When Brooke Francis and Lucy Spoors meet in the misty dawn on the banks of Lake Karapiro, their first words inevitably are: “How did you sleep?”

Their babies, Keira and Rupert, are exactly three months apart, but still at a stage where sleeping is a lottery – some nights you win, some nights you’re up five times. And then suddenly, it’s time to go rowing.

If the new mums get their timing right, the little ones often fall asleep to the whirring white noise of the rowing erg’s flywheel, as the athletes try to snatch a (rare) solid hour of training indoors.

Or you might spot the babies at the gym, being jiggled on the hips of Rowing New Zealand support staff, while their mums lift weights. They even wear their own tiny New Zealand team onesies.

But once Francis and Spoors slip into the water in their double scull, knowing their first-borns are being cared for, they can focus purely on their sport, ensuring their oar blades slice through the water in unison.

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Their concentration is on racing together for the first time next month at the World Cup in Lucerne, and then the world championships in September. And if that all works out, and they find synergy and speed in their skiff, their goal will move to rowing at the Paris Olympics next year.

“It’s a stroke of luck that we’ve ended up together,” says Spoors, who won Olympic silver in the women’s eight in Tokyo, and had son Rupert six months ago.

Rupert Robertson (left) and Keira Francis in their Rowing NZ team onesies. Photo: Rowing NZ.

Francis, mum of nine-month-old daughter Keira, also won Olympic silver but in the double scull.

“Brooke is a seasoned campaigner in the double, she knows the boat so well,” Spoors says. “But I’ve come into the sculling side after sweeping. I knew coming back from pregnancy it was always going to be a better decision for me to row a single and manage my own training, which is why I sculled during my pregnancy as well.

“For me the sculling switch has made sense, and I’m just chuffed it’s working out.”

Their new partnership isn’t confined to rowing, either.

“We’re both bouncing ideas off each other, trying to figure out motherhood together,” says Francis, nee Donoghue. “It’s really nice and it breaks up the pressure of rowing as well because there are other important things going on in our lives now.”

Like when Keira and Rupert cut their first teeth at the same time.

“Everyone is really excited to see the kids as well. It lifts the mood” – Brooke Francis.

It’s not only the rowing duo learning as they go. It’s the first time Rowing NZ has supported mum-athletes in their return to the top echelons of the sport.

“Rowing New Zealand having open ears is the most important thing at this point – like us, they’re still learning about it, too,” says Spoors.

The sport advised and paid for her to see a pelvic floor specialist: “It was amazing, and I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own; I didn’t realise the importance of it until post-birth.”

While more sportswomen are returning in motherhood, this is an “exciting first” for Rowing NZ, says their athlete wellbeing lead, Louise Storey.

“Motherhood should never be a barrier to participation in sport at the highest level and we’ve been happy to work with our mums to ensure they’re supported during this time. These two women have taught us a great deal throughout their pregnancies and beyond, and no doubt we’ll continue to learn,” she says.

“Being adaptable as a programme to get the right balance between training and parenthood will be a continuing conversation with all our athletes who are parents. As those of us with children can relate – there can be many curveballs thrown your way.”

Brooke Francis and Lucy Spoors last rowed together in 2016. Photo: Picture Show Ltd.

Francis says she appreciates the support of her sport alongside the daycare, family and friends she leans on to help with Keira.

“I’ve probably had to be more proactive with what I need and want, and it’s all been met with open ears. Things have been able to be figured out even when they’re harder, or not the norm,” she says.

“It’s not easy to step back into this space – there’s been a few more discussions. But the stubbornness in me probably would have made things happen, so it’s been very nice not to have to push things too hard, that we have been listened to.”

And it appears to have a positive flow-on effect on other rowers in the elite programme, too. “Everyone is really excited to see the kids as well. It lifts the mood,” Francis says. “Sometimes you can get into a training block and feel tired and grumpy, but as soon as someone sees a baby, it’s hard not to smile.” As if on cue, Keira coos and grins.

Spoors is also grateful she has Francis to follow in their ‘mum-back’. 

“We probably don’t realise how much we discuss. The nuances of babies – teething and sleeping,” she says. “Watching Brooke row at nationals gave me the confidence to get stuck into it, and that I might be all right.”

