Olympian leaps at chance to help athletes in limbo

Olympic heptathlete Sarah Cowley Ross is the new voice for New Zealand's Olympic athletes. A regular LockerRoom writer, she tells Suzanne McFadden how our athletes are coping with the Olympic postponement, what they need before Tokyo, and why she came out of retirement to compete again. 

Congratulations, Sarah, on becoming the chair of the New Zealand Olympic Committee's Athletes’ Commission. What does the role entail?

As chair, I lead the commission of eight current and recent Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes, and that comes with the responsibility of being a board member on the NZOC. That allows the voice of our athletes to come through the commission and into the boardroom. Athletes are very goal-orientated people, they want to see action come out of work. And even if there might not be change, if their opinion is being put on the table, then that’s actually progress at the first step.

With the year-long postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the ongoing effects of Covid-19, how are the athletes coping?

On one hand, you’ve got people who are smashing lockdown, setting personal bests, making the most of this opportunity for extra training and time with their families when they would normally be overseas. On the other hand, you have people who are really struggling – who don’t know if they can continue to train and keep up this level of intensity for another 440 days.

People had plans for after the Olympics – whether that was starting a family, going overseas or changing sports. It’s really important that whatever people are dealing with, they still feel connected to the New Zealand team.

Were most athletes okay with the year’s delay?

Most people recognise the delay had to happen. But there’s still some grief around it. Many people have put years and years of effort into this one moment. For some, this was their time - not only to be on an Olympic team, but to be potential medallists. To have doubt creeping in - that maybe I can’t do it, or maybe it’s not going to be my time next year – is huge.

So some athletes will struggle mentally with the change?

Potentially, yes, but this is so unprecedented, we don’t actually know how athletes will deal with it. The main thing is there are support structures in place for wherever an athlete is at, so they feel they’re not alone. And they feel they have support from both the NZOC and High Performance Sport NZ.

Sarah Cowley Ross. Photo: ASICS NZ

What about those athletes still trying to qualify for Tokyo?

Well that’s the majority of the New Zealand team. Only 12 athletes have been officially selected so far. The majority of the qualification policy may need to be rewritten as the international federations determine their own systems.

World Athletics have said anyone who's achieved the qualification mark, it will still apply next year. Right now, 53 percent of the entire quota fields have already been decided – like our hockey teams have sealed their Olympic spots, but the players are still contesting for places on the team. Now we face questions over the time frames and the qualification procedures. Postponing an Olympics is a logistical nightmare!

So communication with the athletes must be so important right now?

It’s part of our strategy to lead the athlete’s voice within the NZOC, so to find out what that is, we have to communicate with the athletes. Next week, we’re running an online athletes’ forum for all of our long-list athletes – it’s the first one – and it will give all the up-to-date information of where things are at.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the sporting world right now, so as information comes to hand, it’s a priority that athletes know. Because you need to be gripping on to those moments of certainty, and be as informed as possible. Every national sports organisation is under a lot of pressure right now, so we can help them filter the information to the athletes through different channels. Our Para athletes and our Winter Olympians will be involved too.

Do you enjoy governance?

I do. I think I’ve had service and community ingrained in me from my parents. Mum and Dad were on the school board of trustees and the PTA; they were the coaches and managers of our sports teams. Dad was a trustee of Sport Bay of Plenty and my mum is really involved in Zonta International. I enjoy people, so being able to be in a governance role is a privilege. And I get to work with like-minded people who want to make a difference, who are passionate about the world and the positive impact sport can have on individuals and communities. I also like learning from the talented people I work alongside.

Sarah Cowley Ross competes in the high jump at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images.

You came out of retirement to do triple jump this summer, at 36. And you finished second at the national track and field championships, behind an athlete half your age! What inspired you to come back?

I needed a goal. I got into triple jump because I’ve always liked jumping (she competed in the heptathlon at the 2012 Olympics, and high jump at the 2014 Commonwealth Games), and I didn’t want to do an event where I had high expectations. I tried triple jump at the World Masters in 2017 and I really enjoyed it. After [second child] Poppy was born, I’d kept fit and strong to cope with the demands of motherhood. Then with my husband’s encouragement, I started training seriously last year.

I like the feeling of exploring how far can you go. You’re over 30 with two kids, but that doesn’t mean you should just stay at home in the kitchen. It was empowering because I was competing against young women half my age. When I said I was just doing it socially, friends who are athletes would give me a nudge. (Olympic rower) Emma Twigg said to me ‘Don’t be silly, that’s not your gig.’ And it isn’t.

Will you carry on competing?

I’m still figuring out what I’ll do next. For me, the physical health is great, but it’s more about the mental health. I know I’m a better person for having trained and having a goal. One of the coolest things was that I got to work with Gus (her husband, strength and conditioning coach Angus Ross) again; he did all my programmes and coaching. I need to let my tendons heal a bit after bashing them all summer, but the temptation is there to do more. I really love athletics, and to do what you love makes you feel good.

It must help your new role that you can still relate to being an athlete?

It’s definitely nice to feel like an athlete again. And it’s a good check, because I had to go to the track and I was around the athletes, I was accessible to people, and open to people talking to me.

So what do you think is the biggest challenge facing our athletes right now?

The uncertainty of what’s to come - because it’s never happened before and athletes are so goal-focused. We know the finish-line is in 2021, but there’s still so much for every individual and team to go through before they can even get to the start-line. Some athletes are concerned about what will happen once they reach Tokyo. Will there be quarantine? Will there be a vaccine by then, and if so, will you have to have it to be allowed into the village or your field of play?

For some people, the postponement is going to be the best thing – like people who are injured now, or have family commitments. But for others, the delay will be heart-breaking.

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