Olympic gold medallist Polly Powrie is using what she learned as a professional sailor to help our top paddlers - while juggling life as a new mum, writes Sarah Cowley Ross of LockerRoom.
Two years after double Olympic medallist Polly Powrie decided it was time to draw the curtain on her sailing career, she’s back on the road with the some of the world’s finest athletes - but this time with a baby in tow.
Powrie is about to return to her job at Canoe Racing NZ, after taking maternity leave for her first child, daughter Katie, who was born in April.
She goes back to work just as the athletes she looks after – the likes of K4 World Cup champions Lisa Carrington, Kayla Imrie, Aimee Fisher and Caitlin Ryan - are preparing for the canoe sprint world championships in Szeged, Hungary.
In her role as high performance operations manager, Powrie will join the team in Szeged in August. Her partner, Chris Burgess, will be there with baby Katie, too.
Powrie’s job in Hungary will be to support the athletes, as a team manager. “I do a bit of everything, but essentially I get people from A to B off the water. Anything off the water, I have to figure it out,” says 31-year-old Powrie.
It’s been three years since Powrie finished her final Olympic campaign as one half of Team Jolly with sailing partner Jo Aleh - winning silver in the women’s 470 class at the 2016 Rio Games after they won gold at the London Olympics in 2012.
After retiring from competitive sailing, Powrie worked in the corporate world, putting her business degree to good use. But, after a year, she knew in her heart that she wanted to be working in sport.
“I was part of the athlete support team for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and being back in the Games environment really made me realise that there was something more purposeful about helping others in sport,” she says.
Not long after she returned from the Gold Coast Games, Powrie was snapped up for the newly-established role at Canoe Racing NZ, to oversee the high performance team logistics and manage the team at major championships.
The humble sailor says it’s been great to be back involved with athletes and their support staff, and to see how the engine behind the canoeing team works.
She’s found it fascinating comparing the demands of the two different water sports. Paddling is so much more of a “physiology dependent” sport than sailing.
“I’ve really learned so much about the physiological nature of canoe racing and how you really need to get that right. There’s just a short window [to do well] in their races, compared to some of the longer races and regattas in sailing,” she says.
“You still have to be strong and fit with yachting, and you have to have your equipment all sorted. But your ability to make the best decisions and react in a race is the key. You train in decision-making by exposing yourself to all sorts of different scenarios on a daily basis.”
Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie were second at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing.
For Powrie and Aleh, that ability to adapt to different environments quickly was critical to their successful partnership. After eight years together, their roles on the boat would change depending on the weather conditions.
“If it was really windy, Jo would pretty much have a fire hydrant in her face so I had to call the shots,” Powrie says.
Off the water, they had quite definite roles – Aleh took care of the gear on the boat, while Powrie was the logistics whizz, which has prepared her perfectly for her new career.
Growing up in a sailing family, Powrie says she was sailing “from day dot” and later learned her craft at the Kohimarama Sailing Club in Auckland.
Inspired by her older brother, Tom, an ocean sailor, and older sister Miranda, who was also a talented Olympic class sailor, Powrie says she’s hopeful that daughter Katie will also enjoy being on the water.
“I don’t think she’ll really have a choice as to going on the water. My partner is a sailor as well. We just hope she likes it,” she says.
Although you’d expect an Olympic gold to be the highlight of an athlete’s career, for Powrie it was actually the Olympic silver at Rio. “Because pretty much everything went wrong from the get go,” she says. The defending champions were disqualified from the first two races of the regatta and then valiantly fought their way back through the fleet to finish second.
“I’m happy retired now. I felt like I couldn’t give any more to a campaign after Rio,” Powrie says.
Powrie rates the silver won in Rio as her sailing highlight. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing.
The fact that Aleh and Powrie remain close friends is important to both sailors. Aleh is also living in Auckland, working as a sailing coach with New Zealand’s leading Nacra 17 Olympic class sailors, Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders.
Powrie remains active, enjoying mountain biking, the odd run and recreational sailing with her family. She’s also still connected to Yachting New Zealand as a member of the Olympic Commission.
It’s important to Powrie that her young family travels with her when she goes to the world championships in late August. Burgess, who works at NZ Trade and Enterprise, will take paternity leave to allow Powrie to fullfil her role.
“I’m really loving being a Mum. It’s full-on and challenging, but pretty cool,” she says.
“There are a lot of parallels between athlete life and being a mum – your days are pretty structured, disciplined, full-on and you’re tired all the time!”
To add to the mix, Powrie is part of the second cohort of the NZOC Women in Sport Leadership Academy, and recently attended the first of three workshops to be held over a two-year period.
Being part this group of female Olympians is pretty special.
“Even just being around 20 other female athletes was awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing where the course takes us all and personally continuing to develop myself,” she says.
For now, though, Powrie remains focused on family and work life, juggling the demands of helping others to hopefully achieve similar levels of success to her own - and raising a baby.
“It’s been a full change of pace for me since I retired - and particularly since Katie arrived. But it’s great,” Powrie says. “It’s an exciting time to be part of canoe racing heading into Tokyo, and I’m sure the team will do us proud.”