Oct. 1, 2013
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Separated by more than 8,100 miles, the city of Louisville and the south pacific nation of New Zealand would appear to be worlds apart at first glance. And with a commercial flight from the Derby City to the capital city of Auckland in northern New Zealand requiring anywhere from 22 to 40 hours including at least two stops, the two locales can certainly feel worlds apart as well.
However, those two worlds have become closely meshed within the University of Louisville rowing program thanks to the impact both on and off the water of the Cardinals' energetic quintet of Kiwis on this year's roster. Since the initial arrival of senior Morgan Dunham and the continued impact of fellow seniors Sam Sinnett and Andrea Zorn and sophomores Lucy Wilshier and Ashleigh Hodge, the influence within the Louisville team of the Cardinals' Kiwi Five has been nothing short of special.
As the first of the Kiwi imports to make the journey to Louisville, Dunham was following a desire to further her education and continue her rowing career in the United States when she arrived in the fall of 2010 from Te Puke, New Zealand. And as fate would have it, her decision would serve as the trail blazing choice for her future teammates.
"I wanted to move to the United States so I started contacting some top 20 rowing programs through email. The coaches at Louisville sent me cards and kept in touch throughout the process, which I really appreciated it," she explained. "I never actually visited Louisville before traveling here for my freshman year. My dad came here because he had business in America and he managed to get a flight to Louisville as well. I trusted him and what he said about Louisville while also using Google to find as much information as I could about the school and city."
Upon arriving in Louisville to begin her collegiate experience, Dunham faced the same anxiety and apprehension many teenagers feel when leaving home for the first time. However, despite being so far from her family and childhood friends, she adapted quickly to her new home away from home.
"When I first got here, I was really nervous and scared. But, after I met the other freshmen and the rest of the team, I forgot why I was stressed and what I was worried about because it was very comfortable," said Dunham.
Less than five months after being the first Kiwi on the Cardinals' roster, Dunham was joined by Sinnett, a native of Kihikihi, New Zealand, and Zorn, who hails from Hamilton, in January 2011. Though she had only been in Louisville for one semester, Dunham's happiness with her decision to attend UofL left a very positive impression on both Sinnett and Zorn.
"We talked to Morgan through Skype and she told us how much she loved it," said Zorn. "I had also talked to Louisville while in New Zealand so hearing about her experience helped me make the decision to move. With the team, it was so easy because it's just like a big family. I came here and I felt like I immediately had 30 sisters. It was really easy to connect with everyone and that helped with the move."
Despite the connection within the team, the adjustment to life in a new country was difficult at first for both Sinnett and Zorn. Having arrived in January, both student-athletes felt slightly overwhelmed by the change in culture and lifestyle. However, the atmosphere within the rowing program made the transition slightly easier to manage for both.
"It was a challenge adjusting to school and trying to become familiar with a new place at first, but it wasn't so bad with the team," said Sinnett. "Morgan had already acclimated the team to our background and even our accents so that was a tremendous help for us."
The fourth member of the Kiwi Five to arrive in Louisville was Wilshier, who joined the Cardinals in the fall of 2011 from her hometown of Otorohanga. Unlike the previous three newcomers, Wilshier had been to the United States to compete with her high school rowing team at the prestigious Head of the Charles regatta in Boston before committing to UofL. It was during a visit to Boston in 2010 that Wilshier met Louisville head coach Derek Copeland, who was serving as an assistant with the Cardinals at the time. Prior to her visit to the Head of the Charles, Wilshier had never seriously considered attending college in America but that quickly changed after her meeting with Copeland and subsequent interactions with the other Cardinal Kiwis.
"I knew there were some New Zealanders on the team at Louisville, but I had never actually talked to them before that," said Wilshier. "I eventually talked to Morgan and she told me all about life here. Because I never got to take an official visit, it was like I was coming here blind. Most of my worries were `what I am I getting myself into' and `what if I don't like it there.' But after getting here, everything went so smoothly that I forgot why I was ever worried."
Having three other Kiwis arrive ahead of her helped make the transition easier for Wilshier. She quickly adapted to the new culture and was immediately surrounded by people who embraced her.
Soon after Wilshier's arrival, Hodge became the last of the Kiwis to join the Louisville rowing program doing so only a few months later. After initially passing on the chance to journey to the United States and attend UofL, Hodge had a change of heart and decided to leave her hometown of Hamilton for the Derby City after communicating with Copeland and Dunham.
"Derek and Morgan had been talking to me for a couple of years and I was rowing back home but didn't feel the desire to make the move," Hodge explained. "Then, instead of asking me if I wanted to come to Louisville, Morgan asked me if I knew when I wanted to come to Louisville and I told her I'd be there later in the year. It just felt like the right time and fate. It happened very fast."
While each of the Cardinal Kiwis took a step of faith in leaving home for Louisville, they also credit New Zealander Janey Wackrow for showing the way to America for young Kiwi rowers. Currently serving as the director of rowing at St. Peter's Cambridge, Wackrow previously coached rowing at Washington State University before returning to her home nation to teach and promote the sport.
"Janey was the one who first setup the idea of going to America to row for most of us," explained Sinnett. "Otherwise, we would never have known about it. She was happy for us in our decisions to row in the US and to attend school here."
The choice to leave New Zealand and attend the University of Louisville was a big one for each of the five Kiwis. And it was a choice that led each of them to the right place at the right time in their academic and rowing careers.
"I don't regret anything about my decision to come here. The competition and the opportunity to travel around America has been so much fun," said Zorn. "There's so much healthy competition within our team and every practice is exciting because we're focusing on making everyone on the team better."
That competition on and off the water has translated to high expectations for the team in 2013-14. With an automatic berth to the NCAA Championship awaiting the champions of the American Athletic Conference, the Cardinals have arguably the best chance in school history to compete for a national title in the spring.
"We've already started this fall with a bang and I think we're only going to continue to improve," said Dunham. "We're months ahead of where we were last year and I can't wait to see where we will be at the end of the season. It's going to be exciting."
The Kiwi Five and the rest of the Louisville rowing team will return to action on Saturday at the annual Red & Black Regatta on the Ohio River in downtown Louisville. The event is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m., ET at the G. Garvin Brown III Rowing Center off River Road and everyone is invited to the free event.