The lineup of the Harvard men’s heavyweight varsity eight this year represents much of the English-speaking world: a coxswain and two oarsmen (including captain Michael DiSanto `12) from the United States; two English oarsmen (including stroke Patrick Lapage ’12), one Australian, one Scotsman, and two brothers from New Zealand, Sam O’Connor ’12 and James O’Connor ’13. Why come halfway around the world to row for Harvard? “There’s a unique and pretty awesome system [in the United States] of college sports,” says James. “Back home, at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to row really seriously, or do I want to go to university and study?’ Here, you don’t have to make that choice.”
For the brothers O’Connor, the 9,000-mile voyage seems to have been worthwhile. Sam received his S.B. in engineering sciences in May; James, a psychology concentrator with a secondary field in economics, expects his degree next spring. Sam rowed on the 2010 crew that went 7-1, were Eastern Sprints champions, came fourth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) regatta that decides the national champion, and won the Ladies’ Plate at England’s Henley Royal Regatta. He missed the 2011 season due to injury (he was hit by a car while home for Christmas break), but James pulled an oar that year for the formidable Harvard eight that was undefeated in dual meets, won the Eastern Sprints, took silver at the IRAs, and reached the semifinals in the Ladies’ Plate. This year, rowing together in the varsity, they won the Head of the Charles last fall, enjoyed an undefeated dual-meet season, and were nipped by 0.3 seconds by Brown at the Sprints. Their varsity crews have been undefeated in the Harvard-Yale regatta; the Eli haven’t won the four-mile race in New London since 2007.
They aren’t big athletes: Sam is six feet one and 190 pounds, James six two and around 185. Sam typically rows in the number-four seat, part of the powerful “engine room” that occupies the middle four seats of an eight-man crew. James is a bowman, sitting in the number-one seat, where the thwart is narrower and lighter weight is helpful: “Boats tend to lift up at the bow—you don’t want to sink the bow,” he explains. The all-important balance of the shell is a bit more sensitive there, and with all the other oarsmen in full view, “you can see more of what’s going on,” he notes: the bowman can occasionally report useful observations to his crewmates on what their blades are doing. Sam has no preference as to where he rows—he was at number six for some races this year—and simply mentions, with a grin, “You work pretty hard, and your legs hurt pretty badly, no matter where you sit.”
The brothers grew up in Christchurch, a city of about 375,000 in a country where sheep “outnumber humans eight to one,” according to James. Their mother, Jill, a Pilates maven, coordinates programs at a YMCA; father Peter teaches physics and coaches rowing, soccer, and rugby at Christ’s College, a private school. Older sisters Kristi (who rowed on a national-championship eight in high school), and Becky (an accomplished triathlete) also play sports. Both boys rowed for successful crews during their high-school years and made the New Zealand national junior team. “They saw what the older O’Connor could do,” James explains, “and thought they’d take the little one as well.”
Both were on the New Zealand eight that won the World Junior Championships at Amsterdam in 2006. Some American coaches were there, though the New Zealand mentors discouraged their athletes from speaking to them—hoping, sensibly enough, to keep their best oarsmen at home. Nonetheless, a rowing coach at Cambridge University, a friend of the O’Connors’ father, put them in touch with then-Harvard freshman coach (now associate head coach) Bill Manning, and both brothers had successful careers rowing in Manning’s freshman boats.
For the most part, the brothers have spent their college summers stateside, going home at Christmas, when it is summer in New Zealand, rather than in the winter months of July and August. After graduation, Sam plans to work in Christchurch over the summer, then study for a master’s degree at Oxford—and, with luck, row in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. James will teach English in Tanzania this summer. Already well traveled, the two young men don’t yet know where they will settle, although their homeland is a definite possibility. Both also have a liking for Australia, a nation that shares, they say, a sporting—if not sibling—rivalry with New Zealand.