Just over a year ago, she was aiming for the Tokyo Olympics. She’d been a member of the New Zealand elite rowing team, competing at the World Rowing Championships. But her Olympic dreams were dashed when she wasn’t selected for the elite squad at the beginning of 2019.
Ellie left the sport feeling despondent. “It was hard. I felt like my life had ended. I didn’t know what to do.”
She moved to Wellington to take up an internship at Z Energy. Initially she found it challenging to be out of the prescriptive high performance environment.
“I had to learn to think for myself and look after myself. Nothing was mapped out anymore. No one cared what I did and I didn’t really know anyone. I felt well out of place.”
After a couple of months of wondering whether she had made the right decision to leave the sport, she decided she’d had enough of dwelling on what could have been.
“I had to put my energy into something else and let the rowing go.”
She completed her business studies degree and did a DJ training course courtesy of her HPSNZ Prime Minister’s Scholarship. Before long she had made it into a DJ agency and was regularly playing at events, bars and gigs around Wellington. Her internship at Z Energy turned into a full-time job.
“Once I really dived into everything else going on in my life, there was no room to dwell on what could have been.”
Ellie reports that she is “stoked” about where everything is going. “It buzzes me out heaps when I look back at how sad, scared and lost I was when rowing turned to custard. But I’m so glad it happened because I learnt that I can turn hard situations into other opportunities.”
Ellie says she learned a great deal during her rowing career and from the experience of moving on from rowing. She credits her relatively smooth transition out of sport to a number of factors.
Ellie says: “I’m really pleased I always prioritised relationships with people in and out of sport. It can be tempting to forget about the rest of your life and put all of your focus into sport. But it helped when I stopped training that my whole network wasn’t just in rowing. It wasn’t always easy to keep up relationships with friends outside of sport, but it paid off in the long run.”
“I’ve realised it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. People don’t really care what you do. That could be forgotten. What sticks is being a good person – kind, fun and happy.”
“Rather than focusing on what I didn’t achieve, I focused on what I got out of the whole experience: all the people, travelling experiences and life learnings. Not everyone gets to have that. I’m really proud to have been part of a high performance team that achieved great things together and to have mingled with incredible athletes.”
“The thing I hope that every athlete that doesn’t reach their athletic goals finds out is that it’s ok not to get those goals, you can let them go. And when you do, other goals appear and you often smash them because you take what you learn from sport and it literally applies everywhere.”
Ellie is quick to acknowledge her Athlete Life Adviser Tina Ryan and the broad support she received from HPSNZ. “Tina was awesome. She gave me so much support, and helped me consider all of my options.”
In her new life, Ellie has already met with success. She’s been promoted to ‘Scrum Master’ at work, where she also won a ‘Hero Award’ for her services to integrating Te Reo Maori into the workplace. She wants other athletes to know that life goes on after sport.
“It is definitely possible to turn a negative experience into a positive one,” she says.
Retirement is one of the inevitable transitions that athletes face during the course of their sporting careers, but for some – like Ellie – this will not necessarily be their choice or occur when all their goals have been accomplished.
The HPSNZ Athlete Life team believe it is incredibly important for athletes to prioritise their personal development alongside their sporting goals, regardless what stage of their sporting career they are at.
“The effort Ellie made to maintain her support networks, work towards her degree and foster an identity outside of rowing, whilst still a part of the elite rowing programme were crucial to ensuring she was able to adapt and refocus when this career ended,” Tina Ryan says.
Athlete Life Manager Chris Arthur adds: “No matter how well prepared athletes are for a transition, it is normal for there to be a significant adjustment. The key to being able to move on without becoming too stuck in disappointment is preparation and planning.”