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New Zealand Olympics star Grace Prendergast brings elite skills to Cambridge University Boat Club

Grace Prendergast is studying at Cambridge University. Picture: Keith Heppell
Grace Prendergast is studying at Cambridge University. Picture: Keith Heppell

Grace Prendergast is undoubtedly at the pinnacle of rowing.

An Olympic gold and silver medallist from this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, double world record holder and the highest-ranked female rower on the planet the last time the list was done in 2019.

While becoming Olympic champion may have been the ultimate dream, in that pursuit the New Zealander has also won five gold medals and two silvers at the senior world championships, and has been a national champion on 15 occasions.

It is a glittering set of achievements that would be the envy of any sportsperson, let alone rowers.

But for now, Prendergast has stepped away from life as a professional athlete to study an MPhil in planning, growth and regeneration at Queens’ College.

Throughout a rowing career that began as an alternate to netball during the winter months in her homeland but quickly progressed to victory at the World Junior Rowing Championships in the four in 2010, there has always been an educational undercurrent.

The 29-year-old did a bachelor of business studies and a masters of business studies in New Zealand, and while her new course is a slight veer-off, it retains the business aspect _ and it brings a return to the student mindset.

“It is quite different,” she says. “Here study is the priority whereas I was always studying part-time in New Zealand – I was rowing full-time, studying part-time, whereas it is flipped over here.

“It takes a bit of getting used to again. My other thing is that I always did my studies by distance in New Zealand because we would come over to Europe for three months a year, so it was too hard to actually go to the university.

“This is my first time on a campus as well so getting into the whole university scene is quite different but I’m absolutely loving it so far.”

Prendergast seems to have settled with relative ease to life at Goldie Boathouse and trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club for the Boat Race.

But although the prerequisite bike was obtained on arrival in the city, navigating the different demands of studies and rowing with CUBC, and how things are done, has been eye-opening and a juggling act.

In the past, living in Cambridge in New Zealand close to the national squad’s training headquarters, it was a simple five-minute drive each morning. That is no longer the case.

“It’s quite a process here,” she explains, “where you’ve got to do a 10-minute bike, 15-minute train and a little bus ride at the end. It’s quite different and I think the schedule of the whole thing is taking a lot of getting used to.

“There is not a minute to waste in the mornings, people have got to be back for 9am lectures.

“I was rowing full-time so we could stand around talking about the session for hours, and no-one had anywhere else to be.”

There is a real breadth to the Light Blues squad, with a vast array of ages, experiences and rowing backgrounds.

It means that, having come from the national set-up, getting used to the squad dynamics has been interesting for Prendergast.

“The range is a lot bigger in experience. People have been rowing for two years whereas I’m used to rowing with people that have done it since 2015,” she says.

“It’s quite a cool, different environment and I think it makes you go back to what it was like.

“It’s a different sort of challenge which is nice and I guess that I’m also used to rowing with people where all of our No 1 priority is rowing whereas here people are studying full-time and doing extra-curricular activities and then adding in the rowing on top of that.”

The focus to which Prendergast refers has definitely reaped its rewards.

After rowing in the eight at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where New Zealand finished fourth, in tandem with Kerri Gowler they started to dominate the global stage.

They set a world best time to win the women’s pairs at the world championships in 2017, and then won the title again in 2019. They were also part of the first New Zealand crew to win the women’s eights’ crown.

It reached its pinnacle this summer in Tokyo, where Prendergast and Gowler won gold in the women’s pair and silver as part of the Kiwi eight.

There is an accompanying story to that success which shows that anything is possible. Prendergast has scoliosis, which is a sideways curvature of the spine, and you have to consider that in the context of how gruelling rowing is physically on the body.

Grace Prendergast is studying at Cambridge University. Picture: Keith Heppell
Grace Prendergast is studying at Cambridge University. Picture: Keith Heppell

“It’s all about managing it and working with the right people,” she explains.

“I know with my physio we would do checks every so often to see if it was staying the same curvature or if it was getting worse.

“I’ve been lucky in that sense that I’ve had a lot of people help me. I think it was interesting after the Olympics how many people reached out saying ‘I’ve got it, and do you find this, or does it help with that?’.

“Throughout my career, my doctor often comes to me and says ‘I’ve had this young kid come in, do you mind if I tell them about you?’, which is quite cool.

“It’s been something to manage along the way, but I don’t think it’s hindered me.”

The successes that Prendergast has had on the water are a great example to both aspiring sports stars and any youngsters that may also have scoliosis.

She admits that there have been obstacles that have needed to be overcome, but that is exactly what has been done.

“It does impact me in what I can do, but then not in my ability to do it,” explains Prendergast.

“I will be forever a bow-sider, I will never row stroke side.

“I don’t know if this contributes to it, but I’m pretty bad in the gym. The imbalance and that sort of stuff naturally hinders me probably in the gym, and a little bit on the erg as well.

“In New Zealand, we don’t really erg a lot and when we went into lockdown I soon learned that it’s just such a symmetrical movement that I can’t do symmetrically so it just didn’t work for me.

“I had to alter that training and I can’t spend too much time on the erg. It changes little things but then I think now I’ve found bow-side works really well for me, I don’t think it hinders me in life specifically.”

You can understand that given the feats at the Olympics.

Having had to wait an extra year after the Games were postponed because of the Covid pandemic, Prendergast seized on her chance to shine, but it is fair to say that it was all a bit of a blur.

“When you are living the whirlwind it is really hard to actually truly understand what is going on,” says Prendergast.

“I think it seems like a bit of a dream which I think will just continue on like that.

“It’s hard to think back over the last year and a half, two years. No-one could have predicted the build-up, but here we are and that’s how my Olympic journey went.”

There was time to reflect on the achievements as Prendergast had to go into a mandatory two-week isolation in a hotel room on her return to New Zealand from Tokyo.

“I was out for a day and then New Zealand went into lockdown so I was literally just at my house with my family,” she explains.

“I missed the excitement and hype around it, and then you get here and people are so excited about it.

“It’s slowly starting to sink in. I guess it’s hard because normally I’m surrounded by people doing similar things to me. I guess when you come here people put it in perspective.”

But the success has still taken a bit of getting used to, especially when Prendergast looks back nine years ago to the 2012 Olympics.

“I remember being at high school and watching Joe (Sullivan) and Nathan (Cohen), our men’s double win gold in London, and it looked like this fairytale moment to me,” she adds.

“Now when I’ve gone and done it, it feels so different. I think that’s because your goal slowly becomes more and more realistic in your mind –it is a possibility, so I came to terms that it was what I wanted to be able to do.

“It was a really strong sense of satisfaction. It’s hard to believe that I’ve done what I watched them do – it is a bit surreal.”

Now that inspiration will be passed on to members of the Cambridge University squad.

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