Hard work and dedication a winning combo for alumnus and Olympian

15 October 2021

Shaun Kirkham
Shaun Kirkham after winnning Olympic gold in the Rowing Men's Eight.

Fresh from winning an Olympic gold medal, Shaun Kirkham is using his experience as a professional athlete and his university learnings to teach and inspire others.

Shaun Kirkham is a current member of the New Zealand Rowing Men’s Eight, the same team that won gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He is also a recent graduate of a Bachelor of Communications at the University of Waikato and a former Sir Edmund Hillary scholar.

Shaun’s childhood dream was to go to the Olympics, he just hadn’t quite worked out how. It wasn’t until his older sister pushed him into rowing, that he realised it was the sport for him.

“Rowing isn’t a sport that’s based on hand-eye coordination or natural talent. It was more about your work ethic, commitment and discipline which is something I have always backed myself to be reasonably good at,” he says.

After finishing school at Hamilton Boys’ High School, Shaun choose to study at the University of Waikato.

“I needed to be able to study partly extramurally but I also valued being face-to-face with lecturers. Waikato offered that middle ground, and the support for athletes is unbelievable. They understand what an athlete goes through and the additional time commitments we have.”

Over the next few years, Shaun balanced his studies with the highs and lows of professional sport. The Hillary programme allowed him to rub shoulders with other high achieving scholars and helped him keep his sights set high. In 2013 and 2014 Shaun tasted success, becoming the Under-23 World Champion in the men’s eight. Shaun attended the 2016 Rio Olympics but when he didn’t win another pinnacle event after 2014, he began to question his commitment to the sport.

“It was a tough thing for me to struggle with for so long. Constantly competing at a high level but never placing where I wanted, never winning.”

With some reassurance from rowing great, and fellow Waikato alumnus Rob Waddell, Shaun stuck at it and was a constant crew member in the team for nine years.

Shaun’s road to Tokyo was also challenging; missing out on automatic qualification, flying out to Switzerland in the middle of a pandemic in a last-ditch attempt to qualify, quarantining in New Zealand only six weeks before the Olympics were due to start, and then the team losing their heat in Tokyo. In what seemed to be a series of unfortunate events, looking back Shaun believes they were all necessary to overcome for the team to win gold.

Since returning from Tokyo, Shaun has been putting his qualification to use. He has started up a range of businesses that combine his qualification with his passion for rowing, including travelling around New Zealand speaking at schools and businesses highlighting the importance of perseverance and team culture.

He has also established a digital marketing firm and in the coming month will begin to sell his own line of row suits. While he is concerned that all these projects might spill over and get on top of him, he believes that is the fun part of learning.

“Be bold. We have all of these things at our fingertips, all these resources and opportunities – we should make the most of them. There is no harm in pursuing something and failing, we can only learn from it and move on.”

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