Sally Wylaars was into netball before giving rowing a go at the end of Year 9 at Avonside Girls’ High School. “I joined the rowing club because I had family who had done it in the past and that encouraged me to try it.”
Sally admits to not enjoying her first season that much until right at the end. “Maadi changed everything for me. I was only in one event, and made a B final, but it was just so much fun,” recalls Sally. “Spending a whole week in the company of my team mates and so many other rowers from schools around the country. I loved it. Over the winter I realised how much I missed it.”
The camaraderie of rowing has proved to be the main draw for Sally, which she sees both as a strength and a weakness.
“I love the team aspect of rowing,” says Sally. “I find I am really motivated when I’m training with my teammates. Over the summer break it takes more motivation to train by myself.”
Sally draws strength from those around her and it is among her rowing mates where she thrives. “When you are in a crew where you know everyone is working just as hard as each other, you don’t want to let them down.”
Over Sally’s four seasons rowing, her training regimen has undergone several big changes, which is in part due to changes in the coaching staff at Avonside. Rowing coaches are not that easy to find and there is a lot of competition among schools to recruit top talent.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last two seasons as we’ve been lucky to have two really professional coaches,” says Sally, referring to her third season coach Megan Brown, who came from several years coaching at Villa Maria College and current coach Tim Hopkins from the UK and assistant coach Kendal Everest, who is an ex-Avonside rower herself.
“This year especially I found the training more structured, more thought out. Between last year and now I guess something clicked. I found I could see where the coaching was going and was better able to grow from it.”
Sally’s new-found confidence saw her and her double sculls partner Maddy Thornton placing at the South Island regatta in 2018, earning them the chance to row in the club’s coveted PROSKIFF boat at Maadi in 2018 and 2019.
“Maddy and I have been rowing our double together for two seasons now and using the top boat of the club was very exciting for us the first year and again this year,” says Sally. “The PROSKIFF boat responded well to our rowing, we were able to feel the boat run so much more than in our usual skiff.”
It was disappointing for both Sally and Maddy when they came 5th in the Maadi A finals in 2018. With their Under-17 doubles final coming straight after rowing in the under-18 quads, both girls were running on empty before the start of the doubles race.
When the opportunity came again in 2019, the two girls were determined to make amends. “We were really fired up to get the result we had worked for,” says Sally.
The pair succeeded, bringing home the Silver for the Under-18 double sculls.
Success at Maadi provided Sally the opportunity to trial for the New Zealand Junior team for the first time, but nobody could have predicted the outcome.
The trials involve a lot of mixing and matching of rowers to find the best combinations to achieve the fastest results in each category.
“I was trialling in the sculling boats. The whole week I was sculling. On the last day in the last seat race I got put into a four, so it was quite daunting.”
“That was an interesting experience,” Sally understates. “I hadn’t swept since South Island Clubs Champs in January 2018 and we got last in the heat. It has never been a focus for us. I had to really think about it, but I guess it came naturally once I got into it. It’s all kind of the same.”
Since making the NZ Junior team, Sally has been training intensively in Christchurch alongside her new teammates; Charlotte Darry from St Margaret's College who is also in the women’s four, and Scott Shackleton from Christchurch Boys’ High School who has been picked for the men’s double.
“Charlotte is the stroke seat of the four, and we have got to know each other really well over the last 6 weeks. Having her to train with has been really great.” Sally is in two seat, with the rest of the four comprising of three seat Lucy Burrell from Auckland’s Baradene College and bow seat Alison Mills from St. Paul's Collegiate.
The whole NZ Junior team will be based at Lake Karapiro from June for the 8-week training camp prior to flying out to Tokyo.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the rest of the squad at Karapiro,” says Sally. “We will be putting in a lot of kilometres on the water to build our fitness and endurance, as well as strength work in the gym.”
The 8-week training camp will be the longest Sally and many others selected will have been away from home, adding to the pressures of performing on the world stage and being in a foreign country.
“There is a lot to take in, and it will be so different from anything I have experienced before.”
The last few days in Christchurch for Sally have been a whirlwind of packing, training and sorting out the necessary arrangements for keeping up with her studies while she is away. “It’s been an exciting journey so far, and it’s only just begun!” she says, the anticipation of Tokyo tangible in her voice.
“I plan to make the most of this opportunity. I’ve never been to Japan before so I want to try and see as much as I can while I am there, and I am so excited about being among so many elite rowers.”
It is clear to us that Sally is about to be immersed in that happy place she has found among her rowing peers, where she thrives. ”Rowing is a big part of my life now and I would probably be lost without it.
“To represent your country is such an exciting thing to be able to do, so I really want to make the most of it. This might be the only chance I get.”
Somehow we doubt that. We get the feeling we will be seeing more of Sally Wylaars in rowing for a good few years to come.
The 2019 Junior World Championships Regatta in Tokyo takes place from 7-11 August. PROSKIFF will be cheering for Sally, Charlotte, Lucy and Alison, and the rest of the Rowing NZ Junior team.