* In an incredible Olympic hour for NZ rowing, the women’s eight have won silver in Tokyo. Read about two sisters part of their success.
New Zealand’s Olympic women’s rowing eight boasts two pairs of sisters. But the Spoors sisters tell Sarah Cowley Ross they never dreamed they’d go to Tokyo together.
It wasn’t until earlier this year sisters Lucy and Phoebe Spoors even imagined they might row together at an Olympic Games.
In the past, if they’d ever thought about the Olympics, it was their other sister, Grace – Phoebe’s twin – that they pictured would go with Lucy, the eldest of the trio.
“I remember thinking when we were younger, Grace just wants it more than me,” Phoebe says.
But Grace pursued a career off the water, and Phoebe – who’d once disliked rowing – was then inspired to be like her big sister. So for this combination of Spoors siblings to be in the same team – let alone the same event – making their Olympic debut together is an extra special feeling, they say.
The Spoors are part of the sweep squad for the women’s rowing eight, the reigning world champions and gold medal favourites in Tokyo.
They’re one of two sets of sisters in the eights squad of 10, along with Kerri and Jackie Gowler. And it’s why, they say, the crew have a special relationship.
“The whole group genuinely cares for each other. We’re a wider group of sisters,” Lucy Spoors says.
Having grown up in Christchurch, Lucy and Phoebe Spoors share a house in Cambridge, and train with the rest of the national rowing squad on Lake Karapiro.
Rowing has brought the siblings, who are three years apart, closer together. And although it was initially Lucy who inspired her younger sister to strive to make the New Zealand team, they now support each other and drive each other to be better.
(Above: Lucy, left, and Phoebe Spoors receive their Olympic silver fern on being named in the rowing team for Tokyo).
Spending so much time together every day – on the water or at home – means there’s inevitably some friction, but the sisters are not happy to sit in tension.
“We never let things get to a huge boiling point because we’re not happy to let things stay in that space for more than half a day,” Phoebe, 27, says.
“If there are any issues that are hard to talk about, then the easiest person to talk about it with is your sister.”
And they say that ability to connect as sisters, and the love they have for each other, helps the entire boat.
“Communicating is easy for us as sisters – we see this as our asset. It’s an asset that the wider group get to share as well,” Phoebe says.
Although they share a unique bond, their paths to the Tokyo Olympics have been quite different.
Lucy was a keen basketball and netball player at Christchurch Girls High School, who discovered rowing after a suggestion from the school’s sports coordinator.
“I loved it from the first go,” says the linguistics graduate. “I had the immediate dream of going to the Olympic Games.”
After making the New Zealand junior team in Year 12, Lucy won a scholarship at St Peters’ College in Cambridge for her final year at school.
That year she was part of the four who won the 2008 world junior championships in Linz, Austria. She made her elite women’s international debut at the 2010 world champs on Lake Karapiro.
In contrast, when Phoebe first hopped in a boat, she wanted to hop straight out.
“I remember thinking ‘there’s no way in hell I’m doing this again. I can’t believe I’ve got roped into this – it’s way too hard’,” says Phoebe, who’d go to watch her big sister at regattas where their mother was often the regatta manager.
But she stuck with it, and she and twin Grace rowed at Maadi Cup together. Grace made the national junior team at high school, and then took up a scholarship at the University of Washington.
Phoebe initially missed out on an American college scholarship – admitting “she wasn’t good enough” and needed to spend a year getting in better shape. She eventually joined Grace at college in Seattle.
At the end of their schooling, Grace, who’d won a world junior bronze in the four in 2011, decided to finish rowing and concentrate on her career. She now lives with her American fiancé in New England, selling medical products.
There was a switch in Phoebe’s mindset towards the end of her time in the States when she realised she could also row for New Zealand – feeling empowered by Lucy’s success back at home.
Phoebe found she was closing the gap between them physically and began to think: “If she can do it maybe I can, too.”
After completing her political science and communications degree, Phoebe returned to New Zealand in 2017 and making the national rowing summer squad, and the following year she raced at the world championships in the elite women’s four.
Being around Lucy, by then a ‘well-established’ rower, accelerated her learning curve.
“Until that point, Lucy had lived away from home since Year 13, so we had only really seen each other at Christmas and for a short summer break each year,” says Phoebe.
“So in a way, rowing has brought us back together, even closer.”
Describing each other’s strengths as rowers, Lucy says Phoebe is really calm under pressure. And her little sister doesn’t realise how strong she is.
“She has more raw power than I have,” she says.
Mentally they’re quite different, Phoebe says. “Lucy’s fiercely competitive, and has a real sense of determination and experience to back that fierceness up.”
The sisters live with Lucy’s partner Brook Robertson and Olivia Loe – rowers who are both Tokyo-bound in the men’s pair and women’s quad respectively.
The Spoors love being able to debrief at the end of day, constantly checking in with each other.
“It’s so nice just to be able to ask each other: ‘Is this worth worrying about?’” says Lucy, 30. “Most of the time it’s the other one saying to you ‘You don’t need to worry about that, who cares!’”
Virginia Spoors, mother to the champion rowers, says all three of her daughters are very close. She reflects on how unique it is for Phoebe and Lucy to be in a position that not many sportspeople ever get to experience.
“Their relationship is based on honesty,” says the proud mum. “They’re lucky to have each other and Phoebe really grateful to have had the insights from Lucy coming into the programme.
“They may be sisters but it’s how they fit into the team dynamic that counts.”
Lucy narrowly missed out on going to the Rio Olympics five years ago – her quad crew fell short by three seconds at the final qualifying regatta.
After that, she switched from sculling to sweep oar rowing, and was part of the eights crew who made history winning the world title in 2019.
As the current world champions – with no competition for nearly two years – Lucy knows they have a target on their backs.
“But I’m confident that we’re much better than 2019. We’ve put in a lot of hard work and I do feel prepared,” she says.
Two years ago, Phoebe was in the women’s quad crew on the World Cup circuit. “I’ve come in and out of the [eights] boat as a reserve over the last few years,” she says. “But as a group we’ve been training really hard together for three years.”
The tight-knit sweep squad have remained largely unchanged over that time. When the boat is at its best, they say it’s like a calm, connected unit.
The Spoors family, including Grace, had planned to be in Tokyo cheering the sisters on – before Covid changed everything. So instead they will be supporting from New Zealand’s Olympic HQ at The Cloud in Auckland with other parents of the women’s eight.
The ability to share the highs and lows of sport as well as help each other achieve their goals is something that the Spoors sisters don’t take for granted.
“We’re incredibly grateful to do this together,” says Phoebe.
Adds Lucy: “To be able to finally say: ‘I’m an Olympian’ is a way of representing how long a journey it’s been for me and how much work we’ve done.
“It feels like the pinnacle.”
* New Zealand’s Olympic rowing campaign starts on Friday morning at 11am, live on Sky Sport 3; the women’s eight have their heat at midday on Sunday, on Sky Sport 6.