Young rowers had the opportunity of a lifetime last week, thanks to closed borders and cancelled international competitions.

The Central Otago rowing development squad trained with the Rowing New Zealand winter squad on Lake Dunstan last week.

The winter squad, a combination of the NZ Under-23 squad and senior lightweight rowers were in the area as part of a South Island training tour.

The elite athletes spoke to pupils at Dunstan High School, sharing their experiences before taking to the water to train with the young rowers.

Dunstan Arm Rowing Club head coach Simon Smith said the opportunity to learn from the seasoned athletes and hear their journeys gave the younger athletes the confidence to push on to the next level.

“I think it’s huge. They’re great ambassadors for the sport. They are what a lot of these young athletes are trying to aspire to, so hearing their story, seeing they’re .. real people is just huge for them,” he said.

For Dunstan Arm rower Sophie Smith (16), the opportunity to train with the NZ rowers was a dream come true.

Smith already had a taste of competitive rowing, having represented Otago at the South Island interprovincial competition.

The chance to train with the elite athletes was an opportunity to learn about the professional side of the sport and improve her skills, she said.

Rowing NZ winter squad head coach Tom Stannard said the athletes would usually be rowing internationally but Covid had caused a different approach for 2021.

The 24-person tour was an opportunity to keep up their training, and importantly their mental motivation, as well as engage with the grassroots rowing community, Stannard said.

The squad trained on Lake Hayes earlier in the week before moving to Clyde and training with the Central Otago development squad.

“As much as the coaching team think it’s the dream sport, [rowing’s] a really tough one,” he said.

World champion lightweight rower Jackie Kiddle understood the mental challenges the sport presented.

Kiddle was a last-minute addition to the winter squad. She had been scheduled to compete at the Tokyo Olympics but her lightweight double sculls partner Zoe McBride retired from the sport four months ago.

Kiddle turned her focus to the World Championships, which were then cancelled.

“The Olympics has been a goal for a very long time and that’s now five years of training I didn’t get to put forward, but in saying that, I think there’s been a lot of positives come out of this,” she said.

“It’s definitely given me a bit more motivation coming down here, especially as the Olympics is on .. a bit more motivation to really get stuck into the next cycle.”