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Blast from the Past - Jamie Fitzgerald

  • 09 Mar 16

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Nelson Mandela

The Nelson Mandela quote seems fitting in describing the mindset of former New Zealand rower and modern-day adventurer Jamie Fitzgerald. Jamie is a driven individual keen to share his experience and learnings, having carved a career out of his adventures, depicting the adventures of explorers of the past in the television series First Crossings and Intrepid NZ, and running his business Inspiring Performance.

Jamie insists that he was not adventurous as a child despite growing up on a farm where he was “busy helping his parents out.” He stresses that he didn’t even consider himself very sporty and admits that at one point he was nicknamed ‘Jamie Fats-gerald.’ It wasn’t until he started rowing at high school, having followed his cousins into the sport, that he discovered his real drive, “I fell in love with rowing and that was the beginning of a transformation, of not just my body but the way I thought about goals and the way I thought about pursuing something I was passionate about.”

Following his time rowing for New Zealand first at the junior level and U23 level between 1996-2000 and later in the elite men’s four in 2001 Jamie was involved in rowing and The Great Race at the University of Waikato. Robbie Hamill, himself a Transatlantic rower, asked Jamie to join Kevin Biggar in the Transatlantic race with just a few weeks notice. “As it turned out, the rowing I’d done previously actually proved a real benefit because, whilst he trained his butt off… Kevin didn't come from the same sort of rowing background that I had. I brought the rowing technique side of it to the crew. Kevin was an expert at the systems because he’d built the boat.”

Jamie admits that while there were some scary moments being tossed around by enormous waves, agreeing to row across the Atlantic was the part that took the most courage, “I think the biggest challenge for most people is the point at which we put ourselves in the position to do it. It’s the saying “Yes” part.”

Jamie is proud of what he and Kevin achieved, working together and winning the race. “It also made me reflect on what I’d done previously in my rowing career that enabled me to jump into a boat and paddle across the ocean. From an intensity point of view, when you row across the ocean you have to keep going, you can't give up – but actually, there aren't any distractions; all you need to do is row, sleep and eat.”

While Jamie felt that rowing was something he knew well it was very different to the next challenge he and Kevin took on: an unaided trek to the South Pole, a feat that no Kiwi had achieved before. Despite having never skied cross-country before Jamie was excited and driven by the inspiration of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Antarctic trip. “I was frightened when I committed to walk to the South Pole because I’d never really been skiing before; I didn't know anything about the snow, or how to look after myself in the extreme cold.”

Jamie and Kevin completed the huge challenge after two years of meticulous planning and managed to develop strategies to overcome the adversity they faced over the course of their epic journey. “After 52 days and 1111 km of freezing temperatures, torn hamstrings, lost toe nails, rough ice and huge weight loss, I arrived at the South Pole with Kevin.” They succeeded against all odds in the huge task that they had set themselves in one of the most unforgiving environments on the planet.

In 2010 Jamie dreamed up yet another adventure ‘The Big Walk’, in which groups of New Zealand youth who were part of the Foundation for Youth Development (FYD) spend up to five days following around 100 km of Te Araroa - a 3,000 km trail that stretches the length of New Zealand. Inspired by hearing how one teen had no aspirations and limited know-how, Jamie was kicked into action. “One of the things I was inspired by with these

young kids when we did that trip was that I could really see a sense of pride among these young people once they saw what they were capable of.”

Together with the Graeme Dingle and the Foundation for Youth Development, two groups - one travelling from the north and one from the south - met in Wellington on 1 February 2010, where they walked the length of Lambton Quay together to be greeted at the Beehive by government officials. Campaign participants, ministers and CEOs spent the next two days discussing key learning and insights from The Big Walk with the aim of finding a way to combat negative youth statistics while adding sustainable value toward youth development in New Zealand.

Reflecting on his years rowing for New Zealand, Jamie has fond memories and is convinced that his time as an elite athlete has contributed to his success and enabled him to be successful in his current business. “I’m sure that I never would have been able to keep pursuing my goals had it not been for the lessons I’d learnt during my career in rowing.”

Jamie believes that the same principles that rowers of all levels learn in order to be successful are the same lessons that have helped him. “For example, not letting down your mates; going above and beyond for the person in front or behind you in your crew; the concept of resilience or even breaking goals down, in the same way that you do with 500’s in a race.”

Over the last few years Jamie has admired the achievements of the New Zealand Rowing team and reflects on the way that the sport has progressed since his time. “Looking back to when I was rowing in the late 90s and early 2000s, I fee like what I was doing was amateur compared to what the team is doing now… I massively admire the professionalism of the team.”

Jamie feels pride at having been part of Rowing New Zealand. “It’s great to be a very small part of that - one of the chapters of the Rowing New Zealand legacy. The thing I’m proud of is the brand, or what the Rowing New Zealand brand represents. A lot of people say that your brand is your reputation; it’s what other people say about you when you're out of the room. I think Rowing New Zealand set a pretty high standard and so it should feel good that people hold it in such high regard.”

Jamie has backed up this pride by teaming up with some friends and establishing a scholarship through the University of Waikato, called the Andrew Healey Memorial Scholarship, which is part of the Great Race. “We’re excited to be helping young athletes, whether they’re New Zealand rowers or not, they’re demonstrating the values that rowing can teach us for life. We’re keen to help young people with challenges that are preventing them from achieving their goals in rowing, or any other career they’re passionate about.”

Currently Jamie’s main focus is on his business, Inspiring Performance, which helps organisations with purpose, strategy and leadership development. Along with some keynote speaking about performance, and motivational talks about his adventures, Jamie has also worked closely with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. “We help exporters understand the value they create, where to play and how to win, and then how to take on or enter new markets. For any business, the leadership and culture is often a part of this conversation as well.” Jamie rates looking after the training and culture for the 7000 Rugby World Cup volunteers in 2011 as one of the highlights of his career, as they were full of enthusiasm, having put their hands up to be there.

He has delighted in watching the rise of rowing in New Zealand “There’s a phrase that I use quite a bit: ‘If you don't know what you stand for, you'll fall for anything.’ New Zealand Rowing has clarity about its principles and this helps them make decisions, whether it be for training or results.”

Looking forward Jamie wants to bring to life more stories like those of the trailblazing pioneers he depicted in the television show First Crossings and Intrepid NZ, but this time looking at other types of pioneers, such as war heroes, business people and sporting pioneers.

Jaime loves to push boundaries to see what he can achieve and he also enjoys encouraging others to do so. “When I reflect back on some of my own projects, when I got to the South Pole, I had this huge sense of satisfaction - not because of the achievement but because I had tried to find out what I was capable of. There was a sense of satisfaction knowing that I’d done something where there was actually a real chance that I might not have even made it.”


Twitter: @NZ_Jamie