A 14-year journey that propelled her to the top of the world has ended for Marlborough rower Sophie Mackenzie.
The 28-year-old double world champion announced last week that she had decided to retire from the sport which took her many times around the globe, including a trip to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Marlborough Sportsperson of the Year in 2014 and 2015, Sophie is one of this province’s most decorated rowers.
Growing up on a Waihopai Valley farm, Sophie attended Marlborough Girls’ College, quickly becoming immersed in their rowing programme. Success at schools level soon earned her national recognition, where she teamed up with fellow Marlburian Georgia Hammond. The dynamic lightweight double represented New Zealand at both under-21 and under-23 level, winning a bronze medal in Lithuania in 2012.
The following year she was back at the under-23 worlds, this time alongside Lisa Owen in Austria, but again they had to settle for bronze.
However, showing the determination that has characterised her career, Sophie went back for a third shot at world domination. In Italy, during the summer of 2014, she teamed up with Nelson’s Zoe McBride and the top of the south combination made it to the uppermost step of the podium.
But her golden summer of 2014 was not finished. In a bold move, the NZ selectors opted to put her alongside Rotorua’s Julia Edward in the lightweight double at the elite world champs in Amsterdam. Despite having only five weeks of training together, they stunned the rowing fraternity by claiming gold, then underlined their world champion pedigree by repeating the dose a year later in France.
Thus, they were among the favoured crews heading for the Rio Games where they finished agonisingly short of a medal, coming fourth in the A final.
After Rio, Sophie decided to take break from the sport she had based her life around since school days.
Her naming in the 2018-19 Summer Squad marked a comeback and she was subsequently named in the NZ elite squad in 2019.
However, as Sophie explains, her return to the sport has been far from smooth, prompting her decision to move on with her life.
“I have dedicated 14 years to the sport through high school, RPC, under-23s and elites, had a minor break after Rio and a particularly bumpy ‘comeback’ these past two years – with nine injuries in 12 months – then ‘turned’ heavyweight … I have achieved some big highs, but also at times I’ve had some very low lows.”
She made the call to end her rowing career last week, while still training with the NZ elite squad at Karapiro.
“We just had four weeks off and in that time I didn’t think about rowing much at all.
“Lockdown wasn’t much fun because before that I had missed selection and [the selectors] told me my erg score wasn’t good enough … which meant I had to sit on an erg for eight weeks at home beating myself up. That took away part of my joy at being involved.
“So, I went into the break not feeling that great about rowing, but came back and just tried to keep a neutral head.
“However, when I was rowing all I could think about was retiring and how I would do it. Before I went to bed on Tuesday I said to myself, ‘if you wake up tomorrow and decide to go to training that’s cool, but if you wake up and are not looking forward to it you should probably stop Soph … because you are just kidding yourself now.
“Then I woke up on Wednesday and it was raining and I was just like, oh screw this, my hands are sore and I didn’t feel like going out and pushing really hard.
“I am pretty much at peace with my decision and very happy.”
She immediately informed the rowing hierarchy who were “very supportive” of her decision. “They were great,” said Sophie. “They acknowledged everything that I had done which was really cool.”
Asked to pinpoint the high point of her career, Sophie’s mind goes back to 2014.
“At the start of that season I couldn’t have envisioned things going how they did. It was just phenomenal to win the 23s, which I had been dying to win for three years, with Zoe. That was also the start of her wonderful career and it was great to be there with her at the start.
“And then going on to win the [elite] world champs with Julia and set the world’s fastest time … that was the ultimate.”
Along with the highlights there have been a few low points, including her 2019 campaign, when she was selected into the NZ lightweight single to compete in Europe, but was injured then joined the squad late. However, her injury never fully recovered and she asked to be sent home, straight into three months of rehab. She was then asked to try out for the heavyweight quad, which she did, but again missed selection.
“It felt like I never came back properly because I never got to compete on the world stage again, that still grates me a little bit.”
However, Sophie has no axe to grind, having got so much out of a sport she fell in love with while still a schoolgirl and which has repaid her hard work in spades.
“When I got into the rowing boat after a break I just couldn’t stop smiling. I loved rowing itself and the environment … pushing myself and helping team mates. I kept coming back because I genuinely enjoyed the sport, the feeling of training hard and being fit.
“The winning just makes it more rewarding.”
She leaves with no regrets, her trials and tribulations over the past two years making her realise how good the previous four years were.
“I would do it all again, definitely. Being able to travel the world and help my parents travel the world has been very cool.”
Along the way she has been constantly thrilled by the on-going support of the Marlborough community.
“It’s quite overwhelming … you don’t see it when you are slogging away at training or overseas, but when people say they have really enjoyed following your career it’s pretty humbling.
“I am so grateful for the support throughout of my family, friends, coaches, teammates and the entire Marlborough community. Thank you so much for supporting me, cheering for me and literally helping to fund my way towards reaching my goals which I would have never thought possible.
“It means so much that I’ve been able to go on this crazy competitive, all-consuming rowing journey.
“Now I’m super excited and happy for the next chapter of life and getting my nutrition career off the ground.”