the camps, where Mum was the camp mother, and we’d hang around the regattas.

“We’re a sporty family and I never remember thinking ‘I wonder if I should row?’ We loved watching Lucy do it and being a sporty kid, I just wanted to get involved.”

Phoebe doesn’t hide her admiration for her older sister, as a person and a rower, making it plain Lucy’s successes inspired her.

“I’ve always looked up to Lucy, and still do. She represented New Zealand when she was pretty young. I thought she was doing pretty cool things,” she says.

So how does it look from the other side of the relationship?

“I’d say Phoebe left [for the US] with no intention of rowing for New Zealand,” says Lucy, who switched from sculling after the Rio miss to sweep oar rowing.

“I was established in the programme before she showed up. I completely enjoy having her here, but because I never rowed with her at school, when she first made the summer squad I didn’t really know what she was like as a rower.”

So what chance is there that they could finish up in the same boat? Both suggest it’s unlikely right now; which is not to say things might change at either world champs time, in Linz, Austria in late August, or even - whisper it - the Tokyo Olympics next year.

But first crews need to perform at the cup regattas – the third World Cup is in Rotterdam is in July – before the world champs squad is confirmed.

Both sisters agree that Lucy, who graduated majoring in linguistics from Massey University, is the more instinctively competitive.

“Fiercely competitive, definitely more than me,” Phoebe says. “She doesn’t know how not to be. I don’t feel competitive against her, but I guess I use Lucy as a gauge for how I’m going.”

And which one has the shorter fuse? Lucy again: “Phoebe's probably been on the wrong side of it at training once or twice. But when it’s your sister, you’re going to get over it pretty quickly.” 

Lucy talks of winning gold – not just making the podium – at the Olympics next year.

“That’s the way I’ve always done it. That’s probably what [Phoebe] means when she says I’m competitive,” she quips.

But there’s no doubting having Phoebe around for the next three months will be special.

“It’s cool,” Lucy says. "It's nice to have someone when sometimes you just need five minutes to talk, and she'll be that person for me. Three months on tour is a long time and I’m pleased to be there for her.”

Phoebe, who has studied political science and communications and is part-time at Massey right now, puts the sisters relationship succinctly.

“The thing with sisters is when it’s going well it’s really going well. If it’s not, it has the potential to go south really quickly,” she laughs.

“It’s probably an honesty thing, but she’s accelerated my learning curve in rowing.”

The eights must finish among the top five crews at the world champs to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics; for the four, it’s a placing in the top eight. 

For Lucy, qualifying for the Olympics would help make up for missing out on Rio; for Phoebe it would be the continuation of a remarkable rise to the elite of the sport in this country. No shortage of incentive then.

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