The youngest in a talented rowing family, Ashburton teen Isabel Wall is making her own mark in the sport, competing in both para and able-bodied competition
When the Walls go rowing, it’s a family affair.
Take the recent national championships at Lake Ruataniwha.
There they were, part of one of the smallest club contingents perched in a tent near the start line of the 2000m course set in stunning scenery near Twizel.
Dad Justin Wall was there, and if he hadn’t been there might have been a problem. He has for many years been the chief starter at most regattas in the South Island, and filled that role at the nationals.
His wife Charlotte Cox, a former New Zealand cycling champion, was paired up with their 15-year-old daughter, Isabel, in the intermediate double representing the Ashburton club. The Walls’ son, Ged (18), won two silver medals for the small, but high-achieving, Dunstan Arm club from Clyde.
The only member of the family missing was eldest daughter, Veronica. She had a good excuse.
One of New Zealand’s most promising young rowers, she’s in her third year of a four-year liberal arts degree at the prestigious Yale University in Connecticut.
She won 18 national titles before heading Stateside – winning every race she entered at the Maadi Cup national secondary schools champs over three years, and making history in 2016 as the first rower to win the national under 16, 17 and 18 titles in the single scull at the same regatta.
Isabel is a talented rower in her own right.
At last month’s nationals, she won the open para single scull in 4m 33.60s, was eighth in the final of the intermediate single scull, and narrowly missed a place in the intermediate double with her mother, finishing one spot out of the deciding race.
Yes, she rows in able bodied and para races, which takes both guts and skill.
Isabel Wall was a twin. She was born prematurely at 27 weeks, but her left leg quickly became ischemic – losing its blood supply. Her twin sister, Mary, survived only a week.
Isabel now uses what the family refer to as her ‘fake’ leg, which had to be custom made.
“It has a hinge you can hook and unhook. My right quad is super strong. If I had two quads like that, I’d be bloody amazing,” she laughs.
“But I’m pretty confident, just like the other girls.”
As Isabel puts it, she’s never known what having two legs is like so for her it’s not a big issue.
“Sometimes I use it to get out of doing things,” she says with a grin.
Taking up rowing at 13 at Ashburton College was really no surprise, with everyone else in the family involved.
“They’ve been round rowing their entire lives,” Charlotte Wall says of their children.
Indeed, Charlotte and Justin met at Lake Waihola in the early 1980s. He was her cycling coach when she was graduating to the national team, but he also coached the New Zealand junior and U21 rowing teams.
“Every single summer we’ve been coming to Ruataniwha and rowing. That’s pretty much all [the children] had really known,” Charlotte says.
Isabel recalls playing a couple of seasons of basketball, when her mum coached. “But apart from that I didn’t really do any sports. Coming to college I thought I needed to do sports,” she says.
“I’d always go out in the mornings when Veronica and Ged went out [rowing] and I’d ride my bike round the lake.
“I knew all the terms. I’d been down to Twizel a million times. I knew how to do it but hadn’t rowed hardcore.”
What was the appeal of the sport?
“It was something to tell people I do. If I said I played netball you could say that of any other girl in the class. But rowing is interesting, and you can stay fit,” Isabel says.
She intends to carry on rowing when she leaves college and should anyone feel like lending a sympathetic shoulder at her disability, don’t.
“As parents, she’s never been wrapped in cotton wool. Never. That would be a mistake,” Charlotte says.
Isabel has an artistic bent, is clearly intelligent and, you’d suspect in time won’t suffer fools. You wouldn’t be surprised if art, in some form, features in her future.
She recalls taking a shine to shooting at one point a couple of years ago. For various reasons, that got the short shrift from her parents. As Charlotte – a national points race and time trial road cycling champion and New Zealand representative in the mid-1990s – cryptically puts it, “that was never going to be a thing”.
“I was angry, proper angry for the first time [with her parents],” Isabel says with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
The whole family also cycles at the Tinwald cycling club, a few minutes south of Ashburton, where Charlotte is a doctor with a stack of degrees to her name, and Justin a dentist.
Isabel is clearly a full-of-beans type of personality.
“We consider Isabel as any other able-bodied athlete,” Charlotte says.
“There’s no way she can have that same strength in her leg drive as people with two legs. But we still think of her being like anybody else.
“We firstly considered her just like any of our kids. Then when you think about it, gosh it’s pretty amazing.”
They strike you as a pragmatic, down-to-earth family. Although just for a moment Charlotte drops her guard when reflecting on the days after the birth of Isabel and Mary.
And you can see why Isabel, for all she’s treated as even-handedly as her siblings, is just a bit special to her parents.
“Isabel almost didn’t survive,” Charlotte says. “She was in the neo-natal unit in Christchurch and we got a call at 3am that she wasn’t going to survive. The fact she lived – I don’t say miracles, but I just think it’s a wonderful thing to hold onto.
“I remember driving back from Christchurch and the neo natal unit and looking over the Southern Alps and the sunset, and having that feeling of wonderment, the wonderful mysteries of life.
“Sometimes we can lose that. We’d been through the death of a baby, the most horrible thing in the world, but still have the feeling that it’s a wonderful life.”
* A revised version of the 2022 NZ secondary school championships (Aon Maadi Cup) will be held at Lake Ruataniwha from March 28 – April 2.