Francis, in turn, has been taking advice from Olympic champion single sculler Twigg – whose son Tommy, with wife Charlotte, turned one in April. He tagged along to last year’s world champs, where Twigg won silver.

“There were a couple of things she said to me, and they didn’t register at the time,” Francis says. “A couple of months later we’ll be going through things and it’s like, ‘Oh, so that’s what Emma meant!’

“We’re lucky in women’s sport in New Zealand we’ve had the likes of Gemma McCaw and Dame Val Adams leading the way in returning as mums.”

Lucy Spoors, at 17 weeks pregnant, racing the Royal Henley Regatta in England. Photo: supplied. 

Francis took a year off rowing while she was pregnant but endeavoured to stay fit.

“In the back of my mind I didn’t know how having a baby would go. I knew if she needed my full attention, she was going to get it,” she says.

“But after having a happy, healthy baby, I still had an itch to scratch with rowing. So I got back into it five weeks after she was born. It was learning to juggle getting on an erg with a baby that only sleeps for 10 or 15 minutes, then leaning on family to help get the other training sessions in.”

She made her return at the nationals on Lake Ruataniwha in February, taking Keira to Twizel.

“I probably surprised myself, and I felt like I improved every day,” she says. “Having that year away then coming back, I felt I had a whole different perspective on things.

“I definitely don’t take anything for granted now, and I know what we do for a job is pretty special.”

Spoors had her first race in the Rowing NZ winter series last month. “It was a bit of a shock on the lungs, but it was just nice to be back out there and know I’m capable of doing that again,” she says.

She was still rowing competitively 17 weeks into her pregnancy and paired up with Twigg to race in the double scull at the World Cup in Lucerne last year, but Twigg got Covid.

The physical side of Spoors’ return hasn’t been an issue. “It’s the balance – the juggle. I used to do a hard week and go home and sit down. That’s not the reality anymore,” she says.

There have been times when she’s been in a tag team – waiting for her husband, Olympic rower Brook Robertson, to return from training so she can hand over Rupert and head out the door. “Any moment you get, you’ve got to use it, so I’m going hard,” Spoors laughs.

“Sleeping has been a noticeable difference for me, but it’s getting better. I’ve surprised myself, though; some weeks I need less sleep. I wake up after a terrible night and go rowing and it’s all right.”

Brooke Francis and Lucy Spoors will take their babies to the rowing worlds in Belgrade. Photo: Rowing NZ. 

Spoors is leaving Rupert at home with Robertson when she heads to this World Cup – he has a back injury, so is out of the New Zealand team. Grandparents will help too.

But Francis is taking her daughter with her. Her parents are already in Europe, supporting her sister, Melissa Donoghue, who’s been swimming at the Virtus Global Games for athletes with intellectual impairment (she made the finals in her freestyle events in France). They’ll look after Keira while Francis races and trains.

Francis and Spoors will come home after the World Cup, before heading to Belgrade for the world championships in September.  “Both Ru and Keira will come over with us for the world champs, and our parents will come too… grandparents are definitely a lifesaver,” Francis says.

This isn’t the first time Spoors and Francis have rowed together. Back in 2016, they were in a New Zealand quad trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. “We just missed out,” Spoors says. “In a way I feel like Brooke and I have had one of our greatest disappointments together.

“We’re a new combination, really, and we’ve only been together a couple of weeks. For us it’s about getting over [to the World Cup], putting our best foot forward and seeing where we line up, where the rest of the world is. But it’s also seeing what our bodies are capable of now.”

Francis reckons the two former world champions still have high expectations to do well on the international stage again: “We have time to run at it as well.”

At the world championships, they’ll be gunning to qualify New Zealand for a spot on the Paris startline next year. They don’t want a repeat of 2016, when they narrowly missed Olympic entry at the final qualification regatta (which was Donoghue’s first elite rowing event, too).

They see no reason why being a new parent will hinder their progress, and hope other female rowers will follow their lead.

“I hope in the future, it’s done again,” Spoors says. “I’m definitely enjoying being a mother, and enjoying that I can still have an athlete life.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